No Joke-ic: Are the Denver Nuggets For Real?

By Fox Doucette
Feb. 17, 2017

by Brad Winter

For Nuggets fans, April 4, 2013 is a date they would rather forget.

As Danilo Gallinari stumbled to the floor of the Pepsi Center in agony, the 57-win 2012-13 Denver Nuggets did too.

A day later, it was revealed Gallinari tore his left ACL, which ruled him out of any basketball activity for nearly a year and a half. More importantly though, it ruled Gallinari out of the 2013 NBA playoffs; the injury not only crippled Gallinari, but the team’s chances of making any real noise in the playoffs.

One month later, the Nuggets were eliminated from the postseason by the upstart Warriors after six first round games. Had their second-leading scorer been around, it’s hard to imagine the Nuggets losing that series, considering Denver lost Games 3 and 6 by a combined six points.

The injury caused major ripple effects for the franchise that involved more than just hampering Gallinari’s career and knocking them out of the playoffs. In the offseason, George Karl—who oversaw the Nuggets winning 62 percent of their regular-season games during his nine-year tenure—was fired for the team’s poor playoffs performance, GM Masai Ujiri fled to Toronto (if they had made the second or third round, would he have left?), and Andre Iguodala ditched to Oakland (ditto). Within the space of just a couple of months, one of the most beloved regular season juggernauts in recent memory died.

Easily the most damaging loss the Nuggets suffered in those fateful few months was Ujiri. In an NBA landscape where superstar talent is paramount, he found a loophole which enabled him to build a 57-win machine without players from the upper echelon.

Ujiri is perhaps the smartest general manager and greatest manipulator in the league today.

Just remember that he was the mastermind behind trading Andrea Bargnani and his bloated $11 million per year salary to the Knicks for a first round pick. He also managed to Jedi mind trick the Knicks into coughing up every asset they had to acquire Carmelo Anthony, who would’ve bolted to New York just five months later in free agency anyway. Earlier this week, Ujiri found a way to flip Terrence Ross’s frustratingly inconsistent game and a low first-rounder for a power forward who complements his team perfectly in Serge Ibaka.

To be honest with you, I’m not completely certain that Ujiri isn’t some sort of master blackmail artist who has dirt on every GM in the Association.

After Ujiri left, the Nuggets were left in a state of flux. The team’s rejigged front office looked completely lost when trying find the right path forward after their impressive 2012-13 season. In the aftermath of Ujiri’s defection, Denver hired Brian Shaw as head coach (bad), signed J.J. Hickson and Nate Robinson to long-term deals (really bad), traded Evan Fournier for Arron Afflalo (James Dolan-esque), and traded away the rights to Rudy Gobert for Erik Green and cash (OH MY GOD WHY?!?).

Those moves were the driving force behind the Nuggets morphing from a pseudo-contender into a team chained to the lottery.

Luckily enough for Nuggets fans, the rebuild they stumbled backwards into has launched the franchise into a position arguably even better than the one they were forced to ditch after Gallinari’s injury.

Just like any great rebuild, the Nuggets have done most of their work through the draft. In 2014, the Nuggets traded the 11th pick for picks 16 and 19, where they picked up Jusuf Nurkic and the universally underrated Gary Harris. Two years ago, the Nuggets selected Emmanuel Mudiay, who has been nothing short of horrible through two years in the Association but still looks like he could become an NBA star eventually. Meanwhile, last year, the Nuggets took Jamal Murray seventh overall, who has looked excellent thus far.

Those selections have all paved the way towards a bright future, but the excitement brewing in the Rockies isn’t about any of their lottery picks, but the guy they took 41st overall in ‘14. After the likes of Mitch McGary, Bruno Caboclo, James Young, Josh Huestis, and DeAndre Daniels were selected, the Nuggets ‘settled’ for a pudgy, 6’11’’ Serbian by the name of Nikola Jokic.

If you haven’t watched—or at least heard of—Jokic yet, you’re doing basketball wrong. The Joker might just be the single most exciting player in all of basketball right now. He’s nearly seven feet tall, weighs more than 250 pounds, but he has more advanced ball skills than half of the point guards in the league.

Jokic has drained 36.5 percent of his threes, averaged 6.3 assists in February so far, has snatched 16.3 rebounds per 100 possessions this season, and is posting a ridiculous offensive rating of 127.5—a mark that ranks third in the league. All those stats are amazing, especially for a big guy, but what’s most impressive about Jokic is the multitude of ways the Nuggets can play through him on offense.

Since he has entered the starting lineup, The Joker has been pulling the strings of a previously lackluster offense. Mike Malone can have the team play through Jokic in the low post, where he can bulldoze his way to the rim, or hit cutters in stride when defenses bring a tad too much help:

Malone can also initiate the offense with Jokic at the high post, where using his outstanding vision and touch, he can fire bullets through the smallest of windows:

Or, when all else fails, Malone can just have Jokic do his best Draymond Green impression, by playing as the Nuggets’ de facto point guard:

No matter the situation, Jokic is always able to create for others or find his own shot.

In Jokic, the Nuggets have someone, who with continued development, could turn into one of the best 5-10 players in the league. His lack of athleticism will always limit his ceiling, and he is yet to fully grasp his role on the defensive end of the court, but when you can do literally everything else on the floor, those details don’t matter nearly as much.

With a franchise centerpiece in place, all the Nuggets need to do is look for the right pieces around him. In order to cater to Jokic’s strengths and mask his weaknesses, the Nuggets need to surround Nikola with as much shooting, athleticism, and defense as possible.

