As the Denver Nuggets continue to excel with a starting unit that is currently destroying worlds, it’s important to dissect why Denver is playing so well. They haven’t changes anything in their playbook, at least not anything that’s too significant. And yet, Nikola Jokić is absolutely dominating as a passer of late.
Jokić racked up 16 assists in Sunday night’s performance against the Orlando Magic. He’s now averaging 9.0 assists per game during Denver’s last 17 games. The team is 14-3 in that span and is scoring 119.2 points per 100 possessions, the second most in the NBA. Part of it is the latest move with Aaron Gordon over the last four games, but Denver’s improvements go beyond that. They are running their offense to perfection and have excelled at the right time.
The biggest reason for their success: cutting.
The Nuggets, despite operating at the league’s second slowest pace, average the most scoring possessions on cuts in the entire NBA. Their efficiency on those cuts is above average, and while other teams have a higher points per possession, no team instills more fear in their cutting than the Denver Nuggets because of Nikola Jokić.
Jokić is the NBA’s premier passer to cutters right now. He reads the floor so well, stays patient, and can find the open player in almost any situation. Teams are forced to double team him in the post because of his scoring prowess, and that allows him to take advantage of his best skills as a passer.
Jokić hits cutters all over the place, and it’s a joy to watch the way he navigates Denver’s offense to put pressure on the defense every single possession. There are five primary ways the Nuggets cut and move around Jokić to create offense for themselves and their teammates. Let’s talk about each of them:
A standard back cut is the most common and well known cut that Jokić utilizes consistently. This action involves a ball handler (Jokić) and an off-ball player that, rather than coming together to run a play, the off-ball player breaks apart and jets in the opposite direction. In a Nuggets offense that features dribble hand-offs as a primary set, it’s important to reject the action and back cut every now and then to force defenses to play the action honestly.
This is a Jamal Murray special. He and Nikola Jokić run several dribble hand-offs per game, and it’s important to keep defenses on their toes so they can’t overplay Denver’s primary set.
For defenses, getting over the screen is so important because getting caught on the screen generally leads to an open shot somewhere else once the Nuggets start running the blender of actions that is their offense. Most teams are unwilling to switch that action unless they have the personnel, and very few teams can legitimately switch a 1-5 action.
Monte Morris also runs a mean back cut, abusing Bryn Forbes on this possession.
This is how it all started for Jokić. The Nuggets consistently ran simpler cuts at the beginning of his career, and Jokić consistently made opposing defenses pay. Gary Harris and Will Barton always back cut out of DHOs in the early days, and it’s one of the actions that made the Nuggets who they are.
A baseline cut can occur in a variety of ways, but the Nuggets most frequently find this action when Jokić is in the post. Teams will often send double teams along the baseline, but Jokić is such a tall and capable passer from the post that he can see where the double is coming and pass to the open space with ease.
Aaron Gordon is already getting familiar with this action, and Jamal Murray is also doing a great job of drawing the eyes of defenders on the baseline and away from Gordon.
When defenses are doubling and Denver is cutting on the baseline, the next read for Jokić is often a three-point shooter in the weak side corner.
This is a similar action overall but it comes with Jokić in the middle of the floor on the short roll. Dozier is the cutter. He plays the baseline well and cuts to the hoop, drawing Porter’s defender away from the corner and into a help situation. Jokić reads the floor well and hits Porter, who shoots about 1 million percent in these situations.
Jokić is so dangerous hitting the cutter behind the eyes of the defense that often the threat of him doing so opens up more possibilities on the perimeter. Teams hate it when they give up open layups and will sell out to stop those. Jokić takes advantage of that reaction a lot.
A split cut is an off-ball action where two players screen for each other between the three-point line and free throw line, then one player cuts to the basket, and the other cuts to the three-point line, splitting apart to create space. Split cut actions are so dangerous when Nikola Jokić is posting up because he doesn’t need a large window to complete a pass to a player already in the paint, and there’s less time for defenses to react overall.
