And Nikola Jokic is their star quarterback.
Nikola Jokic is the best passing center in the NBA. Frankly, it isn’t even close. It’s also the primary reason why the Denver Nuggets have one of the most potent offenses in the league.
Since Jokic became a permanent starter in mid-December, Denver has a 114.2 offensive rating, which is not just the best in the NBA, but also one of the best numbers ever. That’s literally unbelievable. Denver’s starting five – Jameer Nelson, Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, and Jokic – features exactly zero in-their-prime stars and zero go-to scorers. While the Warriors are trotting out Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant (until recently), the Nuggets are scoring at a higher rate with Jameer Freaking Nelson (playing really well!) at point guard.
How? By putting the ball in their center’s hands. At just 22, Jokic has mastered a skill that usually takes years to develop. The big Serb can throw any type of pass. He has a Nolan Ryan fastball, a lob that would make post-surgery Peyton Manning proud, and some ballsy Globetrotters stuff. The kid is averaging 6.2 assists and just 3.0 turnovers per 36 minutes.
Traditionally, skilled big men have flashed their passing ability in the post, slinging bullets to cutters and open shooters. The modern NBA, however, has minimized post play. Even with a powerful, crafty center like Jokic, the Nuggets finish just 7.2% of possessions with post-ups. More recently, passing bigs have flourished in the short roll, catching the ball on the move and punishing defenses in 4-on-3 situations. It’s Draymond Green’s signature play.
But instead of using Jokic exclusively on the block or in the pick-and-roll, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone often plants him at the top of the key as Denver’s quarterback. And make no mistake, the Nuggets are playing football out there. Here’s a typical “Huh, this Jokic guy is pretty good” pass:
That’s your lumbering center 20-something feet from the basket scanning the court for his targets. The four perimeter players, meanwhile, are scrambling to get open for a three or a layup. In basketball, we call this cutting. In football, it’s called running routes. When done like this, it’s really the same thing.
Most teams don’t put so much playmaking burden on their centers. The Celtics run dribble hand-offs through Al Horford, and the Grizzlies do some high-low stuff with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, but those plays are supposed to create something good elsewhere – a drive in the first case and a post-up in the latter. Malone employs the same actions with Jokic, but the center has the option to keep the ball and look for something better. No other team has its seven-footer drop back to pass while the guards run Curl Flats.
Jokic’s quarterbacking is the main reason why the Nuggets rank third in points scored off cuts. If anything, that number seems too low, since the Jokic-as-John-Elway look is the Nuggets’ bread-and-butter. At times, it’s borderline unstoppable.
Defenses can try to counter these cut frenzies by sending weak side help. As two cutters screen for one another, a third defender will sag off his man to jump into passing lanes toward the hoop. But look at where Jokic is in the clip above. Since he’s chilling in the exact middle of the court, there is no “weak side,” which confuses Portland’s Moe Harkless and allows Harris an easy layup. But even when a help defender abandons his man in time, Jokic will make the correct read:
Another way to stop cutters is to sag off the passer. Most centers are poor shooters, so this is a popular strategy that clogs the lane and allows the perimeter defenders to guard the three-point line. Jokic is a deadeye, though. He’s shooting 37.1% from three, cans well over half of his mid-range jumpers, and has an effective faceup game. Opposing centers have to respect him, which leaves the middle of the court naked. Here, you’d normally like Kosta Koufos playing free safety in the paint; instead, he’s blitzing, and Jokic delivers an easy slant for the score:
It helps that the rest of Denver’s starters shoot so well from distance. The Nuggets have immaculate spacing, which opens up everything from Nelson’s pick-and-rolls to Chandler’s bully-ball baseline drives. Faced with a bunch of off-ball screens and dribble hand-offs, teams will overcommit trying to deny open shots to assassins like Harris and Gallinari. That’s why the Warriors, who have three of the best shooters ever, lead the league in points off cuts. I get giddy thinking what it would look like if Jokic took Zaza Pachulia’s place in Oakland.
For now, Jokic is in Denver, and the organization is fully committed to his style of play. In February, the team acquired center Mason Plumlee from Portland for Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick. Plumlee is a restricted free agent this summer, meaning the trade will be worthless unless Denver pays up. In other words, he’s Jokic’s backup for the foreseeable future.
Plumlee was more of a short roll passer in Portland. He doesn’t have the shooting ability to drag his man out of the paint, so he’s at his best using his athleticism and vision diving toward the hoop. Still, the Duke alum can ping the ball all over the court, and Malone has recognized that. Since coming to Denver, Plumlee has maintained a mammoth 21.9 assist percentage. Now, for all 48 minutes, the Nuggets have an offensive fulcrum in the game who can compensate for the team’s lack of elite off-the-dribble playmaking.
I don’t want to sugarcoat the situation. Denver is 33-35. They have an historically great offense, but they also have the second worst defense in the league. To put it bluntly, Jokic is slow and doesn’t always try hard. Plumlee is faster and tries harder, but lacks the pterodactyl length and quick-twitch athleticism of a true defensive anchor. As Denver builds its team, it will need to find more plus defenders to protect those guys, especially Jokic. Denver’s alleged pursuit of Paul George at the trade deadline made sense; he’s a big, slithery defender whose shooting and athleticism make him an ideal wide receiver for Jokic and Plumlee. The Nuggets will pursue more guys of this ilk and it’s critical they get those acquisitions right.
That said, GM Tim Connelly can sleep soundly knowing his team has a budding superstar. In 2014, he drafted Jokic 41st overall. Somehow, the plodding Serb and former Coca-Cola addict has become the centerpiece of one of the league’s weirdest, best offenses. If you’re suffering from springtime football withdrawals, just watch the Nuggets. At the very least, they’ll definitely score more points than your favorite NFL team.
To see these passes and many more, check out Adam Mares’ excellent Jokic compilation.
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