Can Nikola Jokic lead the Denver Nuggets to a championship?

After a max contract extension, the Nuggets have committed to Nikola Jokic. But is he the player to bring them into title contention?

Just after midnight on July 1st, the beginning of the 2018 free agency period, Nikola Jokic signed a five-year, $148 million maximum contract. The Denver Nuggets now have the next few years to build around him and hopefully grow into title contention. But it may be Jokic himself who stops his team from reaching the championship conversation.

The extension by the Nuggets was a no-brainer. Since the 2017 trade deadline when they ended the Jokic/Nurkic frontcourt experiment by trading Nurkic to Portland, Denver’s offense has become one of the elite units in the league.

They have emphasized spacing so that Jokic can operate either at the top of the key to find cutters or as the sole body in the paint.

One of his best games this past season occurred in mid-February against the Milwaukee Bucks, a game in which Mason Plumlee didn’t play. Throughout the highlights, notice how open the paint is for cutters to attack or Jokic to work down low.

Per Synergy Sports, Jokic scores 1.24 points per possession in isolation situations, putting him in the 96th percentile in the league. His passing ability for someone his size is 'unicorn-like'. In the shot-clock era, only five players have had seasons with an assist percentage above %29.5 while also averaging 8.5 rebounds or more: Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Grant Hill, Magic Johnson and Nikola Jokic.

Averaging around 19 points, 11 rebounds, and 6 assists, he was also just shy of joining the famed 50-40-90 club last season. He would’ve become the tenth (and youngest) player to join that illustrious club which includes the likes of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Dirk Nowitzki among others.

Not only did he bring the Nuggets out of their rebuilding phase, but he did it with some of the flashiest passes and funkiest low post moves of the modern era:

But for all Jokic adds offensively, he has significant room for improvement on the defensive end. Last season he ranked in the 30th percentile of points per possession when guarding the pick-and-roll, making him one of the main reasons Denver had the 7th worst offense in the league, per basketball reference. The Nuggets as a team rank 25th in the league at defending the pick-and-roll ball handler, per Synergy.

Rk Team W L DRtg/A
1 Phoenix Suns 21 61 113.19
2 Cleveland Cavaliers 50 32 112.94
3 Minnesota Timberwolves 47 35 111.91
4 Sacramento Kings 27 55 111.62
5 Memphis Grizzlies 22 60 111.59
6 Brooklyn Nets 28 54 111.55
7 Denver Nuggets 46 36 111.5

Source: Basketball-Reference

The Nuggets tried to minimize Jokic’s defensive shortcomings by signing Paul Millsap. Millsap led the league in defensive win shares (6.0) two season ago, after ranking among the league leaders for most of his prime. Unfortunately, injuries restricted him to only 38 games and the Nuggets were left with the same defensive issues in his absence.

When the Nuggets eventually make the playoffs and face teams who will be game planning for them, Jokic’s struggles on the defensive end will be at the forefront of the other teams scouting reports.

Particularly in the playoffs, teams look to find a weak point in the defense and go at it as much as they can. We saw this in the Western Conference Finals last season when players like Ryan Anderson and JaVale McGee, who usually have roles on their teams, were unable to stay on the court. JaVale only played three minutes in the entire series.

While some teams had the luxury of limiting the playing time of these players, the Nuggets most likely won’t have that option. Jokic is indispensable to their offense and defines who they are as a team. This may be why building around Jokic could limit the Nuggets championship aspirations.

It would’ve been interesting if Denver had beaten Minnesota on the last night of the regular season and met Houston in the first round. That would have given us a sample for how much teams target Jokic in the playoffs. The series might have been the basketball equivalent of Groundhog Day, the same play happening repeatedly. James Harden and Chris Paul constantly calling for a screen involving Jokic’s man until they could put him on an island at the top of the three-point line. If they made it deeper into the playoffs, the results may have been similar with Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry looking for a switch.

These are the problems with having a (currently) one-dimensional player as the star of a franchise.

Luckily for Denver, it’s been done before, and it will most likely happen again. Curry has defensive limitations and the Warriors have done fine (understatement); Harden has had a lowlight reel of defensive mishaps nearly every week and Houston has managed consistent and deep playoff runs.

With the hope for a healthy season from Millsap and the fact that Jokic is only 23, there is room for internal growth. Next on the shopping list for Denver should be defensive wings, especially after the trade of Wilson Chandler. Alternatively, further development from Malik Beasley and Torrey Craig can fill in the production Chandler brought.

So, the question remains: Can Nikola Jokic lead the Denver Nuggets to a championship? Has the NBA evolved too much past big-orientated centerpieces since Dirk did it in 2011? Is Jokic the player to break that stigma?

If he stays as much a liability on defense as he currently is, there will be no Larry O’Brien trophies in Denver. But hoping a 23-year-old can improve his game is a very safe bet. For now, we can sit back and watch as one of the best offenses in the league tries to figure out how to win.

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