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Film Friday: Winning without Jokic

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Denver Nuggets v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

If you’re not familiar with Film Fridays, each Friday, I’ll be looking at some recent Denver Nuggets’ games, lineups or something else from a film aspect to try and bring you a piece of content that you’re not getting somewhere else. Feel free to give any feedback positive or negative in the comments or find me on Twitter.

It was announced earlier this week that Denver Nuggets’ superstar center Nikola Jokic had tested positive for Covid-19 after his trip to Serbia. He was reportedly in good health, and he should be back to 100 percent when the bubble games begin in Orlando next month. At just a tick over the age of 25, he should have no problems fighting off the disease, although we don’t completely know the long-term effects, but what if he didn’t?

This team has been built around Jokic and his ability to pass and set up the players around him on the offensive end of the floor. He’s had a usage rate greater than 26 percent in each of the last two seasons, including the playoffs. One fourth of their offense would disappear in an instant if he were to be forced to miss any time in Orlando or the entire time due to complications.

If he were to miss significant time, would they be able to get by without him? The system would have to be overhualed, and, if they did that, what would a successful group look like? What’s a path to success without Jokic look like? That’s what I want to look at today. While other teams have a second star they could lean on, such as Paul George of the LA Clippers, Denver doesn’t have that luxury, so we’re going to have to get this done as a team. Let’s get to it.

Embrace the Pick & Roll with Plumlee

If Jokic is out, Mason Plumlee will be the new starter at the center position, although it might be exciting to try a smaller lineup. With that in mind, you have to completely overhaul the offense. Plumlee is a decent ball handler and passer for a big, but he’s not on the same level of Jokic. The ball will go into the hands of Jamal Murray, and he’ll need to develop some real chemistry with Plumlee from the jump.

The area that Plumlee excels in on the offensive side of the ball is the pick-and-roll game. His athleticism allows him to rise above the defense to grab offensive rebounds and finish off alley-oops. He averages 1.35 points per possession as the roll man, and they make up 22.3 percent of his possessions per game. Denver only goes to the pick-and-roll 14.8 percent of their possessions which is the 25th-lowest mark in the league.

It’s plays like this that are going to bring him the most success. He sets a firm screen on the guard, and he’s more athletic than most guys at his size. He takes advantage of that, and he completes the big alley-oop over Kevin Love. His minutes with Monte Morris will likely decrease, but Murray is still a decent passer.

Denver relies on an offense that keeps their center involved, and that’s not going to change completely, although the method will be altered. With so many teams embracing small lineups, Plumlee will allow them to maintain a big presence on the floor. Forcing him to play like Jokic would be misguided and unsuccessful.

More Minutes for MPJ

It’s exactly what we’ve all been clamoring for since he debuted earlier this year. Michael Porter Jr. getting to see the floor more would give Denver a huge offensive boost to replace some of the production they lose with Jokic being out. He averages 19.2 points and 10.7 per 36 minutes, and he’s the perfect mold for the modern NBA wing. At 6’10,” there just aren’t many players that can efficiently bother his shot, as evidenced by his near 50 percent mark from the field.

He also brings a lot of energy, as evidenced by his impressive rebounding numbers. Once he gets those rebounds, he turns them into points just from hustle, and those plays matter more in the playoffs. He has a size advantage over everyone on the floor for the Clippers, and he capitalizes. Once he’s in the paint, it’s over.

The main argument against Porter is his defense, but he even hasn’t played awful on that end of the floor with the third-best defensive rating among players that played over 10 games behind only Jokic and Plumlee. He’s not going to give you lockdown minutes on defenses, but he will more than make up for it with his play on offense.

Murray & Barton Going Off

You know roughly what you’re going to get from all of the role players on this roster. Paul Millsap, Jerami Grant and Morris are all going to provide stable play. Murray and Barton are the ones that will have to carry them to wins. Murray and Barton display some solid two-man game in transition here that leads to a wide-open dunk. Murray is a natural scorer, and he can carry the team for stretches.

Barton and Murray have a net rating of +8.6 when they share the floor together. Among Denver two-man lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together, that’s tied for the ninth-best mark. That’s not bad, but it’s still about 11 points worse than the team’s best lineup. Murray is the guy that was pegged to be the second star next to Jokic while Barton is the team’s second-oldest player behind Millsap, so he has to bring that veteran leadership.

Barton is your run starter. He’ll take a ball up in transition, and he’ll shoot one of these heat-check 3-point shots that can get a home crowd into the game or kill an opponent’s momentum. Basketball is a game of runs, and Barton is the one you can count on to start them or kill them. He’s paid well, and he wants to be seen as that other star. If Jokic were to miss, this would be his time to shine or shrink from the moment.

For those of you that are still here, remember to leave your feedback in the comments or over on my Twitter, and have a fantastic film-filled Friday.