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The Nuggets Are No Longer a Joke When Nikola Jokic Sits

Denver got blitzed when its two-time MVP went to the bench during the regular season, but a few key changes to its rotation have flipped the narrative in the postseason

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Here’s something you already know: The Denver Nuggets were dominant all season with Nikola Jokic on the court. Their net rating was plus-12.5 when he played and minus-10.4 when he sat, the widest disparity in the league.

And here’s a shocking development that pretty much nobody saw coming before the playoffs began: With Jokic on the bench, the Nuggets have outscored their opponents by 19.2 points per 100 possessions this postseason, which is a higher mark than when anyone else on the Nuggets is off the court.

So how is this happening? A seven-game, 82-minute sample size against two top-heavy opponents makes this number a little noisy. The Nuggets just won 53 games and finished with the West’s top seed. For months they were also racked with uncertainty, thanks to a pair of significant issues that hung over their heads like an anvil: Could Jokic hold up on defense, and would their bench survive when he sits? But Michael Malone’s (debatably overdue) decision to streamline and reinvent his rotation has made the Nuggets’ dominance feel sustainable.

It’s a stark change. Malone is not only giving his best players additional minutes, but also deploying them in new combinations. Before the postseason, a league-high 36.8 percent of all Denver’s minutes were allocated to its starting five. For good reason. Those groups were dominant. But the other side of that coin was a collection of secondary pieces that were getting absolutely decimated. Lineups that had only one starter in them took up a league-high 19.6 percent of Denver’s minutes; 6 percent (seventh highest in the league) of the Nuggets’ minutes didn’t have a single starter in them. Combined, all those groups ranked 29th in net rating. Now, only 1.8 percent of their minutes have one starter, and 2.3 percent have no starters.

Meanwhile, no team used groups with three starters in them less than the Nuggets. But in the playoffs, units with three starters have gone from 8.5 percent to 22.4 percent of their total minutes played.

The tailoring began on April 8 in Denver’s penultimate regular-season game against the Jazz, when, in an otherwise meaningless contest, Malone decided to start the second quarter with Aaron Gordon at the 5, a tantalizing thought-exercise-cum-critical-adjustment that’s been anticipated since before last season began. By wielding their starting power forward as a backup 5 in every playoff game, the Nuggets have turned a fatal flaw (the backup center position) into a resistant counterpunch.

Off the bench, Jeff Green, Bruce Brown, and Christian Braun (a rookie who does not act or look like a rookie) have seamlessly blended with Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Michael Porter Jr. to answer a once-alarming question—can the Nuggets survive sans Jokic?—with confidence.

There’s no Thomas Bryant, DeAndre Jordan, or Zeke Nnaji anymore. Reggie Jackson is out. Bones Hyland is not missed. The moment when Peyton Watson appeared to earn himself some playoff minutes feels like it happened a decade ago. By tightening their belt and staggering who plays with whom, when, and for how long, the Nuggets have shielded themselves from those vulnerable stretches from most of the year when opponents had hope. Gordon, Murray, Braun, Brown, and Green are Denver’s second-most-played five-man unit in the playoffs. They entered the playoffs having shared the floor for just 10 minutes during the regular season, but bring a burst of versatility, athleticism, and competence that wasn’t there for 82 games.

Of course, just because Denver is playing its best players more and shuffling them differently doesn’t guarantee success. How they’re getting it done—they hold a 2-0 lead over the Suns heading into Friday’s Game 3 and own the highest net rating in the playoffs—is a story in and of itself. The Nuggets offense is a hodgepodge without Jokic. They push in transition, identify mismatches, and, with savvy ball handlers and plenty of outside shooting, force the defense to fall for decoys that precede well-executed actions involving four or five players on any given possession.

In the half court, they like to flow out of different concepts, often starting with a Horns alignment that tries to get Murray an advantage with dribble handoffs or flare screens. Sometimes they’ll run an empty corner pick-and-roll. Or sometimes just let their second-best player go one-on-one. There are plenty of examples when this stagnancy comes back to bite them. But when Murray is creating shots for himself, making something out of nothing while Jokic isn’t even on the floor, it’s a worst-case scenario for the defense.

Brown is a shifty playmaker whose claim to fame as a screener overshadows how effective he can be when probing with a live dribble. Driving to the rim, he puts a ton of pressure on backpedaling bigs, generating decent looks for a popping screener or finishing the play himself with a floater or layup.

Every basket in the playoffs feels like found money when a team is resting its two best offensive players at the same time. When Porter is aggressive, sinking spontaneous stepbacks and attacking the basket, it’s a reminder of just how high this team’s ceiling is. These two possessions were a straight jab to Phoenix’s liver.

Aside from a two-week stretch that started before Halloween, Porter has been tied to Jokic all season. But in the playoffs, MPJ has spent several stretches (most of them at the start of the second and fourth quarters) in Jokic-less groups, adding a necessary, clinical, tough shotmaker to stints when Denver’s offensive singularity evaporates. Their assist rate is only 42.0 when Jokic doesn’t play, but per Second Spectrum, their effective field goal percentage is 3.7 percentage points above their shot quality, which is excellent.

On the other end, Denver’s defensive rating in this postseason is an incredible 86.7 when Jokic sits. There’s some 3-point luck baked into that number, but also no obvious weak point for offenses to pick on. Gordon, Green, Brown, Caldwell-Pope, and Braun are all adaptable enough to switch almost any screen and hold their own.

It’s a degree of flexibility that’s simplified the more aggressive scheme Denver embraces when Jokic is on the court. He either drops back and allows a pull-up jumper, or goes up to the screen to take a jumper away, forcing a low man to help in the paint. (Switching with Jokic isn’t really an option.) And when the Suns force Denver to throw two defenders at the ball and put themselves into rotation, they’re comfortable and smart enough behind the ball to make a play.

Gordon in particular has been elite, first handling Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert in Round 1 and, in the first couple of games of Round 2, helping neutralize Phoenix’s pick-and-roll game by switching onto the ball (usually on Chris Paul, who’s expected to miss the next few games of this series with a groin injury).

When the Nuggets traded for Gordon two years ago, this was exactly what they hoped he’d be. His contributions on defense when Jokic is on and off the court are massive.

Every team shortens its rotation in the playoffs. But not every team, especially a no. 1 seed, reorganizes its entire rotation so dramatically. Malone always had this card to play, though, in series that demand more from his best players and that make opposing coaching staffs prepare for threats that did not exist during the regular season. Instead of exhaling when a two-time MVP exits the game, the other team now has to brace itself for a new challenge. And instead of Jokic having to play 44 minutes every night (which is the case for other stars in these playoffs), he can rest more than most anticipated. The result is a Nuggets team that looks more dangerous and complete than ever before.