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Breakdown of the Jokić-Plumlee pairing

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The Nuggets two centers often play together — here is a breakdown of how that pairing works and how it doesn’t work.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

A few months ago I sold a car that I’d been driving since I graduated from university for a used Ram pickup truck. That Toyota Yaris got great gas mileage. I could dart through traffic and it’d only cost me $25 to fill the tank once per week. In a city like Denver where a 45-minute journey through traffic can make commuters go insane, I had fun driving that little car around the city.

Now that I have a full-size truck, driving is a completely different experience. I don’t dart through traffic as much as I look down on little hybrids and sedans and basically force them to do what I want. I’m not afraid to pass big rigs anymore, and when I put my foot down, that Dodge V-8 roars and away I go. I definitely miss those $25 trips to the gas station, because that 26-gallon (98 liters) tank costs way more to fill up.

Was it the most economical decision I could have made for a vehicle? Definitely not. Was it the most fun decision I could have made for a vehicle? It’s pretty high up there. In an world where fuel prices are increasing, there are more and more electric vehicle options, and the damn robots are going to start driving us around in 20 years, it could definitely be a zag when then the rest of the auto industry is zigging.

The Nuggets decided to zag when the rest of the NBA is zigging when they abandoned Balkan Buddy Ball and swapped Jusuf Nurkic for Mason Plumlee during the 2016-17 season. Plumlee signed a new contract with the Nuggets during the previous offseason, agreeing on a 3-year, $41 million contract that made him one of the highest-paid backup centers in the league.

One of the motives behind offering Plumlee a three-year contract is his ability to play alongside Nikola Jokić in an over-sized frontcourt. It’s a pairing that has specific strengths and weaknesses, some of which need to be addressed.

Strengths

Rebounding. When those two are on the court, the Nuggets should be able to out-rebound their opponent, on both the offensive and defensive glass. Plumlee and Jokic were top-15 in total offensive rebounds last season, and both have proven to help their teams defensive rebounding rate when they’re on the court.

Passing. Plumlee and Jokić are both highly skilled for their position at their ability to move the ball. There’s no doubting Jokić at this point, with his innate ability to see the court and his water polo background enabling him to make passes that few other big men in NBA history have made. Plumlee has an advanced handle for his position, and is a willing passer, often completing difficult passes from in the restricted area out to shooters on the perimeter.

Screening. Plumlee isn’t afraid to set his shoulders and deliver a strike to a smaller player, freeing up space for players like Will Barton or Gary Harris. Jokić isn’t quite the vertical threat diving to the rim, but is one of the only players to start the season in the 50/40/90 club and is a threat to score in the midrange as well.

Spacing. One area that Plumlee has worked on is his ability to play from the short corner. He’s able to set pindown and baseline screens, and can flash to the rim after dribble penetration to provide an outlet for a dropoff dunk. Plumlee doesn’t need the ball in his hands to create successful team offense, and is comfortable spacing the court by presenting an offensive rebound threat near the rim. Jokić is always going to help with spacing — he’s a knockdown shooter and a psychic with passing lanes.

Weaknesses

Defensive rotations. Plumlee and Jokić are not fleet of foot in any sense of the word. Neither are blessed with prodigious wingspans to supplement their height, which makes them slow and below average for length. Jokić especially struggles to communicate on switches, and will often commit to a trap for a second or two too long, leaving his defender open to do whatever they please.

Rim protection. This is a quandary, because while the Nuggets are playing two bigs, they aren’t able to protect the paint well. Jokić is a capable defender because he knows where to go to contest shots, but struggles to get to the right spot at times and has never been able to elevate to contest shots. Plumlee can elevate, but is limited by his wingspan and ability to position himself at the right time.

Transition. This is more of an opportunity cost. By playing Plumlee alongside Jokić, the Nuggets miss out on having Kenneth Faried on the court with Jokić. Plumlee doesn’t quite have the ability to fly down the court for lob dunks that Faried does, and Jokić isn’t flying down the court ever. With both big men crashing the boards for rebounds, that leaves the guards without targets to hit after they receive the ball moving downhill.

