Nikola Jokic’s Fouling Problems for the Denver Nuggets
It’s no secret NBA Math loves Nikola Jokic.
He was a statistical darling during his rookie season and finished No. 19 in Total Points Added (TPA), sandwiched between DeAndre Jordan and Isaiah Thomas. Now, he’s proving his scoring efficiency, slick passing and defensive acumen weren’t the least bit fluky. After Christmas Day, he ranked No. 20 in TPA, and he may keep climbing the leaderboard now that he’s cemented himself as the Denver Nuggets’ unquestioned starting center.
At this point, it’s hard to find fault in his game. His range doesn’t quite extend to the three-point arc, but he’s an adept mid-range shooter and displays tremendous touch on the interior. He’s already become one of the best passing bigs in the Association (see below), and his defense isn’t too shabby unless he’s left alone at the rim.
Only one thing can hold him back: fouling.
“Mike Miller told me that he’s gonna beat me if I make more stupid fouls,” Jokic said after coming an assist shy of a triple-double during a Dec. 19 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. “So, I mean, I gotta listen.”
He fouled out against the Atlanta Hawks just four days later, and his Dec. 26 whistle issues against the shorthanded Los Angeles Clippers almost cost Denver the game. The stupid fouls just keep coming, to the point that Jokic (along with Lucas Nogueira) is the clear outlier among the league’s top 50 players by TPA:
So, we watched all of his fouls.
Jokic has been whistled for 90 personal fouls through 28 appearances, and we tortured ourselves with all of them. That way, we can bring the highlights to you without forcing you into a similar experience.
As you might expect, plenty fall into nondescript categories. You can’t fault him for contesting shots on the interior when he’s asked to serve as the last layer of defense. But even then, he has a tendency to bring his arms down and get into trouble, or to swing wildly and bait a referee into whistling him for a transgression.
When he’s caught out of position, as he was in this play against the Oklahoma City Thunder, he should either cede the layup or keep his arms up without flailing. What he does instead is a disaster, getting him into more foul trouble and allowing an and-1:
Ditto for this play against Rudy Gobert, even if the Utah Jazz center couldn’t convert. There’s no reason to swing an arm after spinning around and losing the interior battle:
Thirty-four of Jokic’s fouls could be considered contests around the basket, whether they come while he’s sliding with a smaller player or defending in the post against an opposing big. Even if that’s not terrible, he should still have fewer in this area, especially because the 21-year-old engages in some ill-advised challenges from behind.
Cue this play against Brandon Bass:
But the interior isn’t the only area of the half-court set causing Jokic trouble.
He can be baited into reaching fouls against smaller players. He does this against some bigger players as well, but those aren’t egregious as mistakes like this one against Dennis Schroder:
He has to know the Atlanta Hawks point guard isn’t a consistent perimeter shooter. Giving him space on the wing is acceptable, especially with Gary Harris tracking under the screen and allowing Jokic to remain on Kris Humphries.
He can also get caught up jockeying for position on the blocks, but that’s not a big issue. It’s more troubling when he’s already pushed his assignment away from the basket and still keeps fighting with his hands and arms until he draws the referee’s ire:
Frustration can also get the best of him when he’s fighting through screens:
And we’re not even sure how to classify this one, which led to a four-point play by Stephen Curry:
Jokic routinely shows excellent spatial awareness in the half-court set. It’s why he draws comparisons to Marc Gasol and has a positive defensive impact in spite of his limited athleticism. That’s why it’s so mind-boggling that he can just stop using his brain for brief spells.
Along similar lines, the Nuggets can accept when he gets called for a foul on the boards, even when he’s letting his limbs fly and engaging in more physical contact than necessary:
They’ll also be able to stomach occasional offensive fouls, whether they stem from flying elbows, drives into set defenders or illegal screens. He’s turned the ball over twice for failing to remain in place while screening an opponent, but you’ll never find a great big man with a perfectly clean slate. Those happen in the flow of the action, after all.
Though everything we’ve shown thus far is unfortunate, it’s not disastrous. But that’s about to change as we shift the focus to Jokic’s backcourt fouls.
Far too often, the sophomore center gets frustrated by a missed shot or failed rebounding attempt and lashes out. His actions could technically be labeled as steal attempts, but they’re half-hearted endeavors that cause entirely too much harm. He’s already committed eight of these unfortunate plays in 28 games.
First, we had this first-quarter foul against the New Orleans Pelicans, which came shortly after Tim Frazier stripped the ball away in transition:
This slapping attempt after an Alex Len rebound wasn’t much better:
He did the same thing after Willy Hernangomez hauled in a board for the New York Knicks:
How about this one after a lost ball against Malcolm Delaney and the Atlanta Hawks?
Sometimes, he doesn’t even bother going for a steal.
Pushing Luc Mbah a Moute here doesn’t make sense, even if there was only minimal contact. Any contact whatsoever just isn’t worth the risk:
Ditto for this play against DeAndre’ Bembry:
Is this all simply a result of Jokic lacking ideal awareness in free-flowing situations? It’s possible.
But there’s one other trend that makes us think we could also be dealing with a few conditioning issues. Jokic is playing more than he ever has this season (24.1 minutes per game), and it’s by no means unreasonable to think the second-year center could be committing a few lazy fouls because he knows he won’t otherwise be able to get into proper position.
As bad as many of the other fouls have been, this one may be the most egregious:
There’s no reason to commit an intentional foul here with more than eight minutes remaining in the second quarter.
But Jokic immediately targets Kyle Lowry once his pass is intercepted, stopping a transition opportunity that really wasn’t too advantageous for the Toronto Raptors. Wilson Chandler is deeper than any member of the opposition, while Jamal Murray is sprinting back to help. Jameer Nelson isn’t far behind, and Jokic was ahead of all five Raptors before bursting in the wrong direction.
This isn’t a one-off situation.
More than a few times, the big man has stopped a transition attempt with a foul when his team was in position to play quality defense. He’s also willing to hold guards and make ill-advised steal attempts as soon as he’s beat in the half-court set, even if there’s someone there to cover for him. In late-game situations, he’s too willing to take the intentional foul, in spite of his importance to the Nuggets’ schemes.
More than anything else, this is what has to change. And if it does, there’s no telling how high Jokic’s stock could rise.
Adam Fromal is the founder of NBA Math. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09.