Jamal Murray is Denver’s best chance at finding a second star for Jokic to play with. He’s only shooting 39 percent from the field and 33 from deep right now, but at times this season, he has played like the best player from his draft class. In November, he was a flamethrower from deep (making 42.7 percent of his bombs in the month), and he looked increasingly confident as a shot creator for Denver’s second unit.

However, despite his impressive start, I’m not convinced Murray will turn into a player worthy of being picked seventh overall, which is something I’ve thought since Murray’s first ever game at Kentucky. I’ve always believed that he’s not athletic or tall enough to play as a two and have thought he doesn’t have what it takes to be a primary ballhandler in the NBA.

However, when playing alongside Jokic, Murray’s weaknesses as a ballhandler and distributor don’t show through, which could enable Jamal to be used by Mike Malone as the nominal point guard within Denver’s offense. Murray’s 6’4’’ frame isn’t a problem as a point guard, it’s an advantage. Meanwhile, his poor lateral quickness can be made up for with his extra length as a one.

Playing Murray at point guard with Jokic on the floor would provide Nikola with greater spacing and an increased ball-handling role that could enable him to work his magic as a point-center with even greater proficiency. Instead of playing with one ball-dominant, primary ball-handler like most teams do, Mike Malone could trot out two secondary ball-handlers. This is the same theory behind playing Malcolm Brogdon next to Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee.

Murray could wind up being the perfect point guard for Jokic to play with.

If Murray’s future lies at the point guard position, Gary Harris would be an almost ideal backcourt partner. He’s making 42 percent of his threes this season and plays tremendous defense. He is a perfect 3-and-D complement to Murray’s explosive scoring self. Meanwhile, having an extra shooter to set up on the perimeter and an excellent defender to cover up his shortcomings is always good for Jokic’s NBA outlook.

Outside of that trio, the Nuggets need to figure out who will be the best partner for Jokic.

If first-round pick Juancho Hernangomez (who has the best name in the NBA, bar none) improves his defense and continues to make open threes, he looks like the best long-term frontcourt partner for Jokic. In limited minutes this season, the Hernangomez/Jokic pairing has outscored opposing teams by 8.5 points per 100 possessions.

Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Kenneth Faried all have been solid partners for Jokic, but the Nuggets should be thinking about what is best for the future. Gallinari will be a free agent in July, Chandler is nearing his 30th birthday, and Faried has limited upside. The goal for the franchise shouldn’t be to win here and now, but to ensure that the squad will be ready to compete for championships when Murray, Jokic, and Harris hit their respective primes.

The fact that the Nuggets aren’t doing this is my biggest and only beef with them.

Earlier this week, Denver dealt Jusuf Nurkic and a first round pick for Mason Plumlee. Plumlee is another great passer, who can fill Jokic’s offensive role when he heads to the bench better than most. By dealing for Plumlee, the Nuggets have discovered the ability to run almost the same offensive system for the entire 48 minutes. It’s a luxury every coach would love to have.

However, Plumlee will be a restricted free agent in July and the Nuggets coughed up a first round pick for him. In order to avoid a total waste of perfectly fine assets, the Nuggets will have to match any offer that comes around for Plumlee. Given his talent and what big men were paid last year in free agency, the Nuggets could be set to give up a truckload of cash.

This would be fine if Plumlee wound up being a key contributor for the Nuggets, but I can assure you he won’t. The simple fact of the matter is that Plumlee and Jokic cannot play together. Out of the pair, only Jokic has a working jump shot, while neither are even average defenders. Even worse, despite their considerable lack of speed, one of them will be forced to defend on the perimeter as a power forward, chasing small dudes around the three-point line. Neither of them are equipped to do that by any means.

Their overlapping skill sets will almost certainly force Mike Malone to bring Plumlee off the bench, which would mean the Nuggets could be paying him top dollar to sit on the pine for most of the game.

Giving up a first round pick and a 22-year old for someone about to get paid the big bucks and trying to get into trade talks for other veterans isn’t a recipe for success. The Nuggets cannot keep making ‘win-now’ moves to improve a squad that isn’t ready to win now.

All the front office needs to do is hang on to their assets, continue to build through the draft, and make moves that fit the timeline of their core pieces.

It infuriates me that Denver’s front office is not following this plan. As I alluded to earlier, Emmanuel Mudiay is a horrible basketball player right now...but he’s also 20 years old. Instead of shopping him, as they have been rumored to be doing, how about you hang on to him and figure out if he can turn his freakish physical tools and athletic gifts into production?

The same logic applies to their first round pick collection. If the Nuggets were to stay patient and hold off on pushing for the playoffs until next season, they could be in possession of a valuable lottery pick in a loaded draft. The mere thought of teaming an athletic and defensive freak like Josh Jackson up with Nikola Jokic should be tantalizing enough for the Nuggets to stop chasing short-term success in the form of the Western Conference’s eighth seed.

The fact that it isn’t concerns me quite a bit.

The Nuggets have everything they need to make a huge leap up the standings in the coming years, but they need to stay the course. Don’t make the same mistakes Rob Hennigan made in Orlando.

Jokic, Murray, Harris, Hernangomez, and company are on the rise. With what they have shown so early in their NBA careers, the Nuggets could be set up for a period of dominance. The rest of the NBA should watch out.

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All statistics are via Basketball-Reference and ESPN and are up-to-date heading into the All-Star break.