How the Nuggets built the NBA's most unlikely contender around Nikola Jokic

Last summer, in the quiet hallways of a near-empty Pepsi Center, one could find Denver Nuggets president Tim Connelly, unkempt and scraggly, stumbling through the halls in a T-shirt and sweats: the uniform of a corporate man during a non-corporate month.

One day, Nikola Jokic, the great gregarious giant, the future of Nuggets basketball, bumbled through and quipped, “Is this what a president looks like?”

Connelly turned and took one look at his five-year, $147 million investment, a wind-burnt 250-pound center with the athletic profile of a 7-foot professional baseball pitcher: pudgy, slow-footed but endowed with the eyesight of an eagle and an arm that can whip a ball anywhere on the court at speeds both lightning-fast and lob-slow.

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“Is this,” Connelly retorted, “what a max player looks like?”

He’s lucky it does. Concerned about how Jokic’s body would translate to the NBA, every team picking before Denver at No. 41 passed on him in the 2014 NBA draft — some twice — before Connelly and the Nuggets stashed him overseas for a year. “His aesthetics aren’t going to draw a lot of eyes,” Connelly tells Yahoo Sports. “His body type, his athleticism. It’s not unique to Nikola. We have several guys on our team that maybe don’t fit the mold relative to how productive they are.”

Through Jokic’s generational vision, the Nuggets saw one of their own: a terminally laid-back star ready to lead a team of basketball junkies. What better force to assuage the tension between collective success and individual stardom than a star who cares for none of stardoms trappings?

“I hate m… ,” Jokic starts telling Yahoo Sports, before pausing and remembering who is across from him. “Media,” he finishes, sheepish and befuddled, motioning his hands like he’s searching for the right word.

The circus?

“Yeah,” answers the NBA’s best passing big man.

Nikola Jokic is the ideal player to lead the blossoming Nuggets. (Getty)
Nikola Jokic is the ideal player to lead the blossoming Nuggets. (Getty)

By pressing on Jokic’s ability to repeatedly place the ball between a rock and a hard place, the Nuggets built a scorching offense around backdoor cuts, behind-the-back handoffs and Hail Mary’s in transition.

But slowed down by Jokic’s gait in the middle, they were putrid defensively and missed the postseason by one game last year. The narrow defeat inspired collective outrage throughout the locker room. The coaching staff, sensing it, empowered them and spawned this focused, defensive-minded squad. They are now the West’s No. 1 seed — tied for the best start in franchise history at 26-12 —and the conference’s only team with a top-10 rating in offense and defense, a testament to the power of cutting out little mistakes.

“[We’re] just taking every game more seriously. Last year, we kinda went into games knowing that we’re better than teams, giving teams the lead late, not holding on to the lead,” recalled Jamal Murray, an electric scorer whose increased consistency is propelling him into Denver’s second star. “Being more disciplined, that’s been big for us. Just having a better mindset.”

Humming freely around Jokic, the Nuggets are making ugly look like some kind of beautiful.

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It’s Dec. 18, and the Nuggets have just dispatched the Dallas Mavericks. Despite the fact that 60 percent of the starting lineup — Paul Millsap, Gary Harris and Will Barton — has missed a chunk of time with injuries, the Nuggets are holding onto the No. 1 seed, picking up improbable win after improbable win as young role players like Torrey Craig and Malik Beasley step up and punish unknowing opponents.

After the game, Jokic ambles out of the shower and reads his stat line — 32 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, three steals, a block and four made free throws — and says, “I think I need to get to the line a little bit more. I need to be a little more aggressive. I don’t know how, but I’ll talk about how I need to more aggressive to get to the line,” he cracks, revealing the goofy, confounding absurdity that wrinkles eyebrows and freezes conversations in their tracks. He facilitates laughter the way he facilitates the ball, with a natural, uncontrollable impulse to create smiles and be affable.

Jamal Murray is emerging as the Nuggets’ second star. (Getty)
Jamal Murray is emerging as the Nuggets’ second star. (Getty)

It’s not often that a player’s essence can be boiled down to a postgame press conference, but here, Jokic comes close. Referencing the stat sheet after dropping it on the floor, he shows off the vision that changed the Nuggets’ trajectory. His deep-set blue eyes peer down at the tiny font 7-feet below and search for the numbers that illuminate his teammates’ defensive contributions. “Minus-16, minus-12, minus-16, minus-27,” he says, tallying off the negative plus-minus numbers of the vaunted Mavericks bench.

