Nikola Jokic’s distinct style of play has lifted the Denver Nuggets to the top of the Western Conference standings.
Nikola Jokic is infectious. At least, that’s what his teammates have said, in one way or another.
The Serbian center is the touch point of the Denver Nuggets free-flowing offense, which ranks near the top in offensive rating, No. 1 in the league in assist percentage and is one/two with the Boston Celtics for secondary assists made. The Nuggets average just over 27 assists per game, with Jokic accounting for seven or eight of those per game on average.
On a team sometimes overlooked by big media, it’s Jokic who gets the highlights on SportsCenter, but several Nuggets deserve more credit as extraordinary passers. Mason Plumlee, along with Jokic, is one of the more creative and willing passing centers in the league. Paul Millsap can make stuff happen from the 4-spot. Jamal Murray is becoming a more ambitious passer by the day, and backup Monte Morris is a no-frills point guard who excels at passing to his team, and not the other.
But it all starts with Jokic who, at 23 years old, is having an All-NBA type season. He’s an NBA hipster favorite who is starting to be mentioned in fringe MVP conversations as the Nuggets sit atop the Western Conference standings. (Jokic is the only center since Wilt Chamberlain 50 years ago to have 15 assists in a game. He’s done it now four times this season.)
“Nikola, it starts with him, but everybody else falls in line,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone before a recent win in Sacramento. “When the best player is that way, it makes it easier for the other guys to buy in and commit to playing that style of basketball.”
Teams often take the shape of their best player, and the Nuggets have mutated into what makes Jokic special. The process, however, wasn’t automatic.
Last January, after suffering an embarrassing loss to the Phoenix Suns, Malone knew he had to make some changes. The Nuggets were sitting at .500 in a competitive Western Conference, and their once-potent offense had sunk the 12th in the league and they were below average in pace and defensive rating. Malone decided to dial back the play calls from the sideline, electing instead to empower and play through Jokic.
After Malone relaxed his grip on the play calls, Denver’s offense shot to the top of the league in offensive rating as the Nuggets went 23-13 the rest of the season.
“We play through Nikola,” Malone said almost a year after ceding control of much of the play calls. “We trust him one thousand percent to make the right play and make all his teammates better.”
The Nuggets this season have become the league’s best passing team. The numbers bare that out, but watch them play and you’ll see an effort to pass the ball early and often. Actually, effort isn’t the right word. It seems effortless.
Players rarely hold the ball for more than five seconds and isolations are scarce. Basketball in Denver is a show of high-lows, give-and-goes, throwing receivers open and bounce passes. So. Many. Bounce. Passes.
The Nuggets see the game one step ahead. In Boston, secondary assists are a result of the system but, in Denver, it’s more improvisational. If the Celtics are a tightly scripted sitcom, the Nuggets are Saturday Night Live…in a good season.
A rebound is all Jokic needs to put the gas on a fastbreak, and opposing defenses know they need to get back in a hurry. If they don’t, they’re done. (The Nuggets are in the top five in defensive rebound percentage. Opponents are less likely to crash the boards in fear of giving up easy buckets in transition).
It’s one thing to ask players to pass up good shots for great ones, it’s another thing entirely when those players can create good shots for themselves and have the vision to locate the great one.
The flourishing two-man game between Jokic and Murray raises Denver’s ceiling higher. They’ve been teammates for three years and neither is old enough to rent a car, but it seems like they’ve been playing together for a decade, like Memphis’ Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. They communicate with their eyes in a language opposing defenses can’t understand.
“The plays that we run are read-and-react plays,” Malone said. “Read the defense, where’s the opening, find it, make sure we’re cutting, make sure we’re moving, and make sure we’re spacing the floor correctly, because Nikola is going to pick teams apart.”
The Nuggets returned most of the same players from last season and so there was already some chemistry when they went into training camp. There, Malone stressed the passing game.
“Everybody that comes in here realizes quickly that we’re not looking for the guy to hold the ball for five seconds and dribble around and isolate. That’s not who we are,” Malone said. “We are a team that is very unselfish, and instead of playing with each other, we really play for each other, and that’s evident when you watch us play.”
Almost every team outside of Houston would love to preach and practice the same thing, but the two-pronged approach of Malone and Jokic — coach preaching, player practicing — makes Denver a unique situation.
“[Malone] encourages a light ball,” Plumlee told The Step Back. “We don’t want the ball sticking. He wants guys to move it and he encourages it, he coaches it, but guys are receptive to it, and when you have Jokic as the guy you’re going through, it becomes infectious. It’s a good way to play and it’s a fun way to play.”
“Jokic is one of the top players in this league, and he changes the whole dimension of this team for sure,” Millsap said.