The Denver Nuggets have been looking for a star since Carmelo Anthony departed for the bright lights of the Big Apple, and they have found an extraordinarily unorthodox one in Nikola Jokic. He can’t jump over a curb but he can rebound well, and his soft shooting touch is good from the rim out to the arc. It’s his passing that makes him a force, though: he can thread the basketball needle like few big men have ever done. Denver’s conundrum, however, is how to build around something with so few examples?
In case the outside observer might think Nuggets fans are just too hyperbolic, take a look at Jokic’s numbers. His per-36 stat line this year is 17.7 points, 11.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists. That line has gone UP in December when he returned to his natural position, to 22.5 / 12.3 / 6.9 (which are numbers no one has ever posted in a season) but just consider the 17 / 11 / 5 for now. The only player that has hit those per-36 numbers since 1980? Kevin Garnett, who did it twice - and had 15+ winshare seasons to show for it both times.
Getting Jokic to play closer to those 36 minutes will be a key going forward, but how do the Nuggets construct a team to take advantage of such a singular player?
Don Nelson is considered the godfather of the point-forward position, but he used guys who tended to be 6’6 small forwards, not 6’10 center-types. Brad Daugherty, 5-time All Star, is sometimes used as a derogatory comparison for Jokic by people who don’t understand the term derogatory. His assist totals per-36 topped out around 4, though. The early 2000s Sacramento Kings had a pair of big men who could pass, in Vlade Divac and the inestimable Chris Webber, but Jokic isn’t getting that help from a secondary big. The Nuggets are going against the grain in a big way with Jokic, and in turn may provide their own template for the next step in basketball evolution as big men start to play like littler men and the NBA goes away from small ball, as our own Adam Mares suggests.
The Nuggets can’t even take the example of the Warriors, since they’re using defensive wizard Draymond Green as their version of the point-center and Jokic is neither that athletic nor that small. So we’re back to theory: what would a successful offense initiated from the biggest man on the court look like?
1 - mix-and-match guard rotations. Because Jokic can handle the ball and even bring it up court in transition for buckets, Denver doesn’t need a do-everything PG. Don Nelson’s Bucks loved the point-forward because it let them deploy Sidney Moncrief as a defensive killer and two-time Defensive Player of the Year. He hounded Prime Michael Jordan all over the court, and could score too. But he was never the assist man a team would have needed to run the point. The Nuggets can get away with this too now, and can go with a pair of shooters against some teams or defenders against others. Coincidentally, Denver has four guards still on rookie contracts, all with different skillsets. They’re set up to play that Swiss Army knife game in the back court if Malone can get the guys (as well as himself) to buy in.
2 - Three-and-D wing slashers. With Jokic spacing the floor and taking defenders out of the paint (not to mention pushing the ball up court in transition as well as any guard) the Nuggets can deploy a bunch of athletic cutters and spot-up shooters with more defensive skillsets to fix the current defensive woes of the team. The wings don’t need to be great iso players because they’ll have more room to operate, and ball movement as well as multiple assist men on the floor will allow for the angles game to create open shots. That means Denver can employ at least one shut-down wing to help stop paint penetration and cut off the two-point barrage that Denver has suffered this year.
3 - An understandable offense that allows for wrinkles. I’ve been talking about the switch from Karl ball to whatever Malone advocates as something like adopting the Jazz way of maintaining home court. Jerry Sloan used to run the pick-and-roll with the Jazz to perfection, because he had two Hall of Famers pulling it off. Malone and Stockton simply could not be stopped, and he was putting wrinkles and callbacks and fake-outs into his offense until the day he retired, far past when those HOFers called it quits. The Jokic dribble-hand-off offense can be run much the same way. As discussed in these great comments:
The variety out of that set should make it incredibly difficult to defend, and as long as Denver has strong three-point shooters out there they should get open looks from any distance all night.
The downside to that offense? There’s only one Nikola Jokic, so everything changes if he heads for the bench or gets injured. Of course, that’s also true of Russell Westbrook or James Harden or Chris Paul. Great players are hard to replace, especially when they’re in charge of a player-specific offense. In another article I advocated putting Gallinari in the stretch-point role when Jokic isn’t on the court, and others have brought up adding a big like Mason Plumlee who can pass himself off as Jokic-lite.
But the Nuggets will have to keep enough quality ball-handlers around to put a workable offense together in Jokic’s absence. Will Barton is perfect for that, as he can keep the bench aggression high without a lot of passing assists - but Denver will have to pay to keep him.
The defense would also need an interior assist, as Jokic is not a shot-blocker nor an especially physical defender. But Denver has many of the pieces it should need to make this a very productive way to play. A nails-tough perimeter defender and a shot-blocking, athletic 4 would go a long way with this team, but while Denver tries to add those pieces they also have several of the things they would need.
The Nuggets have the young backcourt with shooters and slashers and ball-handlers - throw more of these passes, Mudiay!
They have a defensive wing who can play multiple positions (Chandler) while they wait to add another.
They have that bench scorer in Barton, their choice between Chandler and Gallinari, and of course they have the only true point-center in the NBA. Denver also has a ton of tradable assets now the front office knows what they’re building around. It’ll take courage to go away from the norm, but Denver doesn’t have much of a choice. You dance with the All-Star you find. Golden State built around a scrawny point guard with weak ankles but a good shot that turned out to be one of the greatest in history. In doing so they spearheaded a change in the game of basketball.
Denver will have to change it again to build a true contender in the Mile High City. Hold your breath, Nuggets fans: you’re looking at the beginnings of the next era of Denver basketball, and much like with the George Karl era it will be an attempt to win big by playing a style that no one else can match.