By Mike O’Connor
The archetype of the NBA superstar is constantly changing. The game’s early days saw a premium on the brute force of big men. The isolation-heavy days of the 90s and 2000s brought a plethora of volume-shooting wings. We are currently in the iteration of the superstar with no weaknesses. The league’s best players under 25 are nearly all big men with guard-like mobility and skills. They’re big men who can’t be exploited for the traditional weaknesses of big men.
With one exception. Nikola Jokic stands in stark contrast to his colleagues. Where big men like Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis are pinnacles of versatility capable of sharing the court with any lineup, Jokic finds himself in need of a very specific formula to maximize his team’s success.
Jokic calls into question our current valuation of skills in an NBA big man. Can the league’s best big man be a glaring negative on defense who handles primary creation duties on offense? Maybe, with proper context. While the other big men are queens on a chessboard, Jokic finds himself in need of a queen on a chessboard.
Enter the long coveted Paul Millsap. Let’s dive into some stats and film and see if Millsap can effectively absolve Jokic of his sins, while also reaping the benefits of his unique skills.
The One Side of the Coin Conundrum
Many players league wide provide the complement that Jokic needs on one side of the ball, but only a handful can do so on both. On the Nuggets’ roster alone, the upside on both sides of the ball was evident.
In lineups with Jokic at center and Danilo Gallinari at power forward, the Nuggets posted an offensive rating of 118.3, which would top the league-best Warriors by 5.6 points per 100 possessions.
The benefit of having a shooting, playmaking front court mate alongside Jokic is palpable. Jokic has the ball in his hands as much as any center in the league — he was third in time of possession among centers despite averaging only 27 minutes per game. Having additional space not only gives Jokic operating room for his own offense, but also creates gravitational pull on off-ball screens that allows Jokic to pick apart the defense from the high post.
The Nuggets use the Iverson Series as much as any team in the league. But for as effective as these Iverson cuts are:
They’re made possible by the shooting threat from the power forward position. Darrell Arthur was consistently able to punish teams for overplaying the cutter.
But Jokic’s unique abilities come with a price. He’s one of the worst defensive players in the NBA at the game’s most important defensive position. He allowed opponents to shoot 63.9 percent at the rim, the worst mark for any center with as many attempts against. He lacks lateral quickness and gets consistently singled out in the pick and roll.
Millsap will have to be on constant surveillance, ready to blow up a near-sure bucket at any point in time.
The formula for Jokic’s defensive viability is clear, but rare: a rangy, versatile frontcourt mate who protects the rim and handles switches with ease.
The Nuggets saw some success with pieces of what Millsap will provide. In the 632 minutes where Jokic shared the front court with Juancho Hernangomez, Mason Plumlee, or Jusuf Nurkic, the Nuggets posted a 107.4 defensive rating compared to a 112 defensive rating in all of Jokic’s 2038 minutes.
He desperately needs a power forward who can clean up his blunders. Teams will put Jokic in pick and rolls all night and Millsap will need to have a few superhero-esque rotations to save a game.
Combine the need for extreme defensive versatility with the need to have a shooting, playmaking offensive skillset and you are left with about five NBA players. And the Nuggets just snatched one of them.
League Wide Outlook
Perhaps with the fit now in place, Jokic can pave a new lane in the ever-fluid archetype of NBA superstars. The current NBA superstars are those who could play with anyone, but is it so crazy to suggest that the player with the most skill should have the rest of the roster molded around them?
The Houston Rockets didn’t unlock James Harden’s full potential until they cleared out the entire middle of the floor for him with an arsenal of shooters with limitless range.
The Philadelphia 76ers have done the same thing for Ben Simmons. How do you unlock the potential of a primary ball handler who can’t and won’t shoot three-pointers? Pair him with Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz and J.J. Redick.
Jokic is far from the normal superstar. In a league that fetishizes layups and three-pointers, Jokic made a living from 5-9 feet, where he shot a league-leading 61 percent. He’s a ball handling center with barely viable defense. Players with atypical shot selection and glaring weaknesses have nearly become taboo in recent years. But maybe with skills as pronounced and unique as players like Jokic, they can outperform their swiss army knife competition with the right fit.