Small-ball lineups. These two cannot guard smaller lineups — at all. Plumlee and Jokić are too big and too slow to chase players like Joe Johnson or Otto Porter Jr. around the court. Opposing teams don’t even have to hit them with screens — just run away from one of them, cut, and voila, you are open.

This also makes rebounding difficult for Jokić and Plumlee. Both are well suited to block out other large human beings, but when a smaller opponent is on their back, they aren’t quick enough to stay in front of them and prevent them from getting to loose balls. This is how lineups with Timofey Mozgov and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are able to get multiple offensive rebounds against two bigs that one would think would be able to suck up every missed shot.

The other guys. This lineup could struggle with Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard. Surprisingly, Mudiay is shooting 50 percent on 3-point attempts after seven games, and has shown off an improved stroke on his jumper. But his greatest strength is his ability to muscle into the lane and find shooters on the perimeter. That doesn’t include Mason Plumlee in the short corner, and it doesn’t include Jokić spacing the floor from the corner.

If Jokić and Plumlee are out there with Will Barton, Barton’s ability to slash to the rim is impeded by the two bigs playing inside the 3-point arc. He’s a willing 3-point shooter, but he needs to get his shot off in rhythm in order to have a higher probability of the ball making it’s way through the rim.

If Wilson Chandler is the small forward, his greatest offensive talent of being able to isolate and score is impeded by the two bigs as well. He offers defensive chops, but is going to have a difficult row on offense. It’s better for the Nuggets to play someone like Juancho Hernangomez (stupid mononucleosis) who can space the floor, move well without the ball, and be tall.

The Nuggets can play guards like Malik Beasley and Jamal Murray with Jokić and Plumlee, because those two players are going to be darting around the court to get shots off of screens and spotting up from 23 feet. Beasley’s athleticism also plays well with Jokić and Plumlee, because he’ll be able to secure defensive rebounds as the bigs box out after missed shots.

When to deploy the Blue Serbian lineup

I have hope that the Jokić-Plumlee pairing can be successful, and can be a unique option for the Nuggets against some teams. I also know that there are times when that pairing is going to be a disaster for the Nuggets. Here is my decision tree for when to deploy the Blue Serbian (Blue for Plumlee, a Blue Devil, and Serbian for Jokić, because, you know, Serbia) lineup.

  1. Is the other team playing a true center, yes or no? If yes, proceed to the next question. If no, don’t play Plumlee.
  2. Is the other team playing a stretch mark four, yes or no? This is someone like Marreese Speights or Doug McDermott, a forward that can stretch the floor but is also fat. If yes, proceed to the next question. If no, play Jokić but don’t play Plumlee.
  3. Is the other team playing a stretch mark four at center AND a tweener at four, yes or no? If yes, play Plumlee but don’t play Jokić. If no, proceed to the next question.
  4. Is the other team playing a true center and a traditional power forward? If yes, go ahead with the Blue Serbian lineup. If no, proceed to the next question.
  5. Is the other team playing a true center and a wing, but the wing can’t shoot 3-pointers well and can’t rebound well? If yes, proceed with the Blue Serbian lineup. If no, don’t play both of them, but one of them is an option.
  6. Is the other team playing DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis? If yes, pray to God the Pelicans get in foul trouble. If no, go back to question one.

TL;DR

There are certain lineups the Blue Serbian pairing can take advantage of. They’re going to struggle against fast small-ball lineups, unless the player at power forward can’t rebound well or can’t shoot 3-pointers well. They should be able to get extra possessions off of offensive rebounds, and secure a change of possession after defensive rebounds. They aren’t as dangerous of a threat in transition, but they should be effective in the halfcourt offense. They need a reliable perimeter defender, and they need shooters, not slashers, at the guard positions.

Get used to seeing this lineup, because Plumlee will be in Denver for a while, and Jokić could be here in Denver for his whole career.