With every passing game Nikola Jokic shows that he’s not just a nice player in the NBA, he’s a dynamic force on offense who can be the focal point of the Denver Nuggets game plan. It’s easy to see why every guy on the Nuggets roster wants to get in the lineup when Nikola is on the court, and why when they’re on the court everyone seems to be moving and cutting more frequently. If you’re open, Joker’s going to find you. Behind the play of Denver’s star center the Nuggets have won back to back games in convincing fashion and have been one of the most prolific teams when it comes to scoring for a month.
Still, despite the success in the points department, the Nuggets have been woeful on the defensive end, and some of this can be attributed to Jokic. He’s never going to be a player who averages three blocks a game and he’s not going to be able to guard athletic power forwards, especially at the perimeter. Jokic does what he can given his limited athleticism, he’s a smart basketball player and rarely finds himself out of position on D. If he’s giving up points it’s generally because he lacks lateral quickness to defend face up and get’s beat one on one, or because he lacks strength in the post and gets beat one on one. Unfortunately, outside of Gary Harris, there isn’t much in the way of players who can help mitigate Jokic’s defensive deficiencies on the Nuggets. What if you could assemble whatever team you wanted for Jokic though? Who would those players be? On the other hand, if we’re going to stay grounded, which Nuggets fit best with Jokic on the court?
Dream pairing: Stephen Curry
Nugget Pairing: Jamal Murray
Jokic’s unique ability as a distributing center allows for some freedom at the point guard position because you don’t need a top nothc playmaker. The best fit is going to be a player who is a capable ball handler in the pick and roll, but also can move off ball. When it comes to the ability to score on or off the ball there’s no point guard better at it than Curry. He’s shown to be superb at working the pick and roll with Draymond Green and also excellent at moving through screens without the ball to free himself for open looks on catch and shoot opportunities. Jokic thrives with a point guard who can do these things. Murray and Jokic have started to develop a chemistry on court with Murray’s similar skill set to Curry’s (though not nearly at the same level). One of their favorite plays is to set up Nikola in the post and then have Murray cut behind him down the lane for an easy bucket. Ideally you find a point guard who is a top notch shooter, can score without the ball being in their hands AND is an A+ defender, but as far as I can tell that person doesn’t exist, either on the Nuggets or elsewhere in the NBA, so we’ll have to settle for two out of three.
Dream pairing: Jimmy Butler
Nugget Pairing: Gary Harris
There’s two things a shooting guard needs to be able to do with Jokic: play top notch defense on the perimeter and cut to the basket mercilessly. This is something both Harris and Butler are great at. Butler also has the length to make him an even more difficult defender on the perimeter which is key for any team featuring Jokic. He’s not going to be able to provide much in the way of help defense so if you can prevent dribble penetration as much as possible you’re going to be in good shape. Harris is a great defender and we’ve seen this season his chemistry with Jokic and his ability to cut and to get out and run on the fast break makes him the obvious paring at shooting guard for Denver.
Dream pairing: Kawhi Leonard
Nuggets Pairing: Wilson Chandler
The small forward spot requires a lot of the same things that the shooting guard spot requires, excellent perimeter defense, ability to cut, ability to get out on the fast break. However, one thing that makes Kawhi a nice pick here (besides the fact that he’s an amazing defender) is he’s also a capable ball handler in the pick and roll. It’s not hard to find a preview of what Kawhi and Jokic would look like, just watch about five minutes of a San Antonio Spurs game and you’ll have ample examples from Kawhi and Pau Gasol. Chandler doesn’t have near the defense that Kawhi does, and he’s not going to be a great option as a pick and roll ball handler either but he’s got enough length and athleticism to be an effective defender and cutter. He also has the ability to catch and shoot which is always key when playing with Jokic.
Dream pairing: Kristaps Porzingis
Nuggets pairing: Kenneth Faried
The power forward spot might be the toughest one to staff next to Jokic. Above all else the power forward needs to be able to protect the rim, because Jokic is not going to excel at that. Also, while much of Denver’s offense runs through their center it’s still good to have the option to run the pick and roll with a point guard and a big man who can roll hard to the basket and finish above the rim. Those are two things that Kristaps is great at while still being a decent ball handler and shooter to boot. Denver (and most all of the league) doesn’t have a guy like that but they have found quite a bit of success pairing Faried with Jokic. Faried gives you that roll player and also provides another person to run the court. He’s frequently the beneficiary of an extra pass from Jokic when defenses collapse on him in the post which usually results in an easy dunk He also is a go to option to finish a Jokic lob from the post. If he could just shoot and be 7’3” like Porzingis the Nuggets frontcourt would be set for years to come.
Like any player, if you are trying to build a team around Jokic then you need to maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. For Nikola the strengths that can be maximized are his ability to be a ball distributor and the attention he’ll continue to draw when he has the ball. Putting players who are good shooters, who move well off the ball and are good cutters will get the most points out of Jokic’s passing ability. On the flip side, and as Denver’s current opponents’ average points per game demonstrates, a Jokic centered lineup with the current Nuggets roster struggles to stop anyone from scoring. In the ideal world, the Nuggets would replace their mediocre defenders with top notch talent that still provides all the shooting and cutting abilities on offense. So just as soon as Tim Connelly trades for Curry, Butler, Leonard and Porzingis then this team will be set! In reality though, a lineup of Murray, Harris, Chandler, Faried and Jokic can be very dangerous in it’s own right.
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