Photo credit: Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)
In the West, the Utah-Denver series might produce the oddest and most fascinating matchup of round one. If game one’s any indication, we’re in for a treat. Like an RPG character specializing in one class, Denver’s Nikola Jokić and Utah’s Rudy Gobert maxed out their specs on offense and defense, respectively, and thrive on different ends of the court. They’re diametrically opposed approaches to what a center can and should be, made odder by the fact that the Nuggets drafted Gobert and traded him on draft night.
Jokić, the offensive savant with perhaps the best passing skills of a big, ever. Gobert, the maruading defensive stalwart who patrols the paint. A chess match where one king slings passes across the court and the other stonewalls any pawn from daring to enter his radius.
Zach Lowe and David Thorpe covered their entire first round in a fantastic Lowe Post podcast, but their discussion on this series, particularly the battle between the two All-Star centers, sparked the idea for this post. (Thanks to the great TrueHoop newsletterfor sharing this video).
How do two big guys with such divergent skill sets impact their teams and produce such success?
Offensively, Jokić runs away with it
Nikola Jokić joins Wilt Chamberlain as the only seven-footer to average at least seven assists per game, hitting that threshold for the past two seasons. I wrote an ode to his passing skill last season, and he’s continued to improve and diversify his offensive game.
For the last two seasons, Jokić assisted over 35% of his teammates’ field goals; this mark, per Cleaning the Glass, stands as the eighth-highest among players with at least 1,000 minutes played. He beats out playmakers like Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and Ben Simmons; Giannis Antetokounmpo’s the only other player classified as a big in the top 30.
Jokić’s more than a skilled passer. This year, while his per game production dipped slightly, his overall efficiency improved. His true shooting—a measure of shooting efficacy adjusted for threes and free throws—improved to 60.5%, and he added slightly more three pointers to his arsenal, with nearly 24% of his field goals beyond the line, per Basketball Reference.
Offensive and defensive rating track the estimated points scored per 100 possessions, a useful shorthand for aptitutde on each end. Denver produced the fifth-best offensive rating this season behind Jokić’s brilliance. He used the largest share of possessions on the team and led them in assists and assist rate. While on the court, Jokić’s Nuggets posted a +10.1 net rating per Cleaning the Glass, 93rd percentile in the NBA.
Utah does not ask the same of their guy. Rudy Gobert shoots nearly 70% from the field on a steady diet of dunks and putbacks; per Basketball Reference, 84% of his shots happened within three feet, while he scored 75% of his baskets off assists. Here’s the shot profile of each player in 2019-20, courtesy of NBA.com.
The differences between shot charts look like COVID spread with and without mask wearing.
Rudy Gobert, perennial defensive player of the year
Jazz fans point to Gobert’s (demonstrable) impact as a screener, which Mike Prada thoroughly covered in this great piece. Yet, he’s not nearly a conductor to Jokić’s level—to be fair, few NBA players can be. Gobert’s gamebreaking impact tends to happen on the other end of the court.
Gobert won the 2018 and 2019 Defensive Player of the Years awards after anchoring a stingy Utah Jazz defense. Tony Jones of The Athletic explained Gobert’s case in 2019 succinctly:
Gobert had the best defensive box plus-minus in the league. He was first in points saved and in defensive RPM, second in defensive win shares and fourth in defensive rating...finished third in blocked shots…finished seventh in rebounds.Tony Jones- The Athletic
His statistical profile reminds me of the 2009/2010 Darrelle Revis seasons. Revis, a cornerback for the New York Jets, shut down wide receivers so thoroughly that quarterbacks started avoiding his side entirely.
Gobert produces the basketball equivalent at the rim. Cleaning the Glass tracks the share of opponent field goal attempts by location, and with Gobert on the court, the opposing team consistently attempts fewer shots at the rim. Gobert’s presence reduced the share of shots at the rim by 5.6% in 2018 and 5.4% in 2019, good for the 98th percentile in the entire NBA.
Can nikola jokic keep up defensively?
Nikola Jokić has yet to match Rudy Gobert’s defensive bonafides. Opponents take a higher share of shots at the Denver rim compared to the Jazz with Gobert, and they convert those shots at a higher rate. Here’s how the last three seasons look for each center, pulled from Cleaning the Glass data.
Each season, Gobert’s rim protection deters more opponents, and anyone brave enough to shoot anyway converts at a lower rate. Jokić does not inspire the same fear in his opponents.
Utah finished 2nd in defensive rating in 2018 and 2019, per Basketball Reference, while Jokić’s Nuggets ended up 26th and 10th. This season, Utah dropped to 13th, meeting the 16th-ranked Denver closer to the middle of pack. Between Utah’s defensive decline and a ridiculous Giannis season, Gobert appears unlikely to add a third-straight DPOY to his trophy case.
However, missing that accolade should not imply that Gobert’s lost his destructive defensive chops. Utah held their opponents to 8.2 fewer points per 100 possessions with Gobert on the court, per Cleaning the Glass, and his presence helped lower the opponent’s effective field goal rate by a 91st percentile reduction of 3.3%. The Jazz will need every bit of that defensive fortitude to stop a Denver team that had their number all season long.
A history of their mountainous clashes
Nikola Jokić and Rudy Gobert battle each season, with no clear winner. Gobert holds a slight lead in all-time record against Jokić, winning 8 of their 14 regular season games, but he’s slipped recently. Jokić beat Gobert in their lone playoff game so far, and in the 2019-20 regular season Denver swept Utah 3-0.
In those three games, Jokić averaged an absurd 29.3 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists, and 2.7 steals on 56% shooting. He outscored and out-rebounded Gobert in Denver’s game one victory, but the game ended up in the hands of Denver’s Jamal Murray and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell scorched the Nuggets for 57 points, relentlessly attacking the rim and stepping back for three after three. Murray seemed to answer every Mitchell bucket with one of his own, dropping 36 points.
With 3:13 remaining in the fourth quarter, the pair took over. Mitchell scored all 11 of Utah’s remaining points, including the game-tying free throws. Murray added 12 consecutive of his own in regulation. He then clinched the victory in overtime with 10 points and two huge assists on Denver three pointers.
Mitchell’s 57 points places him in good company: only Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan scored more in a playoff game, per Basketball Reference. His heroics could not clinch the win for Utah. And, in an odd consequence of sequestered bubble living, he ran into Jamal Murray outside the hotel pool afterwards.
Will things change in game two?
Nikola Jokić and Rudy Gobert represent philosophical disagreements on how the center position can be played, the Professor X and Magneto of big men. Gobert, a hyper-intelligent defensive anchor, barricades the rim and helps Utah keep opponents flailing in the inefficiency midrange game. Jokić brings the ball up like a supersized point guard, slings passes all over, and turns his collection of feints and flailing limbs into offensive artistry.
The final shot of regulation captured everything special and fun about this matchup, and you can watch it here. Jokić ran a pick and roll with Murray, and Gobert cut off Murray’s drive while helping off Jokić. Murray swung the ball back to Jokić, but again Gobert recovered and got into position to contest his drive. At the rim, Jokić somehow found the space to roll a hook shot up on the glass, just above Gobert’s outstretched hand.
Just look at the margin of error between these two guys!
Game two tips off at 4:00 PM EST. Will Nikola Jokić extend his winning streak over Rudy Gobert to five straight, or will Gobert’s Jazz get back on track?
Either way, we’re in for a stylistic clash and a fascinating matchup from two of the best in the NBA.