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Chemistry Key To Jokic-Millsap Pairing

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

While the Denver Nuggets have one of the most intriguing frontcourts in basketball, chemistry will make-or-break their playoff aspirations

Following a middling 40-42 season in the top-heavy Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets are looking to burst into the playoffs this season thanks to the contributions of young star Nikola Jokic and recent free agent signing Paul Millsap. While the Jokic-Millsap frontcourt is one of the most intriguing in basketball this season, many have questioned how these two can function together, as they both have very similar skillsets.

Quickly ascending from ‘second-round project’ to one of the best young big men in the league today, Jokic enters his third season with great expectations from the playoff-hopeful Nuggets. ‘The Joker’ improved in almost every area in his sophomore season, averaging a near double-double with 16.7 points per game and 9.8 rebounds. Jokic only began to truly assert himself in the second half of last season, and Denver quickly began to make him a focus on offense. They were so confident in Jokic’s ability to “take the next step” that they elected to let Danilo Gallinari, previously one of their biggest offensive contributors, walk in free agency.

Beyond his capable footwork in the post and burgeoning ability to shoot from the perimeter, the most striking facet of Jokic’s game is his passing ability. Last season, he averaged 4.9 assists per contest, second most by an NBA center behind Al Horford’s 5.0 per game. Partially due to his ability to distribute the ball from the post, Denver boasted the fifth most efficient offense in the NBA last season, just modestly trailing juggernauts like Golden State and Cleveland. Jokic’s selflessness with the ball will also greatly facilitate Paul Millsap’s transition to the team.


Some are worried about the pairing because, on paper, many of Jokic and Millsap’s skills seem to be redundant: both can score in the post and they are both plus rebounders. However, when they share the floor together, do not be surprised if Millsap leaks out to the perimeter for the three-point shot more often; he averaged the most three-point attempts of his career last season (3.5), although he shot well below the league average (35.8%) from deep at 31.1%. Millsap has shown willingness to shoot from range, but needs to work on efficiency if he can be a true three-point weapon for Denver. 

Jokic, in his half-season as an offensive focal point, has shown an incredible ability to draw double-teams to the post, then kick out to the perimeter or to a teammate running the lane. With Jokic’s ability to move with and without the ball, he can act as a ‘point-center’ and pick-and-pop at the elbow or dump the ball off low to an at-the-rim finisher like Kenneth Faried or now, Paul Millsap. Both Faried (61.4%) and Millsap (58.0%) finished with authority within five feet of the basket, and the “Jokic-to-a-cutting-big” play should be an effective one for Denver this season.  

While Denver’s high-octane offense was one of the best in league history in 2016-17 (35th all-time in offensive efficiency), their subpar defense has the team mired in mediocrity. Last season, Denver allowed opponents to score 111.2 points per game on 47.7% shooting, ranking 27th and 29th in the league respectively. These high-scoring affairs are partially the result of Denver’s high-paced offense, as they were seventh in the NBA last season averaging 100.7 offensive possessions per game. Unfortunately for Denver, the defensive end of the court is where the Jokic-Millsap tandem will need to improve the most.

Photo: Aaron Ontiveroz-The Denver Post

Despite the jack-of-all-trades potential, Jokic has displayed in his first two seasons, defense is his weakest suit; among starting centers in 2016-17, Jokic ranked second worst behind Zaza Pachulia (minimum 15 starts) in defending the rim, allowing opponents to shoot 65.4%within six feet. In eight more starts, Millsap similarly defended the rim, allowing 61.4% shooting. As the likely starting frontcourt for Denver, both players will need to commit on the defensive end if the Nuggets hope to make the playoffs this year.

While their defense might be lacking, the Denver Nuggets were already an elite rebounding team last season before the Millsap signing. In 2016-17, Denver ranked second behind Oklahoma City, collecting 46.4 rebounds per game. They were tied for fifth in defensive rebounding at 34.6, and Millsap’s presence will probably increase that number. For Atlanta, Millsap collected 6.1 defensive rebounds per game, ranking 25th amongst all starters (behind Jokic’s 6.9 per). With their pace and frontcourt, it will be nearly impossible to keep Denver off the boards.

In the end, Nikola Jokic is one of the most exciting young players to watch in the league, and Paul Millsap is a savvy veteran with the demonstrated ability to anchor an offense. In a seemingly all-or-nothing move, the Denver front office has gone all-in on offensive weaponry, while neglecting to prioritize defense. However, their similar skillsets should not prove to be a problem offensively; neither is particularly ball-dominant, and Jokic has demonstrated the basketball IQ to make the smart play when he is holding the ball.  

Unlike other offensive stars that can occasionally bog down an offense with too much isolation, the Jokic-Millsap tandem should work well within Denver’s run-and-gun system that values ball movement. Both players can easily average upwards of 20 points per game while crashing the boards, so a playoff appearance is certainly reasonable, if not expected, for the Nuggets. Regardless of the team’s final record, the Nuggets’ frontcourt will be one of the most exciting to watch in the 2017-18 season.

Edited by Joe Sparacio.

With what pick was Nikola Jokic selected in 2014?
Created 9/19/17
  1. 15th
  2. 20th
  3. 34th
  4. 41st

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