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Denver Is Quietly Building an Offensive Juggernaut

The Nuggets are quietly creating one of the NBA's most potent offenses. With Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic on the roster, Denver's froncourt will be one of the league's best.

The Denver Nuggets may turn out to be the most nondescript offensive juggernaut in NBA history. Consider that last season, Denver didn’t quite understand what to make of Nikola Jokic until December or January. Injuries sidelined Gary Harris, Danilo Gallinari (who is now a Clipper), and Kenneth Faried, while nagging at rookie Jamal Murray. Jameer Nelson and Emmanuel Mudiay combined to start nearly every game at point guard for the Nuggets, handicapping Denver at the deepest position in the league.

The makeup of Denver's rotation—half of which was 22 years old or younger—suggested the Nuggets were in line for a season of modest development. Instead, they posted the fifth-best offense in the league while hitting the 40-win mark ahead of schedule.

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Jokic, frankly, is that good. Once the Nuggets put the ball in his hands, seemingly flawed lineups recontextualized around him. No matter how its overmatched point guards were playing on a given night, Denver could trust in the vision of its center; Jokic plays an artful game, often bending his passes through narrowing windows and into the hands of his teammates.

Many of the best passing bigs in the league are valuable merely for the way they redirect possessions and connect dots. Jokic genuinely creates opportunities that would not be there otherwise, giving him more function in common with Ricky Rubio than with Mason Plumlee. Even with last year’s roster and complications, the Nuggets posted what was, according to Basketball-Reference, the 35th-most efficient offensive season in NBA history. 

Now that potent offense adds Paul Millsap, perhaps the only star in the league appropriately anonymous for these Nuggets. Most teams venture to find a single big that can work inside or out. Denver now has two—an incredible luxury for a team sculpted to read and react. Part of the trouble in building a fluid, motion-heavy offense lies in acquiring players who can be threats all over the floor.

Millsap and Jokic both fit the bill, as much through their passing as their scoring. Disconnect from Millsap and he’ll stutter into the lane off the dribble for a layup. Help off of Jokic and he’ll exploit any scrambling recovery with a set shot or a bullet pass to the open man. These are bigs who understand on a granular level the mechanics of when defenders move and why. That sense of timing informs everything they do, making music of even the most chaotic situations.

Imagine this sequence with Millsap standing in for Faried:

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There’s nothing elaborate in play here—just Jokic riffing on a basic pick-and-roll by looking off multiple defenders. It’s all in the eyes; the defense collapses around Jokic, but so many of the players involved clearly expect a kick-out to the perimeter rather than a dump-off to the baseline. Faried took advantage, just as Millsap would. There’s some overlap in the way those two bigs slide into open spaces. Millsap simply eclipses Faried in terms of skill; most everything that Faried can do (save rebounding), Millsap can do better. His game marries ball handling and shooting with hard-hustling sensibilities. He is a star without any of the delusions of one.

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It would be hard to find a better counterpart for Jokic. A big who works strictly on the interior could get in Jokic’s way when he posts up, while a spot-up shooter would squander some of the dynamism to Jokic’s passing. Millsap, more than anything, knows how to work space. When the floor needs spreading he’ll step out to the perimeter—even if his shot from that distance isn’t entirely reliable. If a lane presents itself, he’ll drive hard through it and without hesitation. Whenever the defense commits even slightly too hard toward one of Millsap’s teammates, he’ll carve out the perfect position to take advantage:

There is no scheme to counter this kind of intuition. Denver has already benefited from some mind-melding between Jokic, Harris, Wilson Chandler, and even the 20-year-old Murray. Bolster their ranks with Millsap and the possibilities become dizzying. The Nuggets can run dual high posts—each capable of triggering a dribble hand-off—with the back door wide open. When one big goes low, the other can assist with post entry before cutting through. 

It’s so tempting to focus on what Jokic does with the ball that it can be easy to gloss over what he does without it. This is a point center and sophisticated post threat who slinks often into open spaces, subverting the opponent’s expectations and attacking a defense from within. Some of Jokic’s best assists come after first making a smart cut. The exact geometry will be different because of the players involved, but there’s a foundation in Denver that invokes the Spurs and Warriors at their most balletic. 

Look at this sequence as a basic template:

Charlotte actually defends this dribble hand-off fairly well, and yet at the moment Jokic brings the ball up he has three great choices: take the eight-foot shot presented to him; send a pass to Murray, who stands wide open in the opposite corner; or set up Millsap/Faried as he ducks in against a smaller defender. This is a set play, but the complications it presents can be improvised by the Nuggets in almost any situation. Perfect execution with ideal personnel may be the only way to close up all of these seams at once.

Even if that happens, the possession transforms after accounting for Millsap’s effect on it. Crowd him inside and Millsap, unlike Faried, might simply pivot and pass the ball back out to Murray. Channel kinetic energy through this kind of talent and every possession reveals options upon options upon options. Millsap will consistently give the Nuggets a few more—further extending what was already prolific and impossible to predict.