When asked about coach Mike Malone’s suggestion that he should be firmly entrenched in the MVP race, Jokic expresses utter disinterest and flicks the question away. “No. That’s just an individual thing. If it happens, happens. But I cannot affect it.” He can, but he doesn’t conceive of basketball as something that can be taken over. To Jokic, each game has its own rhythm that dictates weaknesses in the defense. He can exploit mistakes, but he can’t bend them to his will.

It is only when asked about the team’s visit to a local hospital that he marvels about his own impact on others. “We got a text back from one of the nurses that one kid was in depression like two months. He didn’t want to be around the people and he saw us, he smiled,” he says. “The nurse started crying. That’s something just to show how we can impact life to other people. It’s not just about basketball.”

In his free time, Jokic likes to take the five-mile trek from downtown Denver to Washington Park and play Spikeball, which is, to my understanding, a pickup infusion of doubles volleyball and sumo wrestling around a net that resembles a mini-trampoline.

“[People] actually don’t recognize me because I think they don’t expect me to drive by Washington Park or do something like that. I like it, to be honest. It’s cool.” Besides, bundled in active-wear with a pink nose that looks like it’s perpetually fending off a sinus infection, Jokic blends right in.

At times, it looks more like a rest stop for ducks than a park for humans, their chirping the only thing cutting through the familiar noises of nature. It is tranquil, even idyllic, the kind of place a big man who decides he doesn’t want to do things as they were done before him can go and feel alleviated from the pressure to conform.

With indomitable range, a ballet dancer’s footwork and a feathery touch, Jokic could aspire to have James Harden’s gaudy stat lines. He instead passes up makeable shots, going whole possessions without touching the ball, like a 7-foot Steve Nash.

In an era where success is a matter of assuaging the tension between individual stars working together in a collective system, building a team by developing youth can be messy. Whom to showcase? Whom to shelve? And who’s getting in whose way? But Jokic’s usage rate is among the lowest in the league for leading men, putting the development of the Nuggets’ young talent — with an NBA-youngest average age of 24.7 — at no risk of being swallowed up by Jokic’s exploits.

Time will tell if Murray or any of the budding talents around Jokic can morph into a championship-level sidekick, but if not, it won’t be because of Jokic. All of his teammates have the opportunity to refine their decision-making despite playing next to a generational passer.

“If my teammate is open, I’m going to pass 100 percent, even maybe if I’m in a better spot,” Jokic tells Yahoo Sports. “I think that’s the main thing.”

With that promise, Jokic confirms his commitment to an all-abiding desire to be helpful and sets the Nuggets ethos. It affirms what hundreds of coaches have tried to impart on players: cut and the ball will find you. Set hard screens and you will be rewarded. Run into dead space and the open three is yours. Jokic leaves some money on the table by passing every time, but the psychological impact is more propellant, more important, than his points per possession inching up from 1.07 to 1.09. He surrenders an edge, and, in turn, nourishes the team’s soul.

The simplicity has cut the complications out of roles and rotations that, thanks to injuries, seemingly change everyday. Craig, a second-year player, has shot 36 percent from three since December. “I didn’t change anything,” he says. “It’s mostly just confidence and rhythm.

Nikola Jokic is averaging 18 points, 9.9 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game. (AP)
Nikola Jokic is averaging 18 points, 9.9 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game. (AP)

“We’re just playing free. At this level, you should know how to play the game of basketball. We’ve got high-IQ guys, high-level scorers and passers, so we make the game easier for each other. I know when I cut, Joker’s gonna look for me.”

They all know: simple plays work, if you execute them like you mean it. And those who didn’t know were quickly initiated.

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On Oct. 20, second-year player Monte Morris marked his 41st total NBA minute when he checked in to the second quarter of a game against Phoenix.

The point guard who toiled in the G League last year looked every bit like he felt the weight of the gift. After Euro-stepping his way to missing his first layup attempt of the game and picking up a charge in transition, Morris pulled back. “I wasn’t effective. I was just timid,” he says, bobbing his shoulders back and forth like an oncoming pedestrian who can’t decide which way to pass. “I was playing not to make mistakes.” He scored zero points, dished zero assists and picked up a turnover.

After the game, Malone told Morris to lose the apprehension and channel the aggression that landed him in the Nuggets’ rotation in the first place. The Nuggets played the Warriors the next night, and after fouling off the first few pitches, he starting driving hard through dribble-handoffs, exploding away from screens and turning broken screens into unexpected cuts. “I was a totally different player. I was in attack mode and ever since then it’s just been like that,” Morris says.

