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It’s time for Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone to unleash the Jurkic

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After three preseason games it’s pretty apparent who should start at power forward

NBA: Preseason-Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Balkan buddy ball indeed. Three games into the preseason and coach Michael Malone shouldn’t have to think too much more about who should be his starting power forward once the regular season begins. Who’s going to play emergency center, who plays PG if Jameer Nelson gets hurt, how does he find minutes for all those shooting guards, those are questions he needs to answer, starting power forward though is clear. The answer is Nikola Jokic. Ironically, the reason Jokic should start at power forward has little to do with the play of the Serbian big game so far this preseason and even less to do with the play of incumbent starter Kenneth Faried. The real reason Jokic will be the starter at the four is because there’s no way coach Malone can keep Jusuf Nurkic from starting at center.

The Bosnian Beast has rode the hype train all offseason on social media. There was no shortage of photos of Nurkic working out at the facility or getting in some time with Steve Hess at Red Rocks. Now that Nurkic has put in three starts at center for the Denver Nuggets though he’s showing that all those photos of him at work this offseason weren’t hype, they were progress. Without a doubt, Nurkic has been the best player thus far for the Nuggets this preseason. Both Jonas Valanciunas and Timofey Mozgov proved to be unable to curb the presence of Nurkic as he has steamrolled his way to three straight double doubles. His most recent start, last night against the Los Angeles Lakers, saw Juka nearly tally his double double in the first half with thirteen points and nine rebounds at the break, but more importantly the Nuggets absolutely dominated the glass, nearly doubling up the Lakers in rebounds. Meanwhile Nurkic is as imposing as ever on the defensive end, anchoring the Nuggets on that side of the floor.

It’s the Bosnian’s presence on defense that will allow Jokic to play beside him for long stretches of the game. Despite Nikola’s own signs of improvement as far as defensive positioning goes, his lateral quickness is still as troublesome as it always has been when it comes to him playing the four. However, Nurkic has been there to clean up the mistakes on defense that his teammates make, getting Mozgov’d by Timofey Mozgov not withstanding, and while no matter how well he protects the paint the Nuggets will never be a lockdown defensive unit with Jokic playing power forward, they are passable. Meanwhile the versatility of Jokic and Nurkic makes them a force to be reckoned with on offense.

It’s hard to find a comparison where a team played with so much size but also so much passing ability at the four and the five and coach Malone has been able to use it effectively thus far in the preseason. In the two games where Jokic and Nurkic have started together they’ve been both effective in the post and as passers from as far out as the perimeter. Jokic also has spent a good portion of his time operating from the elbow and in more than one instance finished the action with a dish down low to Nurkic for an easy basket. They also work very effectively with Emmanuel Mudiay with each player utilizing their above average court vision to find easy baskets.

The other reason that Jokic’s defensive deficiencies at power forward can be overlooked is that the alternative, Faried, doesn’t exactly offer much in the way of improvement. Statistically speaking the Manimal had his worst season on defense last year, registering as a negative player in terms of defensive box score plus minus for the first time in his career and also recording his lowest total in defensive win shares (not counting his rookie season when he didn’t play for about half the year). Additionally, opponents both shot a higher percentage overall against Faried than anyone else on the team, as well as increased their shooting percentage more than their average against Faried than in comparison to any other Nugget. Noit exactly flattering statistics but this isn’t to say that the Manimal still can’t be effective. In fact he’s probably most effective if he DOESN’T start.

Faried’s skill set has always been best suited for a bench role. His high energy play and athleticism make him the marquee type of player to bring in as a reserve and catch the other team off guard. Faried’s ability to instantly get into next gear is the same type of attribute that makes a guy like Will Barton, one of the leading sixth man of the year candidates last season, so successful. When opponent’s starters are at the end of their shift or other less explosive reserves are trying to get into the flow after they just came off the bench Faried can attack with a level of energy the opposition isn’t in a position to match. He makes a fairly good pairing skill wise with Jokic so having Faried spell Nurkic while Jokic slides over to center makes sense from a strategic viewpoint. He also makes an excellent small ball center and can be used in that fashion in different scenarios where a faster running lineup is advantageous for the Nuggets. Unfortunately though, Faried’s skill set may be best utilized on another roster and with the re-upping of Darrell Arthur and the drafting of Juancho Hernangomez this offseason the Nuggets can afford to let him go.

Whether keeping the Manimal or trading him (perhaps for a top tier back up PG?) makes the most sense for the team, it’s becoming increasingly more apparent that starting him is not in the best interest of the team. Jokic is undoubtedly a starter in the NBA, he proved that last season. Now he’s showing that he can be effective while playing alongside Nurkic. Meanwhile the Bosnian Beast, who tallied twenty-one points and sixteen rebounds in Denver’s latest contest, is forcing everyone’s hand with his play. As coach Malone might put it, Balkan buddy ball is here to stay.