The Denver Nuggets changed their starting lineup three games ago. Malone ran with a unit that had only played nine minutes together by bringing the newly-healthy Gary Harris into the backcourt with Emmanuel Mudiay, taking Denver’s leading scorer Wilson Chandler from bench duty to starter, and perhaps most importantly by swapping Jusuf Nurkic out in favor of Nikola Jokic at the center.
What happened? 125 points per game, 28 assists against just 12 turnovers, and 50% from the field happened. Denver faced three porous defenses but they obliterated all three in a fashion that had not happened so far this year. Instead of digging first quarter graves the starters were racing out to first quarter leads. Denver’s starting five poured in 100 points against the Mavericks and Jokic led all Denver players in points, assists and rebounds. Jokic in the starting lineup has been a revelation - but he’s also causing a conundrum regarding Denver’s other talented center, Jusuf Nurkic.
We're happy to take Nurkic off your hands if you are done with him. https://t.co/771nYonoFQ— Mavs Moneyball (@mavsmoneyball) December 20, 2016
Nurkic still has plenty of fans around the league (not to mention in Denver!) but deploying him effectively has been a challenge. He does not play center the same way that Jokic does, which is not Nurk’s fault. No one plays center the way Jokic is playing it right now so Denver will play differently with a backup center regardless, and Jusuf has a lot of different qualities that should help this roster. Nurkic is a brawler, not a finesse player. He is as strong as any player in the league - players that back a helpless Jokic under the basket just bounce off of the Bosnian Beast. Despite being huge, Nurkic has good quickness as well and has shown flashes of better perimeter defense than Jokic shows. He should be a shot-blocking defensive force - but it hasn’t worked out that way.
Teams have scored at will in the paint with Nurkic in the lineup. At first the idea was that Jokic and Nurkic were interfering with each other in the Jurkic lineup. They had 103 minutes together and gave up an eye-popping 1.12 points-per-possession while scoring just 0.97. That lineup was quickly scrapped, but the Nurkic-centered squads didn’t improve much. Denver’s offense improved slightly (1.00 PPP) as did its defense (1.09) but the Nuggets are still losing the scoring battle with Nurkic in the game.
Jokic without Nurkic is an offensive explosion at 1.19 PPP while the defense remains iffy at 1.08. If you can’t defend, though, you’d better outscore the other team - and Denver has done just that, whether Jokic is a starter or a backup.
So what’s happened to Nurkic? His first year under Shaw the team scored 1.05 PPP with him on the floor and held opponents to 1.04. That number would likely have been better with teammates who weren’t counting the minutes until their coach was fired. Last year is a wash with the recovery from surgery destroying Nurkic’s mobility, but he’s mobile again this year - he’s just making incredibly poor decisions on both sides of the court.
Nurkic is top-20 in the league in turnover percentage rather than defense. He allows paint penetration while hunting for a block that doesn’t come. He refuses to leave the paint on offense or defense, clogging the lane for his own players while allowing other bigs to shoot over him if they step back three feet.
It’s confounding. Nurkic is far too talented to continue to struggle like this, but Denver has several questions it will need answered, quickly:
- Who brings out the best in Nurkic? It’s not Emmanuel Mudiay - those two have been terrible on the court together all year, scoring fewer and giving up more points than even Nurkic’s baseline. So right off the bat, Denver should be playing Nurkic with Jameer Nelson. Those lineups are still net negative in PPP, but it’s much closer (1.01 on offense, 1.05 on defense). That makes sense since Jameer is more willing (and able) to shoot from the perimeter while Mudiay wants to get into the paint where Nurkic is already drawing attention. The numbers are even better with Murray, Nelson and Nurkic on the floor together, but it’s under 100 minutes of playing time so I’m not sure how much I trust it. Regardless, Denver has enough shooters to space it out and work from outside-in with the bench.
- Can Nurkic share? He gets turnovers from trying to make things happen, normally with passes, so it’s not that he doesn’t WANT to share when he’s not on the block. When he is in the paint, though, he just wants to score. He’s better at it than he has been the last couple of years (when it looked like he was afraid the ball would detonate in his hand if he held it for longer than two seconds without shooting) but he’s not good at kicking the ball back out once he’s decided to take it to the rack. Denver’s offense devolves with him in the game into, “dump it in the post and see what Nurkic decides to do.” Compared to the whirling dervish that is the Denver attack with Jokic in the game, a Nurkic-based offense is very stagnant. Jameer is not comfortable in the Jokic offense either, though, so if the two bench players can figure out a 15 minute-a-game bench offense that will help Denver going forward as well.
- Can Nurkic handle being the backup center? I believe he has enough talent to start in the League, but not for a team that also has Jokic on it. He also has the size and strength that Jokic doesn’t have, something that would come in handy against OKC or Memphis. He should be a complementary player, but some players don’t like that idea. Nerlens Noel is complaining already in Philadelphia, and Nurkic can’t be happy about the minutes crunch he’s suffering since Jokic took over the starting duties and Malone cut the rotation back to 9 men. Whether he is willing to make it work anyway is entirely up to him.
Denver may not be able to keep both centers. Utah had to part ways with Enes Kanter when they had Favors and a rookie Gobert because there was no room for Kanter to do what he wanted. He’s now a backup in OKC at a fairly high price-tag because Steven Adams is also a better center. Kanter seems to have accepted his role there, however - perhaps because he is getting paid. Nurkic is up for an extension after this year and will be a free agent after next season if he does not sign one. Sitting on the bench as a DNP-CD is not a good way to encourage a player to stay, nor to get value for him in trade.
The Nuggets will have to answer many questions about Nurkic the rest of this year, but the most important of which is likely this: Is Jusuf Nurkic a positive part of this team’s future?
It took Denver over a hundred games to figure out that Nikola Jokic was its best and most impactful player. The Nuggets don’t have that long to determine how to get their most powerful player back on track. Congratulations, coach Malone - your newest starting lineup seems to be working swimmingly.
Welcome to your next question. This guy is still around somewhere, and it’s up to you to find and deploy him - before it’s too late.