Following the Denver Nuggets loss to the Golden State Warriors on Thursday, second-year big man Nikola Jokic came to coach Mike Malone with a suggestion.
“Coach, I don’t want to start anymore. Start somebody else. I just want to win,” Jokic said, according to Malone.
The eight-game experiment of pairing the 6-foot-11 Jokic alongside the 7-foot Jusuf Nurkic wasn’t going well. In the 103 minutes the two Balkan big men played together, the Nuggets were outscored by more than 15 points per 100 possessions. Starting Jokic and Nurkic together led to Denver crawling out of the gates and having to play catchup.
Malone obliged. He inserted Kenneth Faried into the starting lineup in Jokic’s place against the Detroit Pistons on Saturday. Only that didn’t go well either. Denver trailed Detroit 36-21 after the first quarter.
The Nuggets were never able to overcome that early deficit. They lost 106-95.
Nine games are in the books for the Nuggets now, and they’re 3-6. What’s become clear after this first stretch of games, besides the fact that Denver is turning the ball over at an alarming rate, is that the team simply seems to have too many big men and not enough minutes for all of them.
Jokic’s and Nurkic’s best positions are center. Faried’s best position is probably center. Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari are true small forwards, but they’re effective power forwards in doses. Rookie Juancho Hernangomez has shown flashes of talent, and he can play power forward, too.
That’s six Nuggets who play either center or power forward, and seven if you count the injured Darrell Arthur. This log jam in the front court has led to irregular minutes for each of them, odd lineups and, generally, dysfunction. And that only seems like it’s going to persist moving forward.
“Obviously starting Kenneth wasn’t the answer because we got down 15,” Malone said. “So we’ll look to make some changes and find a group that doesn’t get down by 15 every night.”
Bringing Jokic off the bench doesn’t seem like the answer. Last season, he was the only player (if you don’t count Erick Green, who only played three games) with a positive net rating. The Nuggets outscored opponents by 1.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Put simply, Denver is at its best when he’s on the floor and playing center.
“I feel like I’ve done him a disservice almost, exploring playing big,” Malone said after the loss Saturday. “I took a kid who had a great year last year and changed his position on him. And it hasn’t been easy for him. The hope is to try and get him more minutes at the five. He will play some four at times. But we need to get Nikola back. Nikola Jokic last year was a hell of a player. Free, easy. Now you look at him, he looks like he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders. I want to alleviate some of that if I can.”
Some difficult decisions about divvying up the big men’s minutes are going to have to be made if the Nuggets want to improve. Should Malone start Jokic at center in place of Nurkic, who’s made such big strides this season? Should he bury Faried at the end of the bench, knowing that Denver’s best lineups come with Chandler at Gallinari at power forward?
There aren’t an easy solutions. Only difficult choices.
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