Today marks the fifth anniversary of arguably the most impactful decision the Nuggets as a franchise have ever made. On December 15th, 2016 reigning MVP Nikola Jokic was inserted into the starting lineup permanently, never to be taken out again. It marked the Nuggets making a decision between their two international big men in Jokic, of course, and Jusuf Nurkic.
That decision alone on what was probably a chilly Colorado morning set the tone for the Nuggets as a whole for the next half decade and the years to come afterward. It is a monumental event that deserves a look back at what transpired, and what’s happened since.
The Lead Up
In the months leading up to December, the Nuggets were struggling. They were 9-16 and they were just not looking great. They started the season starting both Jokic and Nurkic, but quickly found that wasn’t working. After a 3-5 start that felt like an 0-15 start, Nikola Jokic volunteered to come off the bench; and so he did.
With Jusuf Nurkic leading the way, the Nuggets dropped 11 of their next 17 and found themselves in a pretty deep hole. Emmanuel Mudiay was not playing up to snuff, Nurkic was playing unengaged, and in his minutes off the bench Jokic was simply outplaying Nurkic. On the 12th of December 2016, the Nuggets got absolutely manhandled by the Dallas Mavericks — losing in embarrassing blowout fashion to the tune of 112-92. There were a few bright spots that game; young guards Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay played well — but the one spot the shone like the sun was Nikola Jokic. In just 26 minutes and 28 seconds he had said all he needed to, without ultimately saying a word at all.
In that game he put up an impressive 27 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists on 10 of 12 shooting from the floor. If you watched that night you’d know it was poetry in motion — not the crappy I’m 14 and this is deep kind of poetry, but more so the profound stuff...if that exists; I’m not a poetry guy. Anyways, he was impressive and Malone realized as much.
A Messiah Is Born
Malone must have been listening to Casey Jones by the Grateful Dead because he had a notion that crossed his mind — why not start Nikola Jokic? He was outplaying anyone in front of him, and was arguably the best player for the Nuggets so far that season. So why not?
Now Jokic didn’t have a manger when he was inserted into the starting 5, but he certainly shined like the star he’s become today. It came against a team that seems to be intertwined with the Nuggets fate a lot nowadays; the Portland Trail Blazers. He posted 13 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists. Not breaking any records, but it was better than what Nurkic had given them and he only played 19 minutes.
However, in that game and the next 14 after that he took the league by storm. He averaged a great 20.4 points per game, 9.7 rebounds per game, and 5.4 assists per game on a blistering efficiency of 64% from the field and 46% from beyond the arc. He put himself on the map as one of the great young centers in the entire association.
Jokic was not perfect that season. He struggled at times to assert himself and actually shoot the ball. He overpassed at points, and sometimes was just straight up passive (ha, you see what I did there?). His defense also lacked a lot of the time. He struggled at points, but it was just his second season.
Still, it was clear as the invisible man to anyone with half a brain that the Nuggets had something here. They had lucked out in the second round of the NBA draft and found a franchise cornerstone, and they had no idea how right they would be.
The Since Then
Since then Nikola Jokic has inserted himself as one of, if not the best player in the NBA. He is a conductor on the court; pointing teammates here and throwing zingers there. He’s really electric to watch and even has opposing teams’ broadcasters making comparisons to the likes of Larry Bird and Tim Duncan. These show that not only can he get to those all time greats’ level, but he may be able to surpass them.
Hell, peak for peak I think he is the best offensive center to ever do it, and maybe the best period. He’s already won one MVP award, made a couple of All-NBA first teams, a handful of All-Star appearances, and is on track to potentially repeat in all of those categories.
I can’t imagine how the Nuggets would have turned out without Nikola Jokic, and thankfully I don’t have to. Watch this man and just appreciate the pure brilliance he puts on display night in and night out, and never say the Nuggets have Nugglife again — because with Nikola Jokic at the helm, we sure as hell don’t.