Nuggets fans got their first extended look at the Jusuf Nurkic / Nikola Jokic frontcourt combination last night in a blowout loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. After Jakkar Sampson was forced out of the lineup in the first half, head coach Michael Malone decided to experiment a bit by playing the two centers together. Before last night, the duo had only logged four total minutes together ever and most Nuggets fans had been eager to see how the two would look sharing the court.
In short, the results were mixed but mostly negative as the Nuggets were outscored by eight points over a seven minutes stretch. However, there were a lot of interesting things to dissect that will hopefully pave the way for future experiments with the two-center lineup.
1. This unit clearly has not had a lot of practice together
It was very clear from the start that the lineup Malone tossed out on the court to start the second half had not had a lot of practice time together. Most of the offensive possessions featured guys bumping into each other in the paint or trying to figure out the right spacing. On several possessions, the two bigs and Arthur would all occupy on the same space, fight over the same rebounds, or help on the same guy on defense.
The main set or action that the Nuggets ran during that stretch was just a simple cross screen by Harris to the big on the block in order to get post position. From there the entry pass would either come from Darrell Arthur on the wing or the trailing big man up top, and then both guys would cut through to clear out. It's a fairly stagnant way to post up and on most occassions, Arthur wouldn't even follow through to the opposite corner, causing a bit of a logjam on the opposite block. Nonetheless, the Nuggets were able to get a couple of post scores out of this action.
Stagnant post ups aren't a recipe for success for any team in the NBA and if the Nuggets are serious about giving this lineup some court time, they'll need to come up with a lot of more creativity on offense.
2. Darrell Arthur is a bad option at small forward when Jokic and Nurkic are both on the court
As surprising as it was to see the two centers on the court, it was equally as surprising to see Arthur draw the assignment of playing small forward opposite Lebron James. Darrell lacks the quickness to guard most small forwards, lacks the elite shooting to space the court well enough to make room for two guys who both need the paint, and has a skill set that is greatly diminished by having two other big guys on the court. Wilson Chandler might be the team's best option at small forward alongside the duo since he has the outside shooting to provide spacing on offense. Chandler also has the length and footspeed to guard the perimeter and get hands in the passing lanes.
Outside of Chandler, I'm not sure there is a great option on the roster as currently constructed. This will make it very difficult for coach Malone to try the duo too often. D.J. Augustine would provide the proper spacing but that would leave Harris or Emmanuel Mudiay guarding small forwards like Lebron, a losing proposition.
3. Nikola Jokic has no idea how to guard forwards on the perimeter
This isn't really Jokic's fault since he probably doesn't have a lot of experience guarding guys like Channing Frye who like to play the pick and pop game. However, if this duo is ever going to work, Jokic needs to learn a lot about guarding the perimeter alongside another rim protector.
On several occasions Jokic would provide help the way a rim protecting center is expecting to provide help, by leaving his man to provide hard help near the rim but would then get lost on the next rotation. In the clip below, watch how Jokic provides help inside but is doesn't realize that he is supposed to rotate back onto the perimeter until it is much too late.
Jokic was also frantic and slow trying to guard Frye in one on one situations. In the clips below, he closes out in a way that leaves him very susceptible to being blown by. Frye passes up the first opportunity but takes full advantage on the second. Frye isn't a quick or explosive stretch four so the fact that he nearly made it all the way to the rim for a power dunk shows just how slow and uncomfortable Jokic is on the perimeter.
4. The Cavs hard denied the guards, forcing the bigs to make difficult reads
Nurkic and Jokic are great passers and Darrell is fully capable of making basic reads as a passer. However, the Cavs forced the three bigs to become playmakers by hard denying the two guards on every dribble hand off and ball reversal. In the clip below, notice how Cleveland seems content to let Arthur, Nurkic, and Jokic catch the ball on the elbows but overplay the passing lanes knowing that the three bigs probably aren't going to be able to make them pay.
This is important for a couple of reasons. The first is that the Nuggets probably won't get away with playing such an obvious, deliberate offense when there are just two guards on the court. They'll probably need a third player that can put the ball on the court if the defense is overplaying the passing lanes or they'll need to leave the ball in Mudiay and Harris's hands more. Most possessions during the seven minute stretch featured Mudiay passing the ball to the trailing big man and then struggling to get it out of his hands after that. It might be better to use the trailing big as a screener instead and keep the ball in the hands of players capable of attacking off the dribble.
5. Despite the woes, there were still some positive signs
When the Nuggets weren't lost in transition or struggling to find spacing, they did manage to create a few nice possessions. By far the most interesting offensive possession was one in which Jokic set a high pick and roll for Mudiay who dribbled over to hit Nurkic in the post. The action forced a defensive rotation and Nurkic was able to hit Jokic at the perfect moment on the roll.
Quick action like this is probably the best way to exploit the passing of the two big men. The Spurs big men do a great job of making quick reads in the post and at the elbows and Nurkic and Jokic can probably develop that same skill over time. But it will take a lot of practice, experience, and probably some additions to the roster in order to build a trio of perimeter players that can space the court better on offense and provide length and quickness on the perimeter. It will also require Jokic becoming much more familiar with perimeter defense and a dramatic increase in his foot speed against quicker players.
It was certainly fun to see the two big guys finally share the court together, even if the results were pretty rough. It will be very interesting to see if Malone goes back to that lineup more in the final weeks of the season to get a better read on the strengths and weaknesses, even if it continues to produce poor results.
One final thought
After the game coach Malone said that he felt like the team got down on themselves and quit in the second half, saying that it was probably the first time all season that he felt that way. It certainly looked like the Nuggets had a sense of hopelessness in the second half as the Cavs got comfortable and pushed the lead up to double digits. It's possible that the team sensed that Malone had forfeited the game in order to experiment. With that lineup obviously out of practice and not working, it's possible the team started to approach the game as more of a scrimmage than a competitive game.
This will be a tough balancing act down the final stretch of the season. Malone and the coaching staff would be wise to turn a little bit of their focus toward next season and start to figure out, among other things, if Nurkic and Jokic can play together. However, by doing that it may send the signal to the team that winning isn't the most important thing right now. There is no easy solution to this conundrum other than for the team to respond by playing as hard and as focused as they can, even if the coaching staff decides to play lineups that may not give them the best chance to succeed right away.