For a significant portion of my adult life, I’ve been what people might call "big". Getting called "big guy" and things that aren’t as friendly as that caused me to be extremely self conscious about my weight. So until maybe the last five years I was ashamed of my size and went out of my way to appear smaller.
The NBA has spent the better part of the last five seasons deliberately doing away with the "classic" big man. Guys with deep post moves and and large size were actively legislated out of the game due to rules changes and obsession with "open" play in an overreaction to the ugliness of post-Jordan NBA life (from 1999-2005). Less of an evolution than the NBA’s version of big man shaming (in a very, very loose sense ... but you get my meaning).
Yet the foundation principal that the tallest person the closest to the basket remains the most efficient shot in the NBA.
As we have discussed in other places, though, this isn’t explicitly true anymore. In fact the Northwest Division of the NBA is running a grand experiment to see if the NBA is still a place for the Center. The big man. We aren’t talking about Oliver Miller and Stanley Roberts size (which were always few and far between) but guys who can dominate the game and be great BIG men. Throw in Joel Embiid from the Philadelphia 76ers there (who is currently showing ALL the promise that was expected two years ago) and you have a rediscovery.
The Nuggets are on their own journey. Through the first two games we’ve had great games featuring their very young, promising big men - Nikola Jokic (22 points 17 rebounds 4 assists 1 block) last night and Jusuf Nurkic in game one (23 points 9 rebounds in only 26 minutes) and yet there is a level of discomfort with this from the Nuggets coaches. Kenneth Faried has been largely featured in both 4th quarters and the offense has either ground to a halt (Pelicans game) or lead to inefficient bad-habits (Trail Blazers game).
Faried is just being himself, to be honest. He is a high energy, go get the ball kind of player that is best when he is able to freelance in open space with no sets. The Nuggets, meanwhile, have been trying to run plays and sets. While Faried undoubtedly has made some fantasitc defensive plays from sheer force of his will, he has been equally as bad on the offensive end and has been worse for spacing than either Nurkic or Jokic.
Through the so called Jurkic lineup, aka Bosnian Buddy Ball, aka Adam Mares’ Bane we have seen it’s limitations. It’s only been two games but it hasn’t been spectacular during that stretch.
Individually Nurkic and Jokic have thrived far more than together. IF the Nuggets were to continue using both in tandem then they would need to run a slower, post-heavy, Pau Gasol/Andrew Bynum lead Lakers version of the triangle kind of system featuring Jokic in the pinch post (h/t Matt Moore). They are not. So you have to work with the system they are using.
That is where the Nuggets coaches discomfort is coming in. While either Nurkic or Jokic is in ... the Nuggets offense hums and their SIZE bothers other teams. With Gallinari at the three and hopefully Darrell Arthur at the four with Nurkic or Jokic you have a really lengthy, athletic, BIG lineup. Throw in addition of Wilson Chandler (length) and you have a team that gives others fits....
Yet the addition of Faried in crucial, crunch time lineups show that there’s that "default to small" mentality despite the way the offense thrives the first three quarters (or in the case of the Portland game, a brilliant third quarter) the Nuggets are still uncomfortable with imposing their will on teams. I have some sympathy for Nuggets coaches, particularly head coach Michael Malone, who seems to WANT to stick with a big lineup but can’t quite get there.
I think the Nuggets are struggling with the fact that what they are BEST at is being big. Sometimes they are caught wearing all black because it makes them look slimmer when they should be embracing the big guys they really are. The Nuggets are starting to look really good, if not great with two highly skilled players. One bruising, one a playmaker. They need to embrace it all game. If a player is 23 and 9 in 26 minutes he needs to be in there in the fourth quarter. If the other player has dominated the third quarter, he needs to rest so he can be fresh for the fourth.
It’s a dilemma though. You have a plethora of big men and Kenneth Faried. How do you balance the minutes? How do you find the right combinations? However it is clear two of their very best assets are their centers. At 21 (Jokic) and 22 (Nurkic) there is very little reason for both to be off the court at once.
Do we care who starts? There’s a very large faction of the Nuggets fandom that is very committed to the idea Jokic starting. There’s a smaller one who want Nurkic to start. I’m in the "it doesn’t matter" camp. As long as they get equal time with multiple chances to close the game. I fully expect the Jurkic experiment to continue for awhile, but I believe the Nuggets are better off in this "big shaming" version on the NBA in having one in the lineup at a time.
All in all, once the Nuggets embrace their bigness the other things will begin to be figured out.