Denver Nuggets, NBA

Already overachieving, the Nuggets still have room to grow

The Nuggets are a team still in search of its best self.

Amid constant injuries, shifting rotational patterns and the night-to-night variance that tends to plague young teams, it could be understood if Denver’s adjusted plan was simply getting by. Instead, they excelled, finding consistent rhythm when it had good reason to go missing. Losing Will Barton in the second game of the season might have thrown the entire team for a loop, were it not for Torrey Craig’s readiness to play in his place. When Gary Harris missed time with a hip injury, Malik Beasley stepped in without missing a beat. Paul Millsap’s broken toe could have derailed the season early; instead, Juancho Hernangomez and Mason Plumlee collectively mitigated his absence.

In all, Denver’s opening night starting lineup has missed 68 combined games, forcing Michael Malone to shuffle through lineups and reserves to outplay their talent grade for much of the year. And yet, the Nuggets sit comfortably near the top of the West, with just short of half a season to truly round into form. As well as they’ve played, they can be better.

The team’s one constant has been Nikola Jokić, whose uncanny ability to empower everyone around him lifts his team to greater heights. To call Jokić Denver’s fulcrum would sell short just how vital he is to its offense. He is as unique a center as any in the modern NBA, blending preternatural feel and vision with expert craft and contagious selflessness. The passes, cuts and handoffs that give the Nuggets life all stem from Jokić, who orchestrates with such precision and creativity as to redefine what a center can be on that end of the floor.

As both a passing and scoring threat from anywhere on the floor, Jokić demands that a defense constantly account for him, which creates opportunity for others. He is the rare center who doesn’t just react to a defense’s every move but manipulates them. Bigs like Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid — two frequent points of comparison to Jokić — are capable enough passers to spot an open teammate when swarmed by double teams, but Jokić actively bends the defense to his liking. He masterfully leads fast breaks, hits cutters from the elbow and spots shooters from the post, always correctly reading and triggering defensive rotations:

The Nuggets have weaponized that skill set and made it the foundation of the NBA’s second-best offense, crafting a roster of smart, unselfish players tailored to complement Jokić’s talents. The team’s style mirrors that of its best player, who genuinely seeks to make the right play each time he touches the ball, and a drastic reduction in turnovers has given him more opportunities to do so this year.

Jokić’s vision and unselfishness galvanizes the team, often in ways that can’t be quantified but are apparent in the way possessions flow through him. Teammates cut harder when they expect a pass. They more willingly move the ball from station to station when they trust that the ball will find them again. In lieu of a true primary option on the perimeter, the Nuggets abound with playmaking at nearly every position. If it isn’t Jokić orchestrating possessions from the post or the elbow, it might be Jamal Murray running a pick-and-roll or Will Barton working in isolation. Harris uses smart movement and crafty finishes to keep opposing defenses off-tilt, while both Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee are capable passers and ball-handlers.

That allows for creativity in how Malone deploys his personnel. Using Millsap, Plumlee and Jokić as primary ball-handlers frees Denver’s guards to work away from the ball, where they can play off instinct. Playing two true centers together in the modern NBA defies convention, but so does Jokić, whose unique skills accommodate for like-sized teammates and vex defenses:

Those sorts of eccentric pairings are made possible by exceptional malleability, but also by the sheer competence throughout the rotation. Malone can count on 48 minutes of steady play at every position, and the Nuggets are outscoring opponents without Jokić on the floor for the first time in his career. Beasley and Hernangomez provide crucial floor spacing while Craig takes on the most rigorous defensive assignments. Monte Morris brings unwavering stability to second units while shooting nearly 44 percent from distance. Plumlee’s skill and versatility allow second units to run a Jokić-influenced style even as the Serbian rests.

How well the Nuggets hold up under playoff scrutiny remains the defining question of Denver’s season, as does its ability to defend against styles largely predicated on identifying and exploiting specific matchups. The Nuggets have fallen to the middle of the pack defensively after a stingy couple of months to start the year. Only two teams hold opponents to a lower percentage from 3-point range, but none allow more attempts from the corners. Denver forces the fewest mid-range shots in the league. Jokić and Murray, while crafty and competitive, are relatively flimsy defensive bookends, and the aggressive scheme that involved its bigs scrambling far from the basket on ball screens can be susceptible to easy shots off of decisive ball movement:

Millsap masks some of those vulnerabilities, but any defense without an elite rim protector or perimeter stopper will garner skepticism until it proves viable in the postseason. Opponents will test Jokić’s mobility defending the pick-and-roll, and Brobdingnagian forwards like LeBron James, Paul George and Kevin Durant pose even greater threats Denver’s undersized wing corps.

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The trade deadline looms as a possible means of fortification, though any target capable of moving the needle will come at a steep price. The playoffs will challenge the Nuggets in ways they haven’t been before. With an era of consistent success ahead of them, better that they get acquainted with those trials now.

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