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Denver Nuggets Film Friday: The power of an All-Star

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Golden State Warriors Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Looking around the NBA, the team’s at the top of each conference are loaded with at least three star talents. Even if you look down the rankings at teams like the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers, if it weren’t for injuries, they would likely be in the top four or close to it in their conference. Then, you find teams in the middle that make it work around one or two stars with a deep roster. The best example this year has been the Dallas Mavericks, who are 29-15 when Luka Doncic plays compared to 6-9 in the games he missed. Even without a second consistent star, they’re in fifth place in the Western Conference.

Due to injuries to Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray, the Nuggets have been pushing the limits of what a team can accomplish with just one All-Star in the form of reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. Aaron Gordon and Will Barton have flashed throughout the year, but neither guy ever looked like a threat to make an All-Star team, which means that Jokic will be waiting at least another year before he plays on the same team as a fellow All-Star. Despite the lack of stars around him, Jokic has the Nuggets in 6th place in the West, and he’s putting up wild numbers every single night while making it look commonplace.

None of these comments are meant as a slight to Gordon, Barton or any other player on the Nuggets’ roster. Rather, they’re meant as a testament to Jokic and what he can will this team into doing on a nightly basis. On a fully healthy roster, Barton and Gordon are the fourth and fifth options on offense, but they’ve been thrust into the second and third spots on this iteration of the roster. So, with the team’s struggles as a whole, how did Jokic drag them to this point?

Gravity & Unselfishness

Right away, we’re looking at the skill that has separated Jokic from the vast majority of centers since he entered the NBA, and that’s his passing ability. Jokic has ranked in the top-20 in assists per game in each of the past five seasons. There are a total of zero other centers that can stake that same claim. Jokic’s ability to score in one-on-one situations puts the defense in a tough spot every time he has the ball. Looking at this game winner from Monte Morris from Wednesday night’s game against the Golden State Warriors.

Jokic had dominated the Warriors all night to the tune of 35 points on 13-of-24 shooting. Gordon was the only other starter with more than six shots on the night. If you’re Golden State, you have to imagine there’s no way that Jokic is passing up the shot that could send the game to overtime. Not wanting to give Jokic the one-on-one look with Kevon Looney, he sticks around to try and double him, but that’s too much time for Jokic, who finds the wide-open Morris on the left wing. Due to the way the modern NBA media landscape works, if Morris misses that shot, Jokic gets lambasted for passing up the big shot and not having the “killer” instinct at the end of the game. (Even though he’s been one of the NBA’s best clutch performers over the last three seasons, but we’re not talking about that today.) Jokic is willing to take the big, clutch shot when he has to, but a wide-open look for a guy that’s been a decent shooter throughout his career is the right shot in that spot. Jokic knew it, and his willingness to pass the ball gave his team the chance to win.

For this one, it’s the exact same game, but it takes place a little under five minutes earlier. Jokic finished the game with eight assists, but he had just three entering the fourth quarter. When the game was hanging in the balance, Jokic scored some in the final quarter, but he was setting up everyone else because he understood the impact he was having on the game without putting up a shot. On this play, Andrew Wiggins is way further off of Bryn Forbes than he should be. This is the second-to-last shot that Forbes took in the game, and he was already 6-of-10 from the floor and 3-of-6 from 3-point range. He’s been having a great game so far, so why are you giving him so much room?

It’s because you understand that Jokic one-on-one against anyone is a bad matchup. Jokic catches the ball on the left wing and starts to back Kevon Looney down. Wiggins slides down a bit too far to try and double-team Jokic, and that’s just an easy pitch-and-catch for the wide-open Forbes. Jokic’s scoring helps the team directly on the scoreboard, but he’s also learned how to indirectly use it to help elevate everyone around them by getting them easier scoring opportunities.

Fine, I’ll Do It Myself

Jokic may not be as powerful as Thanos, who popularized the phrase “Fine, I’ll do it myself,” but, on a basketball court, he might as well be. You have a 7’ & 250-plus pound center that is one of the best passers of all time, while having the ability to stretch the floor out to the 3-point line along with being able to bully any center you try to put in front of him around the rim. On this play, it’s Jokic with none of Morris, Barton or Gordon on the floor with him. He catches the ball at the 3-point line, and he just goes to work. After getting Wendell Carter Jr. with the slight shot fake, he just slowly backs him down before getting around him for the layup.

We’re going back to late December for this one, but all that matters is the ending of the clip and how we got there. Jokic catches the ball just above the free-throw line with the smaller defender guarding him. Once he starts backing his man down, Serge Ibaka rotates over, but he’s on the wrong side of the ball. This forces another help defender to come over. Jokic now has three defenders on him as he misses the shot. Four LA Clippers are in the paint, and he still gets his own rebound and tips the shot back in. He has no right to get that rebound, and he ends up with it anyway.

The Defense

When you’re down multiple star players and key reserves, everyone has to elevate their play. One particular aspect of Jokic’s game that has gone to another level this season has been his work on the defensive end. He’s posting a career-best Defensive Rating of 104 along with a D-LeBron score of +1.74. No other Nugget has a score above 0.96 this season. His +1.74 is 23rd in the league among all players, but there isn’t a single player above on the list that comes close to his +5.46 O-LeBron rating, as Rudy Gobert is the closest with a +1.86. On this play, Jokic is guarding Looney out near the 3-point line, but he’s aware he can help off of him as Looney has attempted just one 3-point shot all season. Jokic starts to rotate over while waiting for Jonathan Kuminga to attempt the shot before rising up to stifle it and end the possession.

This is the same game. It’s just a little later on. Jokic doesn’t come away with a block on this one, but he does all that he needs to do without fouling. Typically, when you see a guard driving towards the basket, they’re going to try and attack the big to draw the foul. Jokic has great positioning, and he gets into a spot where he can alter the shot without making any contact which forces Jordan Poole to attempt the much more difficult reverse layup. He misses it, and Denver’s going the other way thanks to their center’s ability to get himself to the right spot at the right time.

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.