At first they appeared to be taking a step back: Last December the Denver Nuggets demoted center Jusuf Nurkic in favor of starting his backup, Nikola Jokic, a former second-round pick.
That move provided them with the leverage to drive forward: The Nuggets reached agreement on a three-year deal worth $90 million this summer with All-Star forward Paul Millsap, another second-rounder.
The first move was daring. Nurkic, the 22-year-old incumbent, had arrived as the No. 16 pick (along with Gary Harris) in a trade with Chicago on the night of the 2014 NBA Draft. But Nuggets coach Mike Malone was intent on changing the dynamic in Denver, and the impact was startling.
“After he went in the starting lineup,” said Nuggets president Tim Connelly of Jokic, “there was no better offense in the league. He’s the type of player we want to build around, and the type of guy we want to build around.”
We feel we have the best passing, playmaking frontcourt in the NBA.
The Nuggets had tried a long variety of alternatives. For more than seven seasons they had built a deep-playoff contender in the traditional way around high-scoring All-Star Carmelo Anthony, the No. 3 pick of the 2003 Draft. He led them as far as Game 6 of the 2009 Western Conference finals. One summer later, Anthony was demanding a trade to a larger market, and the Nuggets haven’t won a postseason series since.
Coach George Karl ran them to three successive winning seasons, but only won two playoff series in eight-plus seasons on the job. Brian Shaw tried to slow the pace, but that didn’t work either. Malone had an overall record of 42-65 with the Nuggets when he upended the dynamic by running the offense through Jokic. His surprising Nuggets went 31-26 to finish a game out of the postseason -- leading to unanticipated promise for 2017-18.
Can the new frontcourt pairing turn last year’s closing run into Denver’s first playoff appearance in five seasons? It helps that Jokic (the No. 41 pick in 2014) and Millsap (No. 47 in 2006) earned their reputations on the back end. They’ve earned their current rank of leadership the hard way, and they aren’t done yet.
Jokic's passing hardly passe
The Nuggets’ identity of teamwork revolves around Jokic, in the same way that his teammates have learned so quickly to run circles around him. He is a passer in the long-ago mode of Bill Walton.
“His unique skillset allows us to look for certain types of players to complement his brand -- cutters, guys who make quick decisions, shooters,” said Connelly. “He’s not a stereotypical center, but he’s a type of player that works for us.”
The Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics are among the contenders who move the ball quickly, but their plays aren’t generally created from the post. Harris and his teammates caught on quickly to the potential of 6-foot-10 Jokic.
“Gary identified: 'If I run the floor, if I move without the ball, I’m going to get easy baskets. He’s going to make my life so much easier,' ” Malone said. “And that became contagious as the year went on. Other guys said the same: 'I’ve got to start running, I’ve got to start cutting.' And just like being an selfish team can divide a team, being such an unselfish team brought our team together. Everybody started getting on it. Gary Harris averaged three assists per game last year. No one in our organization thought Gary would average three assists per game.”
The 22-year-old shooting guard generated 2.9 assists while shooting career highs of 42 percent from the arc and 50.2 percent overall. But it wasn’t only the players who adapted to Jokic’s unique point of view. Malone showed trust in his young center too.
“I don’t call a lot of plays,” Malone said. “That’s the beauty of our offense. We let our guys play. With that freedom comes discipline. That’s the partnership. We give our guys freedom to play the game, and they’re responsible and trustworthy enough to handle that freedom. I think I will continue to evolve as a coach and continue to trust our players.”
The next step, commencing in a few weeks, will be to infuse the free-flowing offense with discipline. When is it right to gamble -- and when not?
“Time, score, utilizing the right plays on the court,” said Malone, ticking off the basics that elevate lottery teams into the playoffs. Which is where Millsap comes in.
Veteran Millsap could impact defense
“Our best defense last year was our offense,” Malone said. “It can’t be that way this year. We have to have a defensive mindset.”
Millsap, 32, thrived under the influence of Jerry Sloan in Utah and Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta. Both coaches developed programs of structure while insisting that their players learn how to read and react at both ends of the floor. Two-way play was a necessity. Millsap is the embodiment of those standards.
“This is a guy of versatility and intelligence that’s been on the All-Defensive second team,” Malone said. “He’s played in 87 playoff games. He understands what winning basketball is. We’re adding a guy that can lead by example, by his experience.”
During his four All-Star seasons with the Hawks, 6-foot-8 Millsap averaged 17.4 points to go with his 8.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.2 blocks. He was strong in every area, and the example he sets defensively figures to resonate because of the impact he will be making as a playmaking scorer.
“To have the go-to player -- that’s another area where we lacked at times last year and lost a lot of close games,” Malone said. “And now we get a guy that has been in so many big games and made big shots.”
The Nuggets know that Millsap will fit in based on the partnership he developed with his fellow big man for three years in Atlanta. “Al Horford is similar to Nikola Jokic -- very skilled, a talented passer, can space the floor and post up,” Malone said. “I think Paul is a guy we can play through in the post. And when Nikola has it, Paul can space the floor, move without the ball and play with Nikola. We feel we have the best passing, playmaking frontcourt in the NBA.”
Unique path continues for Nuggets
Playmakers like Jokic and Millsap cannot rise up from the second round without showing respect for the game plan. Without the pedigrees of explosive athleticism or a high Draft number, they’ve had to win over coaches and teammates along the way. Millsap’s reputation is renowned. Jokic’s is just now forming.
“The great thing about Nikola is his unbelievable work ethic,” Connelly said. “Certainly, his game is not based on athleticism. It’s hard to believe how good he is when you look at him. We had a game in New York this year, we played really well, and I’m sitting there with a couple of our guys. They said, ‘Do you believe that guy just had 40 points?’ I can’t. So he’s kind of a relatable superstar.”
The Nuggets hope to see improvements in Jokic’s shooting (32.4 percent from the 3-point line last year) and in his defensive leadership. Both areas figure to be enhanced by the presence of Millsap.
A big-money acquisition so often changes the personality of a franchise, and not always for the better. In Denver, where the identity is embodied by a 22-year-old pass-first center, Millsap’s value will be judged very much on his ability to bring out the best in Jokic.
“It’s hard to guard a moving ball,” Connelly said. “We can’t play like other teams because the roster is a little atypical. I need to see the other guys around Nikola build into it. We’re not going to catch and hold, catch and watch. The quicker the ball moves, the quicker the decisions are, the more successful we’ve tended to be.”
In a league that is falling in love with ball movement, the Nuggets are emerging as unlikely trend-setters.
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