The Denver Nuggets are running an experiment, and it’s not in how to build a contender with the lowest draft picks possible or the most players born outside the United States. The Nuggets are - either through choice or opportunity - testing the notion of how far basketball intelligence can carry a team.
When we talk about prospective professional talent, there are a lot of references to whether or not a player is an “NBA athlete” but not nearly as many that reference their NBA intelligence. Scouts will rave about a player’s basketball IQ, but they don’t usually frame it in terms of passing the NBA bar. There are reasons for that - some racist, unfortunately - but it is up for debate whether there is the same minimum bar to cross to qualify for NBA-caliber smarts as there is for NBA quicks.
The upcoming iteration of the Denver Nuggets looks to test not the floor but rather the ceiling of intelligence in the NBA. This is the reality for Denver fans: Denver NEEDS there to be a legitimate and impactful gap between the basketball IQs of the top centers in the league and Nikola Jokic. As prognosticators continue to choose other centers and NBA big men over Jokic because of their athletic ceilings, the Nuggets need him to be not just good, but a giant and goofy savant to overcome the physical deficiencies in his game. There are plenty of basketball-smart college and European players whose athletic limitations keep them from being impact players in the NBA. What makes Jokic different?
One of my favorite stories in Isaac Asmiov’s Nightfall and Other Stories involves a scientist named Ralson who is just smarter than everyone else. The other scientists need him to help them solve the problem of creating forcefields against atomic explosion, a topic that was very much en vogue at the time the story was written in 1951. Ralson had a nervous breakdown, a Cthulu-like reaction to The Unknown (depending on your point of view) so they hired a psychiatrist to come in and try to get Ralson healthy enough to come back to work and finish the project.
Genius can rarely be explained. That’s why it’s genius. Jokic has a habit of screaming for the ball when nothing is obviously open to the average viewer - or teammate. I can’t ever tell what he’s seeing, or how many moves ahead he’s seeing it. He also tends to flop dramatically when no one else sees what he sees and they miss the moment.
But if genius cannot be explained, can it be shared? Can a group of players together work toward a common goal by trusting the vision of another? Chris Paul is one of the smartest players I’ve ever seen play but his teams always ran into problems executing in the postseason - though part of that was due to the health of Paul himself. A team built on Jokic’s particular brand of basketball needs him to stay healthy for that attack to be successful.
Of course, Chris Paul has also been an excellent defender, something few have accused Jokic of despite his net ratings. Is Jokic a basketball savant, or merely an offensive and passing savant? Because make no mistake, he is the latter for certain.
His offensive stats defy logic. He’s an advanced stats darling for a reason, and while the unicorn label is thrown around with reckless abandon these days, Jokic really is unique in his approach from the Center position. His Offensive Rating of 121 was pretty special last year, but when you look at his company at 120+ it gets more special. There are two sets of players who rate that highly: ball-dominant guards who can score and pass, or finishers either from 3 or at the rim. Jokic is the only player who does it all as a big man. Assists, three-point shooting, interior finishing...there’s really nothing he can’t do offensively other than jump over a phone book, and he orchestrates the team’s top-flight offense as well. His game and responsibilities are unlike any other in the league.
It’s that lack of athleticism that drives down his future projections, though, as even after watching him for three seasons observers have trouble believing he can be the fulcrum for a contender. Marc Gasol had similar problems when he came into the league as an overweight center who would never be a rim protector, but the Grizzlies grit-and-grind really took off once he got in shape. Jokic is just starting that process, still younger than Marc Gasol was as a rookie. He’ll never be Anthony Davis athletically, or even Tim Duncan (who was more athletically gifted as a young man than he’s given credit for). But if his defense becomes fundamentally sound and the team structure is built around what he can do rather than what he can’t, how far can an insanely great offense take the Nuggets?
Denver is trying to add the pieces around him. They’ve punted on veteran defensive upgrades this summer but keep putting a thumb on the scale for intelligence, and have for a few years. Paul Millsap is smart as hell, and makes his living on defense off of his brain rather than his vertical jump. Gary Harris doesn’t get all those back court dunks by accident and is insanely efficient if still under the radar. Denver is teeming with young players like Jamal Murray, Jarred Vanderbilt and Michael Porter Jr. who have both the talent and the basketball savvy to make big leaps as they find their exact fit with this team. Denver has moved their players that made the silly turnovers or could not keep up with the offensive scheme. This team is quite different from the J.R. Smith Nuggets who ran teams out of the gym but caused George Karl to occasionally label them an insult on the dignity of the game.
Can that intelligence be put to work on defense? The Spurs are a classic example of a team that wasn’t the most athletic but was so smart and cohesive on BOTH ends that they won titles. Their hall-of-fame-level talent was also undeniable, however. Tim Duncan may be the greatest power forward to ever lace them up (regardless of how many times he was called a center), and both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will join him in the Hall. How many Hall of Famers currently reside in Nuggets jerseys?
The Nuggets still don’t really know what Jokic is. Duncan was the Big Fundamental. Very little that Jokic does is fundamental at all. He bursts with creativity and off-the-cuff inventiveness, a whimsical and playful offensive genius that borders on aggravating to those looking for fundamental execution. The mix of player approach and position is almost unique in the history of the NBA - there aren’t enough precedents to base a strategy off of.
Genius cannot be explained but the Nuggets want to find out whether or not it can be shared. It’s not enough to be a basketball savant or even the smartest player on the floor if everyone else is unable to contribute to your process. My hope for this team is for them to turn into not one but several smart basketball savants who share the process together and have ownership of the pieces.
In the Asimov story, Ralson died trying to impart enough of his genius to the cause to make a difference. Denver doesn’t need Jokic to be a martyr for the cause of basketball intelligence; they need him to be a conqueror, and for this offense to be so unstoppable it cannot be held down even by its own average defense. And a conqueror needs an army that can fully execute a cunning plan.
After several hesitations and incomplete attempts, the first 82-game implementation of the “Jokic Plan” begins this fall. Denver had a league-best 113 Offensive Rating after January 21st, compared to their 106 rating before. That was the date coach Michael Malone said he would call fewer plays and get back to letting Jokic take over.
Hopefully the training of the last couple of years lets the team fully execute Jokic-ball and give us a glimpse of what the upper limits of this unique style of basketball will look like down the line.
During Jokic’s current contract, how far can this brand of basketball take the Nuggets?
This poll is closed
To the playoffs, but not deep into them - too easy to gameplan in a 7-game series
They can compete for a Western Conference Finals berth but they won’t be best team in the West
With the right roster tweaks and growth, all the way. Jokic-ball won’t be the holdup to building a champion in Denver.