The ambiguous definition of ‘aggressive’ and Nikola Jokic

Oct 21, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) before the game against the Sacramento Kings at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In a Denver Nuggets’ season full of sky-scraping peaks and pressure-filled valleys, there remains one constant: when the Nikola Jokic is aggressive, the Nuggets can compete with nearly any team in the league.

But the idea of being “aggressive” remains ambiguous and vague; especially when referring to Jokic. Even Nuggets’ head coach Michael Malone — who is as well-spoken and articulate as any coach in the NBA — had trouble defining exactly what Jokic being more aggressive entails.

“What does that entail? Yes, more field goal attempts. Hopefully, more free throw attempts.  More assists. More offensive rebounds. It is not just scoring,” Malone explained. “I think you can be aggressive in a lot of ways.”

So what does it actually mean to be aggressive? Webster’s dictionary defines aggression as, “a forceful action or procedure (such as an unprovoked attack) especially when intended to dominate or master.” That definition applies quite nicely to what it means to be aggressive in the NBA in some regards, but when you think about the name Nikola Jokic, is the first thing that comes to mind really, “a forceful action or procedure”? Of course not, but that definition is not the end-all-be-all of what it means Jokic to be aggressive.

So far the best definition of aggression, when applying it to the superbly-dubbed “Joker”, is the definition that Paul Millsap gave.

“It does not necessarily need to be more shots,” Millsap explained. “We like when he shoots more because he makes them, but just having the basketball and doing things with the basketball — dribble hand-offs, making the proper reads — that is him being more aggressive. Not necessarily shots, but him going into his actions with pace and just being himself.”

The idea that Jokic being himself — goofy and free-flowing — is part of what it means to be aggressive seems almost counter-intuitive. How could it be that Jokic’s selflessness and altruistic style of play could also be what makes him aggressive or, as Webster’s dictionary puts it, “use a forceful action or procedure intended to dominate or master”?

Well, it actually makes more sense than you would expect, and it all goes back to the last five words of Millsap’s definition of what Jokic being aggressive actually means: “pace and (Jokic) just being himself.”

Let’s start with the former.

Pace

Pace is a buzz-word that is thrown around the NBA in seemingly every conversation. While there are many factors that make up the overall idea of ‘pace’, there are multiple misconceptions as well.

Pace does not just simply mean faster; that could not be further from the truth. Another misconception — one that is connected with Jokic more than others — is that pace equates to just simply shooting more. While playing with more pace can lead to more shots, that is more of a causality rather than a direct correlation.

The universal definition of pace is very simple; it is nothing more than a rate of movement. There is no specificity on if pace means fast or slow; it is any consistent rate of movement.

What pace really means for Jokic one single thing: focusing for 48 minutes on each aspect of every possession and giving consistent effort on each aspect of every possession.

That means a plethora of different things. It can mean screening hard and roll to the rim with urgency and physicality. It could be Jokic using his incredibly soft touch on the offensive glass and not giving up on gaining extra possessions. Even just Jokic making reads quickly and confidently without hesitation is him playing with pace. Having a consistent pace, even if there is a broken play, and just not giving up on a play is something Jokic can do to keep the pace of the game strong.

Just going into every movement and read with a consistent level of urgency and determination is what playing with pace means for Jokic.

The play above is a great example of Jokic playing with pace. Joe Ingles gets up into Jokic’s chest and Jokic could have just attempted to draw a foul, but instead — as a whistle does not come — Jokic continues to attack Ingles and eventually blows by him. Once he gets to the bucket, Jokic does his best impression of exploding to the rim and draws the help defender — Derrick Favors — off of Paul Millsap, who receives the pass and puts in the easy layup.

What is even more incredible is that as Jokic is rumbling to the rim, both Gary Harris and Wilson Chandler are wide open from three because the defenders tasked with defending the two of them are helping down on Jokic. While Millsap getting the easy layup is a great look, Jokic’s pace that he played with on this possession opened up even more possibilities for easy offense. That is why pace relates to aggression when talking about Jokic.

