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Nikola Jokić Bolstered His MVP Case With … His Defense?

Nikola Jokić’s case to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award for a second-straight season is quite compelling.  

The Joker finished in the top 10 in points (27.1), assists (7.9) and rebounds (13.8) per game while shooting an astonishing 58.3 percent from the field. As FiveThirtyEight’s Robert O’Connell wrote recently, no high-scoring big man has ever shot the ball as efficiently as Jokić has this year. He’s stuffed the stat sheet at such an extraordinarily efficient clip that his 2021-22 player efficiency rating is the highest in NBA history. Combine all that with leading the Nuggets to 48 wins without the services of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. for all or nearly all the season, and it’s no surprise that Jokić led ESPN’s latest straw poll of MVP voters.  

One factor preventing Jokić from running away with the award, however, is his longstanding reputation as a defensive liability. Indeed, the MVP cases for Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid are often premised on their supposedly superior defense. Denver coach Michael Malone sought to dispel that narrative in December by arguing that his superstar center should be considered among the league’s best defensive players. He acknowledged that “people around the NBA will scoff” at the idea of Joker being an elite defender before telling the naysayers, “You can’t say he’s not. All the other analytics they use for other players, when you apply those same analytics to Nikola Jokić, he should be an All-Defensive player.”

Malone’s right about the data. Actually, if anything, he understated just how good Jokić’s defensive analytics are this season. Three widely used defensive metrics — FiveThirtyEight’s defensive RAPTOR (D-RAPTOR), Basketball-Reference.com’s defensive Box Plus/Minus (D-BPM) and ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus (D-RPM) — suggest that Jokić could easily be a finalist for the 2021-22 Defensive Player of the Year Award (DPOY).1 His D-RAPTOR score of 5.85, for example, is second in the league behind only three-time DPOY Rudy Gobert; and his D-BPM and D-RPM ratings rank first and sixth in the NBA, respectively.  

Jokić’s defensive analytics are even more impressive in historical context. His defensive Box Plus/Minus this season is the fifth-highest ever recorded;2 and his defensive Real Plus-Minus is one of the ten best in the 25-year history of that metric. In our historical RAPTOR data, which goes back to 1976-77 and approximates ratings for seasons before player-tracking data was available,3 just five players have ever bested Jokić’s current D-RAPTOR rating of 5.85: Gobert, Draymond Green, Ben Wallace, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon — five players who have a combined 11 DPOY trophies, with each taking home the award at least once. Since the beginning of the player-tracking era in 2013-14, the only two players with D-RAPTOR ratings better than Jokić’s 2021-22 season are perennial DPOY candidates.

Nikola Jokić is in elite defensive company

NBA players since 2013-14 with the highest defensive RAPTOR rating in a single season, minimum 1,000 minutes played

RAPTOR
player season Team offense defense total war*
Rudy Gobert 2020-21 Jazz -0.12 +7.91 +7.79 12.36
Rudy Gobert 2021-22 Jazz +0.03 +7.15 +7.18 10.73
Draymond Green 2016-17 Warriors +1.40 +6.36 +7.77 12.89
Nikola Jokić 2021-22 Nuggets +8.93 +5.92 +14.85 22.68
Rudy Gobert 2016-17 Jazz +0.96 +5.56 +6.52 13.13
Rudy Gobert 2019-20 Jazz +0.11 +5.52 +5.63 10.61
Draymond Green 2014-15 Warriors +1.85 +5.48 +7.33 11.98
Draymond Green 2015-16 Warriors +3.93 +5.42 +9.36 17.82
Tim Duncan 2015-16 Spurs -0.47 +5.24 +4.77 6.10
Gorgui Dieng 2019-20 T-Wolves, Grizzlies -2.87 +5.23 +2.36 2.86
Clint Capela 2020-21 Hawks +0.81 +5.21 +6.02 8.82
Jusuf Nurkić 2018-19 Trail Blazers +2.06 +5.18 +7.24 10.12
Jakob Poeltl 2020-21 Spurs -0.55 +5.08 +4.53 6.82
Matisse Thybulle 2020-21 Sixers -2.24 +5.02 +2.78 3.92
Draymond Green 2013-14 Warriors -0.76 +4.95 +4.20 5.65

*RAPTOR WAR through regular season only. RAPTOR ratings prior to the 2021-22 season include the playoffs.

Source: NBA advanced stats

A handful of astute NBA analysts have taken notice of Jokić’s stellar defensive season, including Green, who once criticized the Joker’s defense while moonlighting as a TNT analyst. But reputations are difficult to dislodge when a player’s performance improves as abruptly as Jokić’s has this season. His 2021-22 D-RAPTOR is a major anomaly: After posting strong defensive statistics in limited minutes as a rookie, Jokić’s D-RAPTOR rating fell below 1.0 in four of the five past seasons. He needs at least a few more years of sustained success, then, to be recognized as an elite defender. 

Jokić has seen a sudden rise in his defensive rating

RAPTOR ratings and wins above replacement by season for Nikola Jokić

RAPTOR
season Minutes offense defense total war*
2021-22 2,476 +8.93 +5.92 +14.85 22.68
2020-21 2,833 +8.60 +0.65 +9.25 15.76
2019-20 3,030 +4.60 +0.48 +5.08 9.38
2018-19 3,061 +6.08 +2.66 +8.74 13.03
2017-18 2,443 +5.17 +0.31 +5.47 10.27
2016-17 2,038 +6.36 +0.94 +7.30 10.58
2015-16 1,733 +3.61 +4.55 +8.16 9.66

*RAPTOR WAR through regular season only. RAPTOR ratings prior to the 2021-22 season include the playoffs.

Source: NBA advanced stats

Jokić’s defense will still probably be underrated, though, since he’s not a dominant rim-protecting big man. Malone alluded to this point earlier in the year when he said that Jokić isn’t credited as an excellent defender “because he’s not that shot-blocking athletic guy that’s making plays at the rim.” But blocks add so little predictive power to a team’s overall defensive performance relative to other factors that we don’t even include them in our D-RAPTOR ratings.4

Jokić, meanwhile, has excelled in more valuable defensive metrics that can be harder to notice, such as grabbing defensive rebounds in traffic and contesting shots without fouling. His defensive rebounding percentage has improved dramatically this season, from a previous career best of 27.9 in 2017-18 all the way up to a historically prodigious rate of 35.5 this season.  He also contested far more shots per game than he did last year (12.2 versus 9.1) while committing fewer fouls. And he led all players taller than 6-foot-7 in steals per game, which we have found to be more valuable than blocks

To be sure, the Joker’s newfound defensive prowess could eventually regress back to the mean. But the advanced analytics for the 2021-22 regular season tell a clear story: Nikola Jokić had a historically great year on defense that’s almost as impressive as his universally renowned offensive efficiency.   

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Each measure quantifies the number of points a player contributes to his team’s defensive performance per 100 possessions, relative to the league-average player. Basketball-Reference’s estimates are derived from box score statistics, ESPN’s estimates use on/off performance, and RAPTOR weighs both box score stats and on/off performance.

  2. Among players who qualified for the minutes leaderboard.

  3. Analysis limited to players with at least 1,000 minutes played.

  4. FiveThirtyEight Editor-in-Chief Nate Silver suggests that blocks may be poor predictors of defensive performance “because blocks are associated with relatively high rates of offensive rebounds — the other team often gets the ball back after a block. It also may be because defenders who frequently go for blocks are causing other problems for their defenses — e.g., being out of position — that current stats are not measuring properly.”

Michael Tesler is a professor of political science at University of California, Irvine, author of “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era” and co-author of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”

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