Monte Morris has always been great at this. Before he got hurt, this was my favorite play that he ran consistently with Jokić all season. Morris finishes this cut in his sleep.
What makes it so impressive is that at Morris’ size, he isn’t meant to be as good driving to the basket as he is. He has turned himself into a real weapon in Denver’s system because he can do everything on the floor that Denver needs him to do. That includes cutting down Main Street.
This is going to be an Aaron Gordon special though, because at 6’8” and with incredible athleticism, good luck stopping this freight train.
Oh, and Michael Porter Jr. benefits here too by simply spacing the floor. When Morris runs what really is a split cut action, Sabonis is forced to help on the weak side away from Porter. Easy bucket.
The split cut might be the most dangerous cut in Denver’s entire offense right now. It’s so quick hitting that defenses have so little time to react, and the Nuggets run it beautifully.
Weak side Cut
A weak side cut doesn’t often result in a shot attempt for the cutter, but it usually frees up a shot attempt for someone else. When Nikola Jokić is in the post, cutting from the weak side wing is the easiest way to generate a corner three because that cut happens in front of the player defending whoever’s in the corner.
In the case below, Paul Millsap cuts from the weak side when he sees open paint, and Will Barton quickly follows him. That frees up Gary Harris in the corner, something Jokić patiently waits for so that he can hit the open pass and Harris can hit the open shot.
Michael Porter Jr. is the king of weak side cuts that draw defenders as well. He’s tall, draws a lot of attention, and forces opponents to help so much that Jokić often has a free passing window to the corner. Paul Millsap makes the defense pay in this instance, but it’s a clean shot attempt because of the weak side cut.
This is Denver’s most frequent bait and switch action. Teams want to stop the cut so badly that it leaves them vulnerable in other areas. Jokić takes advantage of that constantly.
Finally, the vertical cut. This action is run with Jokić in the middle of the floor, somewhere between the free throw line and the top of the key. The Nuggets look to space the floor in both wings and both corners around Jokić which leaves the paint wide open. Vertical cuts come when one of the wing players cuts from above the break directly to the paint. Rather than side to side cuts like a baseline or back cut action, a vertical cut (like a split cut) goes north and south toward the hoop.
This is where Aaron Gordon has really started to shine in a Nuggets uniform. His big frame allots Jokić a larger passing window to hit passes for high percentage looks. It’s possible to run vertical cuts with smaller players, but the passing window is far larger for someone like Gordon.
Not to be outdone, Porter is often a favorite target of Jokić’s on vertical cuts because he’s so damn tall. 6’10” that can cut and move the way Porter does is a cheat code for Jokić, and as long as Porter catches the pass cleanly, those cuts feel like automatic points whenever Denver can find that action.
The most common three-pointer that the Nuggets generate with this action looks a lot like this. Will Barton cuts through vertically to the paint, drawing Millsap’s defender away from the corner. This is an easy pitch and catch for Jokić and Millsap, who have punished defenses this way for years.
This is a very similar action to the one the Nuggets run as a weak side cutter through the paint, but with Jokić at the top of the key instead of in the post or on the opposite wing, it’s a shorter passing distance and much more of a quick hitter.
As the Nuggets continue to rise up the standings, it’s important to acknowledge the straw that stirs the drink. Though Denver has surrounded Jokić with versatile, talented players that accentuate his strengths, it really is Jokić that ties everything together. Very few players pass players open the way Jokić can, and nobody takes advantage of cutters to manipulate a defense the way Jokić does every single night.
The MVP award often goes to a player that does incredible things in a very loud way. Hitting cutters and open shooters isn’t loud, but it’s the backbone of Denver’s system. It’s Jokić doing Jokić things, and without him to run the offense, Denver often struggles to do much of anything.
When Jokić is on the floor, the Nuggets average a 120.8 offensive rating, the best in the NBA.
When Jokić is off the floor, the Nuggets average a 102.5 offensive rating, one of the highest differentials between on-off court offensive rating that I’ve ever seen.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s because he’s the most valuable player.