The last straw for Mike Malone, fiery head coach of a rising League Pass darling searching for the effortless offense that made fans swoon, came when Nikola Jokic lollygagged getting back on defense during practice last week.
"I jumped him," Malone says. "I jumped him very vocally." Jokic protested that perhaps Malone should yell at the person who turned the ball over.
"I don't give a s--- about the turnover," Malone shot back. "Get your ass back on defense." Jokic protested again -- "I say what I think, like always," he said with a chuckle -- and Malone yanked him with one last zinger: "If you don't want to play, get out."
It was a small window into a franchise facing pressure again -- pressure on Jokic to serve as centerpiece before he turns 23, and on a team that ranked an embarrassing 29th in points allowed per possession last season to get enough stops for its first playoff berth since 2013.
Last spring, Malone warned Jokic of the coming burden. He needed to get in better shape, and stay even-keeled. "When s--- doesn't go your way, sometimes you become a baby," Malone told him. "You take bad fouls. You take bad shots. Your body language does this and that. You think it's just about you. But what do you think Jamal [Murray] is looking at? What do you think Gary Harris is looking at? All eyes are on you. If you do that stuff, it filters down. At the end of the day, Nikola knows I love him."
The team knows that is a lot to ask of a 22-year-old second-round pick who barely registered as a prospect until his late teens -- a hangdog, deadpan comic and self-described ex-"fat point guard" the Nuggets didn't even speak to before picking him 41st in 2014. This is a man who had to kick a Coca-Cola addiction measured in liters per day, who still wrestles his gigantic older brothers, Nemanja and Strahinja, in the home they share. ("I made Nemanja tap yesterday," he says, refusing to show video proof.)
"It's almost irresponsible of us to think he can carry the weight of our organization already," says Tim Connelly, Denver's president of basketball operations.
That's one reason they signed Paul Millsap to a three-year, $90 million megadeal with a team option in Year 3 -- that and Millsap's ability to cinch up the defense. When the team gathered in a private room at the Boulder Cork for dinner the night before its first practice, Malone delivered his keynote message: "Our offense was great," he told them. "Our defense was s---." He launched a PowerPoint presentation filled with charts and graphs showing the varying ways in which the Nuggets' defense failed -- before anyone had even been served alcohol.
Things are a little better. The Nuggets rank 18th in points allowed per possession after scrapping their old defense for an aggressive scheme in which they swarm ball-handlers near the 3-point arc -- a style Millsap played in Atlanta:
That is a challenge for a plodder like Jokic. Denver sat Jokic back in the paint last season, but it didn't work; opposing point guards saw a runway, revved up, and finished over and around him. Opponents feasted both from deep and at the basket. Malone was determined to at least make them pick up dribbles and swing the ball.
One good sign: only 28.5 percent of opponent shots have come at the rim, the lowest share in the league, per Cleaning The Glass. Whether that matters given the tradeoffs is unclear. Opponents are shooting well in the restricted area -- 63.5 percent overall, almost 68 percent with Jokic on the floor -- and passing around the traps, into more 3-pointers. The expected effective field-goal percentage of Denver's opponents -- based on the location of shots and nearby defenders -- is a tick higher this season, per Second Spectrum data.
Still: the players have bought in after spending the majority of practice time on defense. They are flying around in rotation. There is even a little anxiety within the organization that the Nuggets sacrificed some of their happy-go-lucky scoring identity in tilting the focus toward defense. Losing offensive guru Chris Finch to the Pelicans didn't help.
Denver is down to 13th in points per possession after leading the league last season post-Dec. 15, when Malone made Jokic a starter. (That date is scripture inside the Nuggets. Everyone knows it by heart, and mentions it often.) Last season's symphony of backdoor cuts and no-look slings has given way (on some nights) to a meandering slog:
Denver knew regression was coming. Everything orbited Jokic last season, but Millsap needs the ball -- and likes to hold it. He lives closer to the basket than Danilo Gallinari, his predecessor. More bodies clutter the paint when Jokic threads a bounce pass to one of his cutters. Look how little Millsap's guys -- Carmelo Anthony and Quincy Acy -- need to travel to disrupt the deadly Jokic-Harris two-man game, and imagine how much farther they'd have to go if they were hugging Gallinari around the 3-point arc:
The Nuggets try to distract Millsap's defenders with decoy action on the weak side, but attentive opponents ignore it. Teams are ready for Jokic now. "Nikola isn't surprising anyone," Malone says.
Teams are straying farther from Wilson Chandler. Bench units are light on shooting.
Add it up, and Denver ranks an astounding 29th in points per possession in the half court, per Cleaning The Glass. Their shot selection has migrated away from the most profitable areas, toward the midrange. They are generating many fewer shots via cuts, per Synergy Sports.
"We are disjointed," Malone says. "Jagged. There are growing pains with Paul." They are still sussing out things as basic as where should everyone stand, and when.
"Paul is adjusting to us, and we are adjusting to Paul," Jokic says. "It will just take time."
They are subsisting on offensive rebounds and transition play. The beautiful game has turned grimy.
When things bog down, most teams ask their point guards to conjure magic. Denver can't fall back on that after two decisions -- both the subject of frothy internal debate -- left the position in the hands of Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay.
"The main challenge for our team," Malone says, "is the development of our point guards."
Before Game 1, Denver waived Jameer Nelson, their starter much of last season. They had a deal in place to trade him to a bad team in exchange for a protected second-round pick, but they could not stomach sending a beloved mentor into lottery purgatory, sources say. The Nuggets admit emotion creeps into their decision-making, and they hope players around the league notice.
"You can't make decisions with your heart only," Connelly says, without confirming any Nelson deal. "But these are good guys. To view them as just assets -- that's not something we ascribe to. Guys we've had here will speak highly of how we've treated them."
No one will say it this baldly, but the Nelson move has a slight Moneyball feel, with the front office removing the coach's security blanket. Everyone agreed eventually, but it took convincing.
"It was tough to see Jameer go," Malone says. "The players trusted him. I find value in veteran mentors. In our meetings, of course I brought up all the reasons it made sense to keep him. But you have to think big picture. It wasn't like I was kicking and screaming. By the end, we were all on board."
Around the same time, the Nuggets were in the red zone -- if not at the goal line -- in talks with Phoenix for Eric Bledsoe, according to several league sources. The deal would almost certainly have included Mudiay and a first-round pick. Talks collapsed, and the Nuggets washed their hands of it. They would chase a playoff spot in one of the toughest conferences in history behind a 20- and 21-year-old sharing the controls with Jokic.
Connelly would not comment on specific trade talks. "We chase every opportunity to improve ourselves," he says. "We've had a lot of excellent players offered to us for our young talent. There's a fine line between overvaluing your own players and being too aggressive chasing short-term results."
There is dissonance between splurging on a 32-year-old power forward (Millsap) and holding fast to both young point guards, but there is also a middle ground. "It doesn't have to be all one way, or all the other," Connelly says.
Passing on Bledsoe was defensible. He would not have elevated Denver near the championship picture over the next two seasons. After that, he becomes a 30-ish free agent with prior knee issues, seeking a monster contract. The Nuggets believe they can make the playoffs with their current roster, learn from the experience, and keep their powder dry for Jokic's prime.
But nothing is guaranteed in the West. Murray has spent most of this season overthinking every decision, and passing up open 3s for wayward floaters:
"He's passing up open shots to take tough shots," Malone says.
"I probably am," Murray concedes. "Last year, I had Jameer out there with me, and I was coming off pindowns. I'm trying to figure it all out."
Murray arrived early after last Saturday's loss against Golden State to watch film with Malone of every possