The Denver Nuggets remain in “development” this year as their playoff dreams continue to spin away like an errant pass that won’t stay inbounds. There is one question above any other that needs to become the franchise motto. Every personnel, coaching and development decision needs to answer this question: “How does this make Nikola Jokic better?”
Right now, Jokic is a potential NBA star waiting in the wings. Denver hopes he ascends to great heights—more than his 6’10” frame. His unstoppable offensive game, at its best, is more than other teams can handle. Unfortunately, Jokic and the Nuggets are inconsistent, with Jokic sometimes disappearing altogether from games.
Thus, this team is still just about potential. Now, to be fair, it’s a lot of potential. Jokic, triangulated with guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, all but oozes a series of tantalizing glimpses of what might become.
Potential, however, goes in two directions. It is either actualized into results or erodes and becomes wasted potential.
For the Nuggets, an actualized team built around Jokic will compete for NBA playoff series and challenge the best teams in the NBA. Eroded potential would leave that talent on the table. It would mean that the Nuggets never solidify into that team fans are hoping they will. Wasted potential reminds me of Ty Lawson, who at one time was known as a rising star in the league before his own personal demons hijacked his career.
With this team, wasted potential ends with a Jokic exit and not much else to show for it. The worst part is that the Nuggets have played themselves into a troubling cap situation. While unlikely, a Jokic exit could happen sooner rather than later. Lakers fans think they could get Jokic in 2019.
Let’s game plan as if that’s not going to happen. For Jokic’s potential to blossom, the Nuggets need for him to take steps to be consistently great—and do everything in their power to help get him there. This leaves the Nuggets with some decisions to make.
The biggest question mark is coach Michael Malone. At the beginning of the year, the Nuggets had a “playoffs or bust” mentality. Malone has walked back on those expectations, on behalf of the Nuggets’ front office, in recent weeks. This feels like a statement that Malone is staying.
If he does return next year, the expectations from Nuggets President Tim Connelly to Malone need to be about building around Jokic. Malone has made decisions that hurt Jokic, like calling plays that limit Jokic’s effectiveness. The defensive schemes also need to be built with Jokic in mind, because he isn’t quick enough to be a really good defensive player.
Malone and his coaching staff also need to help Jokic turn into a leader on the court. They can assist with this process by setting him up for success early in games and helping Jokic find his voice as a leader. It’s not part of Jokic’s basic personality to lead naturally. They need to assist him to gain an understanding of how people like Tim Duncan were able to mold influence in a leadership role by example instead of with words.
Connelly and Nuggets General Manager Artūras Karnišovas also need to come to terms with the limitations Jokic puts on their roster. Mason Plumlee and Paul Millsap have both hindered Jokic’s effectiveness rather than helped him as big bodies on the floor. With the cap space situation (it’s not good), the Nuggets are going to have to make some tough choices, sooner then they’d like.
Jokic is not a perfect player, but he’s a unique asset in an NBA, where stars get you over the top. Add in Harris and Murray, and the Nuggets have a bright future.
Just get out of the way of the Serbian in the middle. He’s your ticket to NBA relevance.