Here’s something you already know: The Denver Nuggets have been dominant all season with Nikola Jokic on the court. Their net rating was plus-12.5 when playing and minus-10.4 when sitting, the biggest disparity in the league.
And here’s a shocking development that hardly anyone saw coming before the start of the playoffs: with Jokic on the bench, the Nuggets have upgraded their opponents of 19.2 points per 100 possessions this postseason, which is a higher mark than when anyone else on the Nuggets is off the field.
So how is it going? A sample of seven games and 82 minutes against two top opponents makes this number a bit noisy. The Nuggets just won 53 games and finished as the No. 1 seed in the West. For months they have also been rocked by uncertainty, thanks to a pair of significant issues hanging over their heads like an anvil: Could Jokic hold up in defense, and would their bench survive when would he sit? But Michael Malone’s (due-overdue) decision to streamline and reinvent his rotation made the Nuggets’ dominance lasting.
It is a radical change. Malone not only gives extra minutes to his best players, but also deploys them in new combinations. Prior to the playoffs, a league-high 36.8% of all Denver minutes were attributed to its front five. For good reason. These groups were dominant. But the flip side was a collection of secondary coins that were completely decimated. Lineups that had only one starter in them took a league-high 19.6% of Denver’s minutes; 6% (seventh-highest in the league) of Nuggets minutes didn’t have a single starter in them. Together, all of these groups ranked 29th in net ranking. Now only 1.8% of their minutes have a starter and 2.3% have no starter.
Meanwhile, no team has used groups with three fewer starters than the Nuggets. But in the playoffs, units with three starters went from 8.5 to 22.4 percent of their total minutes played.
The adaptation began on April 8 in Denver’s penultimate regular season game against the Jazz, when, in an otherwise meaningless contest, Malone decided to start the second quarter with Aaron Gordon at 5, a enticing thought-provoking exercise with a critical fit. it’s been planned since before last the season has started. Using their starting power as a backup 5 in each playoff game, the Nuggets turned a fatal flaw (the back-up center position) into a resilient counterblow.
On the bench, Jeff Green, Bruce Brown and Christian Braun (a rookie who doesn’t act or look like a rookie) blended perfectly with Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Porter Jr. to answer a question once alarming. – can the Nuggets survive without Jokic? – in complete confidence.
There is no more Thomas Bryant, DeAndre Jordan or Zeke Nnaji. Reggie Jackson is out. Bones Hyland does not miss. The moment Peyton Watson seemed to gain minutes in the playoffs seems to have happened ten years ago. By tightening their belts and staggering who plays with whom, when and for how long, the Nuggets have shielded themselves from those vulnerable periods of most of the year when opponents had hope. Gordon, Murray, Braun, Brown and Green are Denver’s second most played five-man team in the playoffs. They entered the playoffs after sharing the floor for just 10 minutes during the regular season, but bring an explosion of versatility, athleticism and skill that hasn’t been there for 82 games.
Of course, just because Denver plays more of its best players and mixes them differently doesn’t mean it’s successful. How they get there — they hold a 2-0 lead over the Suns going into Friday’s Game 3 and boast the highest net rating in the playoffs — is a story unto itself. The Nuggets offense is a hodgepodge without Jokic. They push into transition, identify lags and, with savvy ball handlers and plenty of outside shooting, force the defense to fall into the decoys that precede well-executed plays involving four or five players on a given possession.
In the half court, they like to come out with different concepts, often starting with a horn lineout that tries to give Murray an advantage with dribbling transfers or flare screens. Sometimes they perform an empty corner pick-and-roll. Or sometimes just let their second-best player play one-on-one. There are plenty of examples where this stagnation comes back to bite them. But when Murray creates shots for himself, doing something out of thin air when Jokic isn’t even on the floor, it’s the worst case scenario for the defense.
Brown is a sneaky playmaker whose fame as a screen eclipses his effectiveness when probing with a live dribble. Driving towards the rim, it exerts a ton of pressure on big coasters, generating decent looks for a popping screen or ending the game itself with a float or layup.
Every playoff basket feels like cash found when a team rests its two best offensive players at the same time. When Porter is aggressive, sinking off-the-cuff kickbacks and attacking the basket, it’s a reminder of just how high the ceiling on this team is. Both of those possessions were a direct hit to Phoenix’s liver.
Aside from a two-week stint that started before Halloween, Porter has been linked with Jokic all season. But in the playoffs, MPJ spent several spells (most early in the second and fourth quarters) in groups without Jokic, adding a necessary, clinical, and tough shooter to the stints when Denver’s offensive singularity evaporates. Their assist rate is only 42.0 when Jokic isn’t playing, but by Second Spectrum their effective field goal percentage is 3.7 percentage points above their shooting quality, which which is great.
On the other side, Denver’s defensive rating in this postseason is an incredible 86.7 when Jokic sits. There’s a 3-point chance built into that number, but also no obvious weak spot for offenses to attack. Gordon, Green, Brown, Caldwell-Pope and Braun are all adaptable enough to change almost any screen and hold their own.
It’s a degree of flexibility that simplifies the more aggressive pattern that Denver adopts when Jokic is on the field. Either he backs up and allows a pull-up, or he goes up the screen to take off a pull-up, forcing a low man to help paint. (Switching with Jokic isn’t really an option.) And when the Suns force Denver to throw two defenders on the ball and spin, they’re comfortable and smart enough behind the ball to make a play.
Gordon in particular has been elite, first handling Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert in the first round and, in the first two games of the second round, helping neutralize Phoenix’s pick-and-roll play by moving to the ball (usually to Chris Paul, who is expected to miss future games in this series with a groin injury).
When the Nuggets traded for Gordon two years ago, that was exactly what they hoped he would be. His defensive contributions when Jokic is on and off the pitch are huge.
Each team shortens its playoff rotation. But not all teams, especially a no. 1 seed, rearranges its entire rotation dramatically. Malone has always had that card to play, though, in series that demand more from its best players and have opposing coaching staffs bracing for threats that didn’t exist during the regular season. Instead of expiring when a double MVP leaves the game, the other team must now prepare for a new challenge. And instead of Jokic having to play 44 minutes every night (which is the case for other stars in these playoffs), he can rest more than expected. The result is a Nuggets team that looks more dangerous and complete than ever.