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Wolves Need to Trust Rudy Gobert to Defend Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić

After using Gobert as a helper in Game One, it’s time to move him onto the two-time MVP to start.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

To open Game 1 of the Minnesota Timberwolves playoff series, Head Coach Chris Finch chose to defend Denver Nuggets superstar and two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokić with Karl-Anthony Towns as the primary defender. While Towns is overmatched defending Jokić one-on-one, this was designed so that Rudy Gobert could help off of Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon to provide an extra line of defense at the rim.

The Wolves have leaned into this alignment more often since the trade deadline, using both Towns and Kyle Anderson as the primary defender on bigs like Jokić, Joel Embiid, and Anthony Davis, with Gobert providing weak-side rim protection.

It’s also an extremely common way to use a great rim protector, which Gobert is, if your personnel allows you to do so. The Milwaukee Bucks have used Giannis Antetokoumnpo this way pretty much from the day Brook Lopez was acquired. The Boston Celtics often use Al Horford as their primary big defender with the bouncy Robert Williams III on the oppositions least threatening wing. Hell, this is how Quinn Snyder primarily used Rudy as a member of the Utah Jazz to defend KAT.

In general, the thought process is sound. If there’s a wing or forward either incapable or unwilling to let it fly from deep, chances are your defense will have plenty of time to rotate out of the double team after the opposing big passes out of it. The general premise is simple: you’d rather trust your defense to stunt at P.J. Tucker and recover at the 3-point line than let Embiid continually go to work one-on-one.

That’s all fine and well, but Nikola Jokić is not Joel Embiid or Anthony Davis. The two-time defending MVP is a fundamentally different problem for defenses due to the fact that he is just as dangerous as a passer as he is a scorer, if not more dangerous. You know that sending doubles to guys like Embiid or AD is dangerous, but they’re less-equipped to hurt you as passers, so it’s a chance you take.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Most bigs either try to shoot over your double-team or just make the simple pass out to the guard one-pass away. Jokić, on the other hand, is just waiting for a tiny crevice, an unorthodox angle, and a pass to become available that few other players would think to attempt. You’re much better off forcing Serbia’s favorite horse enthusiast to beat you as exclusively as a scorer as you can, and living with the results.

The play below is not due to Gobert doubling, but nonetheless highlights how little defensive help you can afford to throw at Jokić without paying for it. Conley is in perfectly normal position against pretty much any other player in the league, but one foot in the paint from the corners is going to result in a corner three every single time.

It’s not just that Joker will eat you alive as a passer, though. Denver has now seen this set-up numerous times, and more or less have figured out how to combat it. The first time Minnesota deployed it, Gordon in particular was thrown off by how open he was. He shot 4-for-18 for just 12 points in that game, a 124-111 Nuggets loss.

The next time Denver saw that look from Minnesota was the 146-112 beatdown in Denver, a game which saw Jokić dish out 16 assists. Gordon was 8-for-11 in that game for 24 points, primarily on duck-ins and back-door cuts. On Sunday, Jokić dealt 14 more dimes.

There are no good answers to defend Nikola Jokić, but the Wolves have given him the same look too many times now. It’s time to trust the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, the same guy that you traded away a treasure trove of assets for, to take this matchup on his own. I repeat, there are no good ways to defend Jokić, but Gobert at least has a chance of not getting completely cooked one-on-one, and you can theoretically stay at home on everyone else without having to scramble behind the play every time down the floor. This is just one play, but the overall positioning here is much more desirable.

Every possession won’t end with a Rudy swat, but you at least give yourself a chance of containing Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., Jamal Murray, and others.

On the topic of Murray, the other advantage to moving Rudy into a Joker matchup to start is that Rudy is not the player defending the majority of Denver’s screening and dribble hand-off actions. The Jokić/Murray two-man game is hard to handle as it is, and it’s much tougher when you’ve intentionally put an inferior defender like Towns into the majority of these actions. It could be enticing to use Anderson in that spot as well, with the idea likely for those to then be a switching scenario, but any perimeter defender that gets switched onto Jokić is food, and you’re right back to square one of having to bring a double.

Aside from Gobert’s back, my biggest concern in this arrangement would be the off-ball defenders. Defending a great player like #15 straight-up takes a great amount of discipline from everyone on the floor. Minnesota is so prone to lapses in focus that the hardest part of this defensive strategy is imagining someone like Anthony Edwards staying home on his assignment. This only works if you accept that Joker is going to get his, and probably get them in bunches. You still have to trust that in the aggregate, it’ll be a better strategy than allowing him to pick apart your scrambling defense.

As much as there is merit to using Gobert as a roaming rim protector in normal circumstances, this is not the series for that. Denver has seen that look too many times in a row now, and they’ve more or less figured out how they want to attack it. If Rudy Gobert is going to be on the floor in this series, he should be guarding Nikola Jokić.