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What if they never drafted Nikola Jokic?

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NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

With the 41st pick in the 2014 NBA draft, the Denver Nuggets select, Nikola Jokic, center from Serbia. This is what happened. These are the facts, but the past five seasons could have gone very differently for Denver and Jokic alike. For that reason, it is today’s topic for the What If series that we have been running here on Denver Stiffs.

Denver already had two different centers on the roster coming into the draft which doesn’t even take into account that they had traded for a pick they used on Jusuf Nurkic, a first-round center, four hours earlier in the night. Their main needs were on the wing with multiple players entering contract years. The team easily could have gone in a different direction with that second-round pick.

So, this brings us to our What If question of the day. What if the Nuggets never selected Jokic with their second-round pick in 2014? What would the franchise look like now? What would their trajectory have been over the past five years? What would the team’s future look like without this cornerstone locked into place?

Who would have been the pick?

“We drafted a center in the first round. We could easily take this pick in another direction.” “Nope, we need another center.” Assuming they were to pass on Jokic, the next center off the board was Edy Tarvares, who went to the Atlanta Hawks. For his career, he has played in 13 games for 101 minutes while scoring a total of 33 points. The drop from Jokic to Tarvares is an astounding one.

“We drafted a center in the first round. We could easily take this pick in another direction.” “Ok, we’re going to draft a wing to play some defense.” This is where things get a little interesting. There were zero impact small forwards taken in that second round to fill this role. You could make the argument that they would have selected Lamar Patterson or Thanasis Antetokounmpo, but neither of them have turned into even rotation-level players.

“We drafted a center in the first round. We could easily take this pick in another direction.” “We need a guard to put some points on the board.” Let’s go after this Jordan Clarkson fella from Missouri. For those that didn’t know, he’s played the second-most minutes out of every player in this class. He’s a smooth scorer, and he’s been a bucket-getter since he entered the NBA.

What would have been?

After largely being a starting big during his first season, Jokic was handed the reigns to the offense in the middle of his sophomore campaign. His assists per-36 minutes jumped from 3.9 to 6.3 in one season, and that number has been climbing in the years since. He’s become the team’s focal point on the offensive end, and he’s been their best player for at least the last three years.

Now, what if they hadn’t picked him? They could have drafted a different center the following year and gotten someone like Myles Turner or Frank Kaminsky. Nurkic, who has become a good center, could have developed into their starter, and they could have worked to build a team around him. Prior to a brutal injury last season, he was averaging 15.6 points per game to go with 10.4 rebounds.

Nurkic could have been a good starting center for this team, and he would have given them the defensive presence that you don’t get with Jokic. He’s finished with a positive Defensive Box Plus/Minus in every season of his career. Denver may have had a defensive anchor, but their offense would not be nearly what it is now. Nurkic isn’t the passer that you get with a guy like Jokic.

Passing on Jokic for someone like Clarkson or Tavares would have had long-reaching impacts. If they took Clarkson, it’s highly unlikely they take Emmanuel Mudiay the following year. They could have gotten Stanley Johnson for his defense, or Devin Booker would have given them a premiere scoring option that they have been searching for to pair with Jokic in the drafts since.

The drafting of Jokic, along with the fact that he turned into something special, altered the course of the Nuggets’ drafts for years to come. If they feel that Nurkic is a reliable starter moving forward, they can focus on getting shooters to surround him. The team could pass on Mudiay due to his lack of shooting to get a better scorer on the outside. Making one different pick in the second round of 2014 would have Denver making different picks every year.

Where would we be now?

Let’s say, for the sake of this argument, Denver’s picks don’t change outside of the Jokic pick. They draft Tavares just to have a center because that makes life easier. Second-round picks usually don’t pan out at a high frequency, so it’s essentially like that was just a pick that missed. They kept all of their other draft picks the same, so where would they be at today?

If Denver were to not pick Jokic, I doubt they make the playoffs last year. If they do, I would have projected for them to be somewhere at the end of the pack. Nurkic obviously doesn’t give them the same ceiling that you get with Jokic, and the offensive weapons around him don’t have the scoring punch to carry the team on the nights that he was going cold from the floor.

Denver was a top-10 offense for the last few years, and they would likely be somewhere in the 13 to 18 range. Michael Malone is a good enough coach to elevate the squad, and there are some offensive weapons out there that can still put points up. One piece that would be interesting to consider is Will Barton. He thrives with the ball in his hands, and he functions largely off the ball in the current system. Would he have developed into a consistent 20 points per game scorer? It’s possible, but there is no guarantee that the gravity of Jokic doesn’t assist him.