Toward the end of the 2015-16 season, Nuggets coach Mike Malone conducted an intriguing lineup experiment. With no playoffs to compete for and forward Kenneth Faried sidelined, Malone gave extended minutes to a the frontcourt combination of Jusuf Nurkic at center and Nikola Jokic at power forward.
The pair of Eastern European big men started consecutive games alongside each other against the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz in mid-April. The results were mixed. Nurkic and Jokic held their own against an older, unathletic Spurs frontcourt that included Tim Duncan and David West. However, two nights later against a smaller, more mobile Jazz frontcourt, the Nurkic-Jokic pairing struggled mightily in a 100-84 loss.
The experiment gave the Denver staff a glimpse, however small, of if its young big men could coexist. The modern NBA is trending toward teams trotting out smaller players at power forward and center (think the Golden State Warriors, whose “Lineup of Death” includes Harrison Barnes at power forward and Draymond Green at center). Can you win in today’s NBA with either Nurkic or Jokic having to check power forwards who can hit the 3 and put the ball on the floor?
If Jokic’s comments in May are any indication, we’re about to find out.
“I want to do everything,” Jokic told CBS Denver 4 about what he wants to work on this off-season. “Shooting, especially my defense. I want to play as the four next season, so I want to defend the four-man.”
Last season, Jokic spent most of his time at center. He wrestled the starting job away from an injured Nurkic and thrived in the role. Jokic’s solid all-around game helped him finish third in Rookie of the Year voting. He seems to have a soft touch around the basket, a nice shooting stroke and can rebound the ball. He averaged 10 points, grabbed seven rebounds a game and converted 51 percent of his field goals. He’s also a tremendous passer. If you haven’t seen the beauty he dropped off to Kenneth Faried (above), what are you even doing with your life?
Where Jokic struggles most is defending in space. Pick and rolls are extremely difficult for him to navigate defensively right now. Switching is a death wish; speedy guards leave Jokic mired in quicksand as they drive to the hoop. Hedging the pick and roll — which means momentarily defending the ball handler before retreating back to the roll man — also present challenges
Unfortunately for the Nuggets, pairing Nurkic and Jokic together in the frontcourt means Jokic will be thrust into those situations again and again. The problem is Jokic lacks the quickness to operate defensively around the perimeter.
Jokic will have to get quicker if he hopes to play more power forward in the future. Players capable of handling the ball and shooting from deep are only going to eat up more and more time at the four spot in an NBA that’s fully realizing the benefit of spreading the floor and launching 3s.
Last season, Nurkic and Jokic played 92 minutes together and — small sample size alert! —gave up 103.4 points per 100 possessions. That mark is about league average. What would happen to that number if Jokic receives extended minutes at the four and opponents are trying to exploit his lack of foot speed on every possession?
That’s a question the Denver front office will have to consider going forward.