The 2015-16 season was Michael Malone’s first year on the job. The Denver Nuggets won 33 years that year, a three-game improvement on the final season of Brian Shaw. Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Kenneth Faried were still the main pieces of the team, while young players like Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Nikola Jokić, and Jusuf Nurkić were receiving opportunities to develop in a low-pressure environment.

The following year, Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez, and Malik Beasley were selected in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft. It was clear that the Nuggets were doing a good job of amassing talented young players, but there was very little order behind the established veterans on the team, and the Nuggets still had no idea how they were going to make it work.

Ultimately, Malone decided to start both of his talented centers, Jokić and Nurkić, at the same time, sending longtime starting power forward Kenneth Faried to the bench. There would be some staggering involved to give each player their individual shine, but it was clear from the get-go that the experiment wasn’t going well. Seven games in, the Nuggets had a 2-5 record, losing because their starting lineup wasn’t good enough. Prior to the eighth game of the season, Jokić approached Malone and offered to come off the bench, stepping aside for Nurkić in the hope that a more traditional lineup would lead to wins.


Things didn’t change much for the next 18 games. Faried and Nurkić started next to each other, and with Mudiay as the lead point guard in just his second season, there wasn’t much hope for a functional starting lineup. The Nuggets went 7-11 in their next 18 games, culminating in an embarrassing blowout loss to the Dallas Mavericks that saw Jokić play well from the bench. There was a trend beginning to form that the Nuggets were winning Jokić’s minutes even in losses, so much so that the Nuggets had to revisit their starting lineup plans 25 games into the season.

On the 26th game, December 15th, 2016, the Nuggets switched their lineup with Jokić for the final time. The Nuggets won the game, playing a read-and-react style highlighting Jokić’s strengths as a passer and playmaker.

They never looked back.

This day six years ago is a reminder of how quickly life can progress and how dependent fandom can be. Six years is a short time for some and a long time for others, but in the span of Jokić’s career, many can remember those early moments like they were yesterday.

The Nuggets benched Nurkić, who didn’t take the demotion well, and later traded the Bosnian center to the Portland Trail Blazers. That incited a rivalry during the last six years and has potential to reignite as the Blazers have improved again.

The Nuggets also benched Mudiay, starting Jameer Nelson in his place and later moving onto Jamal Murray, trusting in his development.

To close the 2016-17 season, the Nuggets won 40 games, eliminated by Nurkić and the Blazers in one of the final matchups of the season. Nuggets fans remained happy with Denver’s choice in Jokić for a number of reasons, but there was still some inkling of doubt at that point. Had the Nuggets chosen wrong? Was Nurkić about to become the better player?

Over the course of the next three seasons though, Jokić helped to put those fears to rest. During the 2017-18 season, Paul Millsap was brought into the fold and helped the Nuggets young players grow up. Denver won 46 games that year, losing to Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and the Minnesota Timberwolves in the final game of the season to be eliminated from playoff contention. It was disappointing, but the Nuggets knew they had something special in Jokić, who produced 35 points in the overtime loss and showed up big time in the highest pressure environment of his career.

In the 2018-19 season, Jokić and the Nuggets happily learned how to putt, playing good defense for the first time in the Malone era. It helped the Nuggets win 54 games and become the two seed in the Western Conference. Perhaps they were a bit ahead of schedule with competing at the highest levels, but the two playoff rounds were excellent experience for Jokić and Murray in particular. Jokić put up 25 points, 13 rebounds, and 8 assists per game in his first ever playoff run, proving just how valuable he could be as the leading option. There were learning experiences, and Jokić’s defense still needed some work, but the foundation was there.

Then, the 2019-20 season was interrupted by the bubble. Jokić had a slow start to the year, but the shutdown and bubble may have been a blessing in disguise for him. Jokić spent the off-time slimming down and getting into the best possible shape he could, and when he returned, he was a different person. So was Murray, and the two of them captained multiple 3-1 comebacks on the way to the team’s first appearance in the Western Conference Finals, only halted by LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Los Angeles Lakers.

After those three seasons, Jokić and the Nuggets were clearly established as “really good.” Still, there were doubters, and nobody truly knew how good they could be in a normal environment. Murray was “Bubble Murray” until further notice, and Jokić simply took advantage of a fraud Los Angeles Clippers team. That was the narrative.

So, when Jokić won an MVP award, it was a shock to the system to many. Jokić averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists per game en route to his first major trophy. The Nuggets won 47 games in a 72-game season that year (53.5 win pace) and Jokić was clearly deserving. He did lose Murray along the way to an ACL injury though, and while the Nuggets had enough talent to defeat the Blazers in a first round series, they were no match for an elite Phoenix Suns team at full strength.

A similar story occurred last year. The Nuggets were without Murray and then without Michael Porter Jr. after just nine games of action. That left Jokić to put the team on his back. He did exactly that, producing another preposterous season highlighted by a rare achievement, 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 500 assists. That was a bit of all-around statistical dominance that nobody in NBA history had ever accomplished before, and it became his calling card for winning a second straight MVP award. The Nuggets won 48 games, enough to be the sixth seed in the playoffs. Unfortunately, they ran into the Golden State Warriors a buzzsaw in the first round that made quick work of the Nuggets in five games.

Since the 2016-17 season when Jokić entered the starting lineup permanently, here are his statistical ranks in various categories, via Basketball Reference:

  • 9th in total points
  • 3rd in total rebounds
  • 5th in total assists
  • 12th in total steals
  • 6th in true shooting percentage (10,000+ minutes played)
  • 2nd in Player Efficiency Rating
  • 1st in total win shares
  • 1st in Box Plus-Minus

The Nuggets surely didn’t expect this when they were deciding whether to start Jokić or Nurkić back in 2016, let alone the two MVP awards achieved along the way.

The numbers are what they are, but the more important factor here is the impact over time. The Nuggets have molded everything about who they are to the player they decided to follow. Jokić’s skills as a passer, scorer, and rebounder have allowed the Nuggets to become more versatile over time. They don’t use a traditional point guard and instead employ Murray, a scoring guard with great instincts both on and off the ball. They have three-point floor spacers in Porter and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, as well as athletic, inside-out specialists in Aaron Gordon and Bruce Brown. From Faried, to Mason Plumlee, to Jeff Green, the Nuggets can utilize any number of athletic bigs next to Jokić no matter their skill set. Jokić makes everything work.

Even more than the on-court versatility is the personality behind the scenes. Jokić doesn’t make a big deal about stats and awards and pecking order, so how can anybody else on the roster? Jokić’s adaptability to the situation and willingness to be flexible have left current and former teammates in awe of both his unselfishness and work ethic. Very few stars in NBA history have ever operated in Jokić’s manner, perhaps because Jokić is truly unlike anything the NBA has ever seen before.

Whether Denver’s choice leads to a championship, the first in Nuggets franchise history, remains to be seen. The Nuggets still have many questions to answer, from Murray’s return to Porter’s health to a bench unit still in flux. In some ways, Jokić’s presence highlights all of those potential pitfalls because of how good he is, because a championship is clearly a possibility. In other ways, Jokić’s presence papers over all of those pitfalls…because of how good he is.

The Nuggets never knew what they were getting into back in 2016. Just six years ago. It’s crazy how quickly a situation can evolve, stemming from such an innocuous decision for a rebuilding team between two centers from former Yugoslavia. Nobody thought that decision could ever have so much bearing on the Nuggets and the NBA at large.

And yet here we are, separating December 15th like an annual holiday as a result.