Jokic’s effort from start to finish was strong and it forced pace into the possession. That pace forced the Utah Jazz’s defense to key-in more on Jokic giving him multiple passing lanes and open teammates for him to decide between as he drove to the rim. That is why Malone is imploring Jokic to play with more of an attack mindset.

“He needs to be more aggressive, more in-tuned, and not deferring to his teammates,” Malone explained. “If we call a post-up play for you, I don’t want you thinking pass first; I want you thinking score — attack. Now, when they double or bring the defense in, make the right play. Nikola does not need to score 30-points a night for us, but he has to be more aggressive.”

When Jokic looks to score for himself, he opens up even more opportunities for himself and his teammates as he does below with this incredibly difficult three-pointer over Vince Carter.

When Jokic is making shots like he is above, he becomes un-guardable. He doesn’t always play with that level of supreme confidence or pace, but when he does his game goes to thoroughly different level. When Jokic is taking — and hitting — threes at a nearly 40 percent clip as he is this season, you have to guard him close.

If you guard Jokic close, he can use his deceptively-wonderful handles to take his opponent to the rim off the bounce.

The video above is Jokic playing with pace once again. He steps into his pump fake exactly as if he is going to take the jump shot, takes a wide step to his right to clear Julius Randle of the Los Angeles Lakers and uses his body to shield himself from both Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, who are collapsing on him to provide help defense.

When Jokic is playing with that level of engagement, the pace of the game increases and solidifies on its own. Jokic is the engine that makes the Nuggets’ offense go so when his energy and effort is consistent, the Nuggets become an even more focused and dangerous team.

“It all starts with our energy and enthusiasm,” Millsap explained, and he could not be more correct. When Jokic and the Nuggets are both playing with pace and energy, there is a joy to the offensive flow that is impossible not to see.

Once that joy is present when watching the Nuggets’ offense, that is when the pace is at its optimal level. The windows of opportunity that Jokic opens when playing with pace all begin to percolate into the rest of the roster.

Looks at how both Chandler and Harris get down the floor quickly to create an advantage. Jokic throws a half-court pass to Harris, who realizes that only Justin Jackson is far enough down the floor to try and stop him from going to the rim.

Instead of Harris trying to take the ball back out to the perimeter to reset and get a play called on offense, he attacks Jackson and gets a beauty of a reverse layup. Jokic’s pace he set with his hit-ahead pass immediately transferred to Harris and the rest of his teammates that are sharing the floor with Jokic.

Once the entire five-man group sharing the floor with Jokic are all playing with that same consistency and enthusiasm, the easy buckets begin to accumulate at a rapid pace as decisions are made quickly and decisively.

How many centers can dribble the ball from half court into a dribble handoff, reject the set completely and hit a cutter for an easy dunk as effortlessly and easy as Jokic makes it look above?

The decision to reject the dribble handoff was made the second that Jokic saw Mudiay get a step on Frank Mason. Jokic uses the dribble handoff as a decoy to keep the attention of the defense as Mudiay gets behind Mason for the dunk off of a pinpoint bounce pass from Jokic.

These high-parentage shots at the rim are the kind of looks the Nuggets’ offense gets when Jokic is at his best, is playing with pace, and it leads to the joy returning to the Nuggets’ offense. When Jokic plays with pace, his level of aggression increases exponentially which makes the Nuggets an even more lethal team.

Now it is time for the final piece of the puzzle.

Nikola Jokic consistently being himself, and what that means

When you think of Nikola Jokic, the first thing that usually comes to mind is his preposterous and unbelievable passing acumen, and rightfully so, but what makes Jokic such a special player is his nearly telepathic court awareness and savant-like on-court intelligence on the offensive end of the floor.

So what does that level of awareness and basketball IQ culminate into in terms of aggression? The easy answer is assists and playmaking for others, which is true and can be seen easily in a statistical manner. Jokic averages 6.9 assists in wins and 4.9 assists in losses. That is a massive disparity and it shows that the Nuggets are at their best when Jokic is a playmaker.

