The idea of the Minnesota Timberwolves flat out stopping Nikola Jokić is a fool’s errand. He’s the back-to-back, and potential three-peat, winner of the NBA MVP for a reason.
Everything the Denver Nuggets do on offense runs directly through him. If the Timberwolves are going to have a chance in this series, they must at least slow down NBA’s fifth most efficient offense.
The problem with defending Jokić is that he no longer has any real holes in his game. According to Cleaning the Glass, Jokić ranks in the 95th percentile in points per shot attempt, the 75th percentile in at-rim field goal percentage, the 97th percentile in mid-range field goal percentage, the 82nd percentile in 3-point percentage, the 100th percentile in assist percentage, the 98th percentile in on the floor fouled percentage, the 76th percentile in shoot foul percentage, and the 85th percentile in and-one percentage. Don’t worry, reading that is just as exhausting as typing it was. Jokić is physical, skilled, and unselfish. He’s an incredible decision maker and has steadily expanded his scoring arsenal. Not ideal so far.
Given his offensive dominance, the urge is to figure out how to take him out of the game. This approach usually entails sending doubles or using gimmicky zones, but Jokić will pick those apart with ease. According to Synergy, Jokić scored 1.536 points per possession plus assists when facing man defense and a gaudy 1.846 against zone. Similarly, the Nuggets as a team scored 1.042 points per possession (PPP) against man but 1.148 against zone. The Timberwolves’ zone has been a disaster all season, and this series is definitely not the time to break it back out. So, instead of trying to take Jokić out of the game with unorthodox defensive looks and multiple defenders, the Timberwolves should instead try to take away everyone else.
By single covering Jokić, the Timberwolves can have a better chance of taking away some of what the Nuggets do best in the half-court: spot up shooting, cutting, and offensive rebounding. Jokić’s ultimate trump card is his playmaking. It can completely dismantle a defense within seconds. Additionally, Jokić prefers to get everyone rolling and to keep the ball moving. His initial instinct isn’t to take over the game from a scoring standpoint, even though he’s capable of doing so.
This season, the Nuggets went just 4-8 when Jokić had under eight assists and 14-17 when he had under 10. In the 31 games where he had fewer than 10 assists, Jokić took 15 or more shots 20 times. In these 20 games, Jokić averaged 29 points, but the Nuggets went 9-11. In the 12 games where Jokić had fewer than eight assists, he took more than 15 shots six times, and the Nuggets went 2-4.
Conceding scoring opportunities to Jokić is a risky proposition, especially given his growth as a scorer. Jokić scored 25 or more points 18 times this season, and the Nuggets went 12-6 in those games. However, Jokić had at least nine assists in 12 of those games in which the Nuggets went 10-2. Completely nullifying Jokić is impossible, but the Timberwolves have to take away at least one aspect of his offense. Based on the results this season, that aspect looks to be his playmaking, and the magic number of assists is nine.
Well now that wasn’t that difficult, was it? Shocking that no one else has done this. Obviously, this is much easier said than done, and every matchup must be fully locked in and disciplined for it to succeed. Instead of playing an aesthetically pleasing rotating defense, the Timberwolves may be better off approaching this series as five individual matchups.
The most important one is who guards Jokić. The initial answer feels like it should be the multi–Defensive Player of the Year winner Rudy Gobert, but that feels like a disaster waiting to happen. Gobert would too frequently get pulled to the perimeter and the Timberwolves would lose his rebounding and rim protection. The next option would be Karl-Anthony Towns, but given Towns’ proclivity for fouling, that feels like an easy pass. All that remains is Kyle Anderson. The initial reaction is that it’s too much size to give up, and Jokić will eat him alive in the post. Maybe, but Anderson has proven to be an intelligent, strong defender with excellent defensive hands. Anderson’s lack of foot speed wouldn’t be an issue, and he has plenty of tricks in his bag to get under and out leverage Jokić.
Among players who have defended Jokić for at least 25 possessions this season, six of his eight worst shooting matchups have come against defenders who are 6’9” or shorter, per NBA Stats. Against those six defenders, Jokić also had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.6 as opposed to his season ratio of 2.74. Kyle Anderson is listed at 6’9”. Having a defender who can stay out of foul trouble, be physical, and annoy Jokić has proven to be about as effective as you can get when defending him.
As a disclaimer, Anderson did allow Jokić to score 12 points in 15.2 possessions this year. He also held him to a 1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio, and six of Jokić’s points came from 3-pointers. While those aren’t ideal numbers, it was also an extremely small sample size from only two matchups over two months ago.
Putting Anderson in the starting lineup to guard Jokić makes sense on its own, but it also complicates some of the other matchups. Mike Conley can matchup on Jamal Murray or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Anthony Edwards can then take either Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. Gobert on Aaron Gordon makes a ton of sense as Gobert won’t have to worry about outside shooting and can help protect the rim. That leaves us with Towns.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a seamless option, but Porter might be it. I know, having Towns guard on the perimeter against someone who is averaging 17.4 points on 48.7/41.4/80 shooting splits doesn’t sound ideal. However, the bulk of Porter’s offense is pretty stationary as 34.2% of his possessions are spot up attempts and 64.5% of his jump shot attempts are off the catch. Porter also covers the least amount of ground on offense of the starting group and has the 4th slowest average speed on offense, per NBA Tracking. It isn’t an ideal solution, but if Towns, and I know this is going to sound like a lot to ask, can be disciplined of sticking with Porter, not helping off on drives, and immediately finding him in transition, it could work.
No one is giving the Timberwolves a chance to win this series as they’ve had a tumultuous season while the Nuggets have sat at the top of the conference for months. There is plenty that goes into a complicated matchup like this, but how the Timberwolves choose to defend will be fascinating. It’s a long shot, but taking away Jokić’s playmaking and forcing him to be a scorer feels like their best shot.