NBA Position Battles: It's Time for the Denver Nuggets to Roll With Nikola Jokic
Nikola Jokic -- an All-Rookie First Team honoree last year -- had a rocky start to his sophomore campaign in 2016-17.
The Denver Nuggets and their head coach, Mike Malone, experimented with a twin-tower frontcourt to start the season, with 6'10" natural center Jokic playing power forward next to 7'0" Jusuf Nurkic at center. That pairing lasted a grand total of eight games and 103 minutes played, in which they posted a horrible -15.4 net rating together.
The two bigs have not played a single second together since the experiment was abandoned after a November 10th loss to the Golden State Warriors, and it's starting to look like it will be a timeshare between the two at center in every sense of the word going forward.
The Nuggets have continued to start Nurkic in the middle in every game since that loss in early November, while bringing Jokic off the bench and giving him the slight edge in minutes played per contest with 23.4 to Nurkic's 21.5.
A straight split in playing time means neither big is playing a full complement of minutes, potentially to the detriment of their individual development.
Should the Nuggets continue to split the minutes evenly between their two young bigs going forward or favor the development of one over the other? If they were to pick one big man to lean on instead of this timeshare, who should it be?
According to most of the numbers, the answer would be Nikola Jokic.
If you glanced at their per-36 numbers, they look to be doing equally well. If anything, Nurkic has an advantage from a raw numbers point of view:
Where Jokic excels, though, is in his efficiency. If you look at the more advanced, efficiency-based metrics, Jokic has a clear and definitive edge.
We'll start with our proprietary metric, nERD, which is a player ranking that measures the total contribution of a player throughout the course of a season, based on his efficiency.
Comparable to win shares, nERD gives an estimate of how many games above or below .500 a league-average team would win with the player in question as one of its starters. Of the 16 players that have played for the Nuggets so far this season, Jokic is second on the team in nERD at 1.1 (behind Kenneth Faried's 1.3), while Nurkic is 14th at -1.0. In other words, the team would have won roughly 2.1 more games to this point in the season, had Jokic started instead of Nurkic (more or less).
And that's not the only advanced metric that favors Jokic over Nurkic:
|Category||Nikola Jokic||Jusuf Nurkic|
|Player Efficiency Rating||18.1||16.3|
|True Shooting Percentage||57.9%||51.4%|
|Win Shares per 48 Minutes||.162||.054|
|Value Over Replacement Player||0.6||0.2|
Jokic gives up a little to Nurkic on defensive rating but surpasses him across the board otherwise. And it's not like Nurkic has been a defensive stalwart by any stretch of the imagination. He's allowing opponents to shoot 58.1% on 5.9 shot attempts faced at the rim per game, as compared to Jokic's 57.8% allowed on 5.4.
Neither is doing very well in that respect, but it's worth pointing out as it negates any idea that Nurkic might be getting starts over Jokic for his defensive ability.
And if you want to look at which center creates the best frontcourt pairing with power forward Kenneth Faried, the choice of Jokic is even more obvious. Here is how each two-man combination has fared so far this year:
|2-Man Lineup||MIN||Off Rtg||Def Rtg||Net Rtg||REB%||eFG%|
|Jusuf Nurkic + Kenneth Faried||213||93.5||108.4||-14.9||54.2%||46.2%|
|Nikola Jokic + Kenneth Faried||98||110.1||98.0||12.1||56.6%||50.3%|
The Denver Nuggets are reeling at 8-14 and as losers of six of their last eight. They are currently only 3.5 games out of the 8 seed in the Western Conference, though, and our algorithm still gives them a 10.0% chance at a postseason berth this year.
They've faced a lot of injuries this season at various positions, and that's a big part of the reason why they are not currently in the playoff mix, but there are still some improvements that can be made that are within their control.
Namely, a shakeup in their starting lineup might be needed if they want a chance of a playoff berth after a three-year absence. After all, their starting unit of the last four games of Emmanuel Mudiay, Will Barton, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, and Jusuf Nurkic has a putrid net rating of -34.9 in 57 minutes of action this season.
The clearest and most obvious change to make would be to insert Nikola Jokic into the starting five in place of Nurkic. That same lineup with Jokic has only gotten eight minutes of playing time together this season, and that's simply not enough from which to draw any conclusions.
It's basically time for the Nuggets to see what Jokic can do with an increased role. To date, he's earned it.