Jokic is so talented as a passer and brilliant in terms of how he surveys the court that he can bend defenses at will; regardless of how talented the defense he is facing is.

Look below how Jokic notices in a split second that the Utah Jazz are going to send help his way because he has a mismatch he can use to his advantage, but doubling Jokic or helping too hard can be a death sentence for defenses, as it is below for the Jazz.

Jokic backs down Joe Ingles as if he is trying to exploit the matchup and take him down into the post to score on him. Jokic continues to methodically move Ingles deeper into the paint from the wing until Donovan Mitchell comes over to help. This is when the magic happens.

Jokic fakes a spin baseline as if he is spinning away from the help defender, which sucks Mitchell into the paint just far enough. Jokic looks off of Harris to hold Mitchell for a half-second longer — being that Mitchell now thinks that he has more time to close out to Harris because Jokic isn’t looking his direction — before whipping a one-handed, no-look, sidearm pass right into Harris’ shooting pocket for a three-point bucket.

For Jokic to be aggressive, he needs to be himself, and that means that the Nuggets’ offensive system needs to be predicated on his otherworldly decision making. That requires Jokic to have the ball in his hands as often as possible doing exactly what he does best — making his teammates better. This is fully understood by Nuggets’ starting power forward Paul Millsap.

“Everything for him is just to stay aggressive. He is such a humble guy that sometimes he looks for me to do things, but it’s on him,” Millsap explained. “He is our team and he makes a lot of things go for us. He just needs to continue to stay aggressive and I am ready to help him, and back him, in anyway possible.”

Millsap has been — and still is — completely willing to concede entirely to Jokic on offense, as a scorer and playmaker, which is necessary to maximize Jokic’s skill set.

What is important about Millsap being ok handing the offense over to Jokic is that his aggression cannot just come from being a playmaker. Jokic’s ability to make plays for teammates is what makes him a special player, but his incredible vision and ability to toss passes anywhere on the floor both become even more lethal when he is looking to score and is being defended as a scorer.

Jokic misses the shot above, but that isn’t the point. When Jokic looks to score, and not pass, it puts an enormous strain on any defense. Even though the Cleveland Cavaliers’ defense has been atrocious for most of the season, look below at how much attention he garners when he goes into his shooting motion.

Every single defender on the floor for the Cavaliers is looking at Jokic, which gives him three separate options.

  1. He can kick the ball out to either Harris or Murray, both who are wide open with only Rodney Hood to close out to either of them. Being that Murray and Harris play off of each other so well, Hood is essentially forced to defend two snipers from three-point range with no help.
  2. Jokic could drop down a dump pass to the cutting Wilson Chandler, who has a couple steps on JR Smith and is open right under the rim. That look would likely lead to an easy layup for Chandler, even with so many bodies in the paint.
  3. Jokic could just shoot over Larry Nance Jr. The shot also has the added benefit of having both Chandler and Millsap — in addition to Jokic as well — in position to go for the offensive rebound.

The third scenario ended up playing out. Jokic misses the shot at the rim, but because of his aggressiveness as a scorer and the attention he receives, Chandler’s man doesn’t box him out and he gets an offensive rebound that he puts back up and in for two points.

It seems strange that Jokic being himself also means that he has to force the issue, but again, that pesky definition of aggression is a “forceful action or procedure” and, because Jokic does not always take it upon himself to take command of the offense, Malone sometimes needs to “take the play calls back to the bench,” as he has said before.

“I think there will be times where — whether it is Nikola or Paul — that we have to call plays,” Malone explained. “It is great having the equal opportunity offense with everyone sharing in it, and our guys have done a really good job of that this whole season, but there are also times when you have to take the play calls back to the bench and make sure we are getting our best players the ball where they are most effective. That is sometimes hard to do when everything is on the fly.”

This quote has been the focus of much criticism among fans and media alike.

