Preseason is a fertile ground for experimentation, but most of it feels idle. Only a handful of teams truly use it to determine if a lineup they are hoping to use in the regular season works. The Nuggets did exactly that with the big man tandem of Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic.
Granted, Michael Malone has almost been forced to give that pairing a chance. There’s a case to be made that those two are the best prospects on the roster. The problem is they play the same position. The results in preseason have been a mixed bag, but Malone seems emboldened enough to make it his opening night big man duo. And it actually might work.
Nurkic is benefiting from essentially remaining at the position he’s been playing all his life. The Nuggets are running a lot of their offense through him in the post, where his strength is allowing him to score or draw fouls at a very high rate. He made it to the line over seven times a game in just 23 minutes a night, a monster mark.
He also did a lot of damage on the offensive boards, collecting over three a game. He’s flashed a developing mid-range jumper, but that’s not his game. When he’s been close to the rim on offense, however, he’s been fantastic.
Jokic is being used in pick-and-ops and taking more jumpers by necessity, but he’s also getting his touches as a high post facilitator and the low post, where he typically has a size advantage over power forwards. Malone has been smart about not pushing him all the way out to the perimeter. He’s just not a traditional stretch big man at this point and having him spot up around the arc would be a waste of his talents. He’s neither prolific nor efficient enough as a marksman to force the defense to guard him.
Despite the fit being a little awkward, both players are clearly trying to make it work, and the Nuggets are using every trick at their disposal to help them manufacture space. Whoever is off the ball when the other posts up, for example, roams the weak side baseline or sets weak side screens, trying to occupy help defenders. Sometimes those distractions work, and the Jokic – Nurkic pairing seems palatable. Sometimes the two simply can’t help but get in their own way and close driving lanes for their teammates.
Getting proper spacing will be a season-long issue. Still, Jokic should shoot better going forward, and other teams figured out ways to do well on offense with two traditional bigs. Both Jokic and Nurkic are good, willing passers, which always helps. It might not be ideal at this point to play the two together on offense, but the Nuggets can certainly survive it and, for stretches, thrive while doing it. The touches Jokic doesn’t get when Nurkic is the focal point of the offense will be there when he shares the floor with Faried. Denver’s attack should be fine.
It’s on defense where things could get ugly.
Again, Jokic is the one who’s been asked to adjust. Nurkic can stay close to the paint and protect the rim, a job he does at a really high level. Jokic, meanwhile, has to guard power forwards. That’s not an issue when they don’t have range. When they do, he understandably struggles.
“The concern is not on offense, it’s on defense,” Michael Malone told BSN Denver. “Can Nikola Jokic guard different types of fours?”
It was obvious against the Trail Blazers and Al-Farouq Aminu that he’s going to have a hard time with true stretch power forwards.
Jokic has quicker feet than casual observers might think – so does Nurkic, to be fair – but he has a hard time closing out in time. If he goes full speed he can get blown by, so he tries to just get a hand up while keeping his balance. Again, against some players, that’s enough. Against experienced shooters, it can really cost the Nuggets.
Not only does the pairing nullify one of Jokic’s strengths – interior defense – but it also prevents Denver from being aggressive in its pick and roll defense. Most teams have at least one of their big man hedge and recover. Jokic is not as comfortable doing that as more mobile power forwards and Nurkic chooses to stay in the paint. Ball handlers who can pull up will get open three-pointers and elbow jumpers against the Nuggets when the two centers share the court. Pick and pop threats are going to feast unless weak side helps arrives in time.
Just like on offense, the little things can be fine-tuned. There has been some miscommunication on defense that will disappear as the two get more reps. Yet Denver will always be at a disadvantage when it comes to defending the perimeter as long as Jokic is their power forward.
Whether that issue will be big enough to force a change is unclear. It’s simply too early to tell. The Jokic-Nurkic pairing could simply prove to be too powerful on the boards. Along with Danilo Gallinari, they should get a ridiculous amount of free throws. Opponents will have a hard time scoring in the paint with the two fleet-footed behemoths patrolling it, as well. The good might outweigh the bad and allow the Nuggets to keep two of their best prospects happy and in the starting lineup.
As the league shifts to smaller frontcourts, the experiment going on in Denver becomes more peculiar but also much more important. If it works, in a couple of years, they could be one of the more unique contenders the league has to offer. If it doesn’t, the front office will have some tough decision to make.