In Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals, a rookie point guard by the name of Magic Johnson started at center for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Johnson’s performance was one of the most memorable in NBA history, legitimizing the Showtime Lakers with a championship win over Dr. J’s Philadelphia 76ers.
Forty years later, in a scrimmage against Ish Smith’s Washington Wizards at Disney World, Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets showed us just how far we have strayed from the light.
starting at point guard for your Denver Nuggets pic.twitter.com/uqL5BWqjrX— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) July 22, 2020
The Slowtime Nuggets finished the game with 63 field goal attempts and 25 turnovers—in the past eight years, no team has shot it less and turned it over more. Naturally, Denver won. There were no magical, sweeping skyhooks in sight; just hook passes with eyes for poor Ish:
For as understandably ugly as the proceedings were, the debuts of Skinny Jokic and Even Skinnier Bol Bol may have accidentally unearthed a solution for the Nuggets: If wings continue to be your biggest weakness, throw a bunch of 7-footers at the wall and see what sticks.
The Nuggets played Wednesday’s game without most of their guard rotation, but when at full strength, coach Michael Malone hasn’t flirted much with bigger lineups. The usual starting lineup (Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, Jokic) has logged 735 minutes together this season for a solid plus-7.7 net rating. That group is at its best when it looks like a Pete Carril fever dream: Jokic holding court at the high post, with fake handoffs and backdoor cuts in steady supply. But for all the nightmares Jokic gives defenses, it’s hard to say for sure that Denver is maximizing his unique skill set.
The big pieces are in place. Murray and Jokic form a dangerous connection, with wink-wink chemistry on screens and handoffs that can only be developed with lots of time. Millsap has long made everyone around him better—he’ll oscillate around Jokic based on where the center has the ball, offering spacing as a spot-up threat, smart baseline cuts against overattentive help defenders, and a flaming bag high-low option in the post should nothing materialize late in the shot clock.
Yet, at 35 years old, Millsap has slowed down a step defensively, even though he remains one of the league’s best players in terms of net rating (plus-11.3). Millsap will be an unrestricted free agent this upcoming offseason, and this postseason run could very well be his last hurrah in Denver, especially considering the depth waiting behind him. Even though the Nuggets have struggled when Jerami Grant fills in for Millsap, and Grant himself holds a player option for next season, Grant is a young player with a dependable floor who started to grow more comfortable as the season wore on.
Then of course there’s Michael Porter Jr., who has looked electric in his painfully limited time. In a small sample size, Porter has displayed three-level scoring chops that can relieve some of the pressure on Jokic to create everything, and there’s a 3-5 pick-and-roll tango here the Nuggets should clear the dance floor for sooner rather than later.
And then there’s Bol, who dropped a 16-10-6 line in his first real taste of the NBA. The 7-foot-2 rookie is certainly not bashful: In the nine games he played at Oregon, Bol averaged 30.1 field goal attempts per 100 possessions—a number that would lead the NBA this season. Playing Bol and Jokic together would require an unhealthy amount of zone defense (which is what Denver employed almost solely in the scrimmage against Washington), but it would give Jokic at least a small break from functioning as the sole rim protector on the floor, and more importantly, add some much needed perimeter shooting to Denver’s overall equation.
Jokic’s big-to-big passing is so transcendent that virtually anyone who shares the court with him will look viable. It made perfect sense for Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly to swing for the fences in the draft with high-upside players like Porter (who slid to no. 14 because of injury concerns) and Bol (who slid all the way to 44th) with the ever-steady Millsap in tow.
Now it might be Malone’s turn to take a few big hacks of his own, especially given Denver’s struggles out on the wing. Torrey Craig passes the eye test as a defender, but we’re on three straight years of the Nuggets being substantially worse overall when the 29-year-old non-shooter is on the floor. Harris’s woes from deep are just as real (33.3 percent from 3 this season), and while Denver has no choice but to ride it out, it’s getting harder to have confidence in him late in games. Barton is a nice player who fills a lot of different gaps, but he probably can’t be the most prolific wing shooter and scorer for a real title contender given what the rest of the Western Conference is trotting out.
Denver’s shooting is almost completely inverted—the bigs almost all stroke it at a higher clip than the smalls—but Malone might not be maximizing that to its full potential. Grant is shooting 40 percent from 3 and is mobile and gluey enough to make it work next to Millsap, but the jumbo-sized frontcourt of Jokic, Grant, and Millsap has played only 10 minutes together. Porter, who is naturally a 3, has also played only 10 minutes next to Millsap and Jokic. If the Western Conference runs through Los Angeles, bulking up against the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis makes a lot of sense. Craig is a net negative, and Barton doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Florida at slowing any of those guys down due to his smaller frame. The Nuggets need the real Gary Harris to show up, but contingency plans are in order.
If the Big Chungus version of Jokic was capable of playing in two-big lineups with Mason Plumlee, Skinny Jokic should be (at least in theory) more mobile and lessen some of the need for speed on the wings. Malone always has been a defense-first coach, and there are certain concessions he may not be willing to make with younger players like Grant, Porter, or Bol, but now, in a bubble with absences abound, is as good of a time as any to let necessity continue to be the mother of invention. Long live laughably large lineups. Long live Slowtime.
D.J. Foster is a writer and high school basketball coach in Oceanside, California.