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Mike Malone’s System, Not Paul Millsap, Is Holding Nikola Jokic Back

The Nuggets center isn’t built to thrive on a slow, defense-first team

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The game is “spot the difference,” NBA version. Ready? Let’s play:

On Tuesday, with a little over seven minutes remaining in the third quarter of Denver’s matchup with Dallas, Nikola Jokic scored his first points of the game on his sixth shot attempt. He was benched for the game’s final 14 minutes.

On Wednesday, with a little over seven minutes remaining in the third quarter of Cavaliers-Nuggets, Jokic, again, had taken only five shots. This time, though, he ended the night with 36 points on 14 shots, 13 rebounds, and six assists.

The Serbian needed that flex. The Nuggets lost to Cleveland, 113-108, and were knocked out of the eighth spot in the West by the Clippers. But at least Denver no longer had to worry about Jokic’s performance—which, since Paul Millsap’s return nine days ago, had dropped off immensely. Here are Jokic’s four lines with Millsap before Wednesday:

Clippers: 18 points, 4-for-5
Grizzlies: 9 points, 2-for-5
Cleveland: 9 points, 3-for-8
Mavericks: 4 points, 2-for-9

Jokic’s averages in points (10 in four games with Millsap; 22.2 during the 7-2 Millsap-less run beforehand) and field goal attempts (6.8 FGA from 14.2) both regressed—though he did not get fewer touches per game during that four-game stretch. Jokic was passing away open looks like a vintage Ricky Rubio, while cutting inside with the speed of Kyle Anderson, and playing defense with all the interest of, well, Nikola Jokic.

“Nikola can’t take seven shots a night for us,” Denver coach Mike Malone said before the Cavs matchup. “Granted, he is unselfish, he makes the right play and I love all that. But Nikola needs to be aggressive.”

That, along with Jokic’s benching in the fourth quarter the game prior, was interesting censure from a man who endorsed his center for MVP just 11 days earlier. “It’s kind of like when I was fortunate enough to coach a guy like LeBron,” Malone said of Jokic in February, “or Chris Paul or Steph Curry. You recognize greatness.”

There is a clash of styles in Denver, though it’s not entirely between Jokic and Millsap. Jokic and Malone seem to be the pieces that can’t cohere. Before Millsap’s return, Malone had little choice but to roll with how Jokic best operates: a fast-paced offense focused on quick and creative dimes with defense in the backseat (honestly, the trunk). The Nuggets flew down the court during Denver’s 7-2 run leading up to Millsap’s return, but Malone has never been fond of that approach. That’s why Denver added Millsap and Mason Plumlee before the season. But both big men have been injured during stretches of the season, and in January, Malone said he was going to call fewer plays and return to the free-flowing offense that Jokic looked best in.

Malone’s hiring in 2015 was redundant for a franchise that had just ditched Brian Shaw; both favor defense as the team’s focal point, and both prefer well-prepared, rarely improvised half-court sets on offense. (In Shaw’s 2013 introductory press conference, he said that though he did want to attack, “the ability to play in the half court and execute in the half court [...] is where you get judged on in the playoffs.” Twinsies!)

Both coaches also inherited teams built for speed, not for locking down for a full shot clock on defense. After Millsap returned, Malone complimented the big on “imploring” the rest of the team to be active on the defensive end. “It’s like music to my ears,” he said, “like a light shining through stormy clouds. Somebody actually talking about defense that is not a coach, I love that.”

Malone threw the playbook back in the window after the 33-year-old Millsap came back, calling more plays specifically for Millsap “in places he is most effective.” The downtempo shift was a sudden adjustment from autonomy; even Wednesday, as Jokic returned to his spirited, non-benchable self, Denver at times looked like a team that had forgotten how to walk after it had learned to run.