Morris has stood in for Isaiah Thomas, Beasley has stood in for Harris, Juancho Hernangomez for Millsap, and Craig for Barton. And each has responded by carving out and honing niche rotation skills.

Ask Connelly his favorite parts of the season and he’ll throw together a laundry list of players stretching their abilities, from Morris’s breakout to Mason Plumlee and Thomas Welsh drilling 3-pointers. And, of course, the moment that hinted at the defensive revolution that was to come.

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With eight seconds remaining and the Nuggets leading by two on Oct. 21, Stephen Curry caught the inbounds pass and sprinted up the floor. Murray relinquished the first step, ending up on Curry’s back and forcing Millsap to leave Damian Jones wide open under the rim. That’s when Hernangomez scrambled toward Jones before the ball landed in Jones’ palms and pinned his game-tying layup attempt to the backboard.

It was the kind of game-saving play assistant coach and defensive architect Wes Unseld Jr. envisioned when the coaching staff convened prior to the start of training camp. The ball never had a problem finding the basket in Denver, but a high-octane offense wasn’t enough to power them to the postseason. They realized they couldn’t fortify their strengths without first accepting and attacking their weaknesses.

First, they empowered Jokic on the defensive end by asking how he preferred to cover the pick-and-roll. He wanted to pressure ball-handlers instead of dropping back and guarding pick-and-rolls two-on-two. In a vain attempt to engage him, the Nuggets tried the same approach last season. Jokic’s lack of foot speed consistently gave guards a runway to the rim, forcing Murray and Harris to help off 3-point shooters.

Eventually, Jokic was dropping back again, to similarly cringeworthy results. “We found out early that’s not best,” says Unseld Jr. “The great thing about having conversations with people was that doing what’s right might not be what’s right for you.” Conventional systems generally require conventional defensive personnel. To succeed, the Nuggets would have to do things their way.

Scrambling would be inevitable. So would giving up a lot of 3-point attempts, typically a more accurate predictor of a bad defense than 3-point percentage, which is widely considered too random to effectively measure impact. Denver ignored the adage and decided to live with contested threes. Halfway through the season, the Nuggets have a top-10 defense, with opponents shooting just 32.7 percent from deep — the NBA’s second-lowest mark.

Skirting modern basketball wisdom, the Nuggets trusted Jokic’s judgment and the locker room accepted that they would have to minimize his weaknesses. “He’s a good teammate,” says Connelly. “And when you have a good teammate, you’re more apt and more willing to sell out, to buy in and give extra efforts.”

In the Nuggets’ revamped system, Jokic plays up, but he doesn’t aggressively trap guards thirty feet from the rim. He merely steps out in front to prevent immediate pull-up jumpers and buy some time. As a result, the perimeter player guarding the weakest spacer on the floor rotates down low to tag the rolling big man, leaving one defender responsible for two shooters. And that’s where the Nuggets had to learn to make better decisions than their opponent.

Knowing they’d have to defend four-on-three beyond Jokic, the coaching staff built a practice routine around mastering the many sticky situations that arise in the unpredictable throes of a basketball game.

In one particular transition drill, the defense plays four-on-five while waiting for the fifth defender to sprint from the opposite rim to the other, telling him where to be when he’s back in the play and all the while defending at a disadvantage. “It’s pretty helpful,” says Craig. “In the game, you see a lot of those situations, like when a guy falls down or somebody gets injured. You never know.”

In an effort to stamp out the hesitation that plagued the Nuggets’ defense last year, Unseld Jr. emphasized repetition, muscle memory and a meticulous understanding of the scouting report, morphing complex percentage plays into split-second intuition.

And then, to match the dynamism of the modern NBA offense, they let the reins go: communicate. Make natural reads. “We’ve given our guys a lot of freedom on the offensive end,” Unseld Jr. says. “So our thinking is, why can’t you do that on the defensive end?” The Nuggets’ defensive rotations are disciplined and deliberate, despite how often they look like chaotic closeouts in the dark.

“[Jokic’s] effort has been tremendous this year,” says Unseld Jr. “We saw it a lot in Year One, and I think it took a step back in Years Two and Three.” The difference? The same collective anger that unified the team’s purpose. “He’s just like we are: tired of hearing it.”

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