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Nikola Jokic Is the Captain Now

After a confusing first quarter of the season accommodating the many talents on Denver’s roster, coach Mike Malone appears to have found a new blueprint for the Nuggets — one that will serve them well now, and in the future

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

The Nuggets are a different team than they were two weeks ago. They bottomed out December 12 in a 112–92 loss to the Mavs, when they were run off the floor by one of the worst teams in the NBA. Denver was down by 22 points at halftime in a game that was never competitive, and the loss dropped them to 9–16. More than a quarter of the way through the season, they looked stuck in the exact same spot they had been over the last few years, not good enough to contend for the playoffs, nor bad enough to get a top pick in the lottery, with an awkward mix of veterans and young players whose skills didn’t mesh and who didn’t have a defined identity on either side of the ball.

After the loss to the Mavs, Mike Malone made a series of changes to his rotation, influenced by the return of Gary Harris from a foot injury that had kept him out for a month. The Nuggets have gone 3–1 since, with a plus-4.5 point differential, and turned the tables on the Mavs with a 117–107 rematch victory in Denver on Monday. Four games isn’t a huge sample size, and their wins in that span (Trail Blazers, Knicks, Mavericks) didn’t come against impressive competition, but the short-term results shouldn’t be the focus here. Malone’s decisions on the new rotation play to the strengths to the roster and point the way for the team’s future. Suddenly, the Nuggets look like one of the most exciting teams in the NBA. Here’s what’s changed.

1. Starting Nikola Jokic

Coming into the season, most of the intrigue about the Nuggets centered around Jokic, a second-year center from Serbia who played as well as Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis as a rookie despite being a mid-second-round pick. Jokic didn’t have the physical gifts of either of his more touted peers, but he was every bit as skilled and he showed a wondrous ability to pick apart a defense and score from all over the floor. He’s the rare center who is comfortable pushing the ball up the court and starting the break himself, and he knows exactly how to use his body to create angles for him to get a shot off against even the longest and most athletic defenders. His feel for the game is off the charts, and he’s the latest in a long line of European big men who can pass, dribble, and shoot as if they were guards.

The problem for Malone was finding minutes for Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic, their other promising young big man from the Balkans who had missed most of last season with a series of injuries. The Nuggets started the season trying to play both at the same time, and it was an experiment doomed from the beginning. It’s almost impossible to play two traditional centers at the same time in today’s game, and that goes double for the Nuggets’ tandem, since neither is comfortable guarding on the perimeter. Jokic and Nurkic have a net rating of minus-15.4 when they’re on the floor together this season, and Jokic is a significantly different player when he doesn’t have to play with Nurkic. Not only does he get more of an opportunity to create his own offense, he has more room to maneuver in the lane. And he is being guarded by the opposing team’s center instead of its power forward, which typically allows him to go up against slower defenders who aren’t as comfortable guarding him from the high post.

The Nuggets started 3–5 with their supersized lineup before moving Jokic to the bench. They were no longer starting Jokic and Nurkic together, but as long as they were committed to developing both young centers at the same time, there was only so much playing time they could give Jokic. As a result, he is averaging only 24 minutes per game this season, more than 10 minutes fewer than Porzingis and Towns, and he hasn’t had the opportunity to build on his strong rookie season. His fortunes have turned around since Malone moved him to the starting lineup four games ago. In that span, he’s averaged 14.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, and five assists a game on 71.1 percent shooting. Jokic looks like a foundational piece, and the Nuggets are finally starting to build around him.

2. Cutting Down the Big-Man Rotation

Just as important as giving Jokic a bigger role in the offense are the players he’s playing with. Even when he was no longer playing with Nurkic, Jokic spent most of his time on the court this season playing with another traditional big man. The Nuggets have had an overloaded frontcourt rotation, with as many seven players 6-foot-8 and taller getting consistent playing time. In the last four games, though, Malone has committed to starting Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler at the forward positions around Jokic, and then keeping one of them on the floor as a small-ball 4 whenever he is in.

The court opens up when Chandler and Gallinari, two players who have to be guarded 25-plus feet from the basket, are out on the 3-point line and Jokic is in the high post. Gallinari and Jokic running pick-and-rolls together against a spread floor allows sturdy, athletic slashers like Harris to dart around screens and cut to the basket without worrying about help-side defenders clogging up the lane. The strength of Jokic’s game is his passing ability, but it’s hard for the other four Nuggets on the court to get open when the opposing team can pack the paint. He had nine assists in their win against the Mavs on Monday, in large part because he had bigger passing lanes to squeeze the ball through while his teammates had more room to cut to the rim.

Malone had to make some tough decisions when it comes to playing time. The Nuggets are playing only one traditional big man at a time, with Jokic starting and Faried getting most of the minutes behind him at center. Nurkic, Hernangomez, and Arthur have barely played since Malone made his rotation changes, and the result is that everyone has more room to breathe.

Second-year point guard Emmanuel Mudiay has been one of the biggest beneficiaries, and he is playing some of the best basketball of his young career. Mudiay is at his best when he can use his size to get to the rim, and he’s not terribly effective when he’s forced to spend most of his time at the 3-point line, where opposing defenses give him free reign to shoot the ball. The fewer big men he is playing with, the better. He is shooting 47.6 percent over the last four games, a massive jump from his 36.8 percent season average, and he’s doing a better job of taking care of the ball, with his assist-to-turnover ratio nearly doubling from 1.34 over the course of the season to 2.13 over the last two weeks.

The Nuggets have an eye-popping offensive rating of 119.5 over the last four games, a number that is almost certainly going to come down as the season progresses, but they’ve identified a defined team strength upon which they can build further.

3. Getting Gary Harris Back

The flip side of not playing as many big men is that the Nuggets need more perimeter players to pick up the slack, which is where Harris’s return has been huge. In his absence, Will Barton had moved into the starting lineup, while Hernangomez had to play out of position as a small forward in bigger, second-unit lineups. Simply having Harris as an option moves everyone down a spot in the rotation and allows Malone to play smaller lineups over the course of the game. Playing smaller means the guards have to pick up some of the slack on defense, and none of Denver’s perimeter players are as capable on that end of the floor as Harris.

Barton has thrived since returning to his customary role as an offensive spark plug off the bench, averaging 16.3 points on 55 percent shooting in the last four games. The Nuggets are down to a nine-man rotation, with Barton, Jameer Nelson, and promising rookie Jamal Murray coming off the bench on the perimeter and Faried as the only big man getting much playing time on their second unit. Faried, a beast in the paint who can’t shoot to save his life, is another guy who has thrived in smaller lineups, averaging 12.8 points on 69.2 percent shooting in just under 23 minutes per game since Denver’s loss to the Mavs on December 12.

The Nuggets stampeded through their first three games after Malone’s rotation changes, beating the Blazers by 12, the Knicks by 13, and the Mavs by 10, but they received a slap of reality in a 119–102 loss to the Clippers on Tuesday. While it was on their second night of a back-to-back and their fifth game in nine days, the loss showed what could happen when the Nuggets have to face an elite defense that can slow down their offense even a little bit. For as good as the Nuggets offense has been in their last four games, their defense has been just as bad, with a defensive rating of 116.3. While they have come out ahead in the exchange, with a positive net rating of plus-3.3 in this stretch as opposed to their minus-3.6 rating over the whole season, there’s a ceiling to how good any team can be when it’s giving up that many points.

The biggest culprit has been Faried, who has a defensive rating of 124.1 in the last four games, and it’s not all that surprising, considering he’s long been an anemic defender and he’s being asked to anchor the second-unit defense. Malone may end up giving Nurkic those minutes as the backup 5 as the season progresses, but that alone won’t fix Denver’s problems. The Nuggets still have a defensive rating of 109.0 when Faried isn’t in. Playing four-out lineups puts a lot of pressure on the sole remaining big man, and none of the Nuggets big men have been up to the challenge.

For as skilled as Jokic is on offense, he’s not a great athlete and he’s not particularly long for a center, with a wingspan of only 7-foot-3. He’s never going to be a great shot blocker, and he’s never going to be comfortable switching screens on the perimeter, so building a good defense around him will be tricky. He has to become a master of defensive positioning, and the other four players have to do a better job of keeping their men in front of them. Most offensively minded big men struggle on defense early in their careers, and Jokic is no exception. As a rule, there’s a trade-off between offensive skill and defensive prowess at the center position, and Jokic is one of the most notable examples of that pattern. He’s one of the best free throw shooters in the league at his position, and he also gives up one of the highest field goal percentages at the rim:

The ideal outcome for Jokic is Marc Gasol, a supremely skilled big man who has become one of the best defenders in the league despite lacking exceptional physical tools. However, the younger Gasol is an outlier, and counting on any big man to develop as much as Marc did into his late 20s is dangerous. For now, Jokic needs to be able to figure out how to stay on the floor while still anchoring the defense, as he is averaging 4.6 fouls per 36 minutes of playing time. Opposing teams are going to try to challenge him at the rim as much as possible, as it’s the obvious counter for the way the Nuggets have been playing over the last two weeks.

The race for the final spot in the Western Conference playoff picture is wide open, and the Nuggets’ recent hot streak has brought them to 12–17 on the season, which puts the team right in the thick of the race for eighth place, alongside the Trail Blazers and Kings. None of the teams around them look capable of separating from the pack, and, given the Nuggets’ recent identity change, a lot of their poor play over the first month and a half of the season no longer means much in evaluating their prospects going forward. The biggest difference between then and now is that they know who they are. The Nuggets are now Nikola Jokic’s team, and how much more he grows will determine how far Denver can go.