On one hand, Jokic is at his best when the offense is fluid and adaptive. The idea of “taking the play calls back to the bench” seems counter-productive to an offense focused on him. Jokic can analyze a situation, take in data, process that data and see multiple steps ahead of the defense seemingly in real time like a human version of a supercomputer. Why would you put the constraints of a set play on such a powerful force?

Well, on the other hand, Jokic becomes nonchalant on offense from time to time. It is easy to play Devil’s advocate and see why forcing the ball to Jokic in the post could be a way to get him more involved in the offense, as Malone has decided to do, and has done for the entirety of the season.

The only issue with the decision to call plays in from the sidelines with Jokic as the catalyst of the offense is that calling too many plays for the high-powered, read and react Nuggets’ system is like trying to drive a Ferrari through sand. Even with all the power and control that a Ferrari possesses, it is still at the whim of its surroundings; therefore, it is delicate in its own way — much like this Nuggets’ offense.

Although, when calling plays is used correctly, it can lead to plays like the one below.

This is nothing other than a simple post up for Jokic with everyone clearing out so Jokic can take on Nance one on one, but that simple play call still work as long as the offense runs through Jokic and Jokic is looking to score.

Look at how Jokic still has passing lanes open everywhere. He could pass to an open Harris as Smith stunts down on Jokic or he could hit Millsap in the corner prior shooting the right-handed hook shot over Nance. Jokic knows that the defense thinks he is likely to pass out to an open shooter with help stunting down from the perimeter so, instead of passing once Smith gets close to him, Jokic fakes a baseline spin — forcing Smith to recover Harris — and rises up to hit the hook shot.

The tough aspect of Jokic being himself on the offensive end of the floor is that it is both necessary and a gamble. For as talented as Jokic is, his aggressiveness can waver from time to time — especially as a scorer. While no one knows exactly why Jokic’s aggressiveness can come and go, one anonymous member of the Nuggets’ front office told Mile High Sports that he thinks that maybe Jokic’s issue is that playing offense is just a bit too easy for him.

“We all know he can make the pass, but sometimes he’s almost too bored with the game and chooses not to shoot or look to the basket for some reason,” a Nuggets’ front office source told Mile High Sports. “When he decides he’s going to attack the basket, it makes it that much harder on the defense because he can still pass out at any moment.”

So, in terms of what Jokic being himself is and how it relates to his aggressiveness, it is really quite simple; continue to let Jokic play his unorthodox style and let the offense flow through him. As long as Jokic stays engaged as a facilitator and as a scorer on offense, his aggression can be high while he also continues to play his own unique brand of basketball. That is the sweet spot for Jokic as he continues to look for his perfect balance.


Millsap defined Jokic being aggressive as him, “going into his actions with pace and just being himself.” Upon further research, it seems that Millsap’s definition is as spot-on as it gets for such a nebulous ideology to define. It is Millsap himself who is likely the person who best knows how to play through Jokic.

“We talk about it,” Millsap said when asked about if he and Jokic have had conversations about getting Jokic to be more aggressive. “I think that is my main goal; especially starting games off before tip-off. Just telling him to just be himself and to be aggressive and, when he does that, great things happen.”

Since February — with or without Millsap — it is seemingly more and more like Jokic is beginning to realize his importance to the Nuggets’ franchise. He is the Nuggets’ star player and the symbol of a brighter future of basketball in the Mile High City and has been playing as such. Since February 1st, Jokic is averaging an obscene 20.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 7.2 assists in 32.4 minutes. Even with Millsap being reintegrating back into the starting lineup, Jokic is still averaging 19.7 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 5.7 assists since the Millsap’s return.

For Jokic to be aggressive, he just needs to play with pace and continue to be his unique self. He has the offensive ability to help and impact nearly any offensive system, but for Jokic to be at his best, the ball needs to flow through his hands and he needs to give the requisite level of urgency and enthusiasm. There is nothing fancy or extra-curricular that is needed. A steady and constant level of engagement mixed with Jokic’s undeniably-elite skill set is the recipe for unlocking an aggressive Jokic.

“We all feed off of Nikola,” Malone explained. “I think Nikola needs to realize that and I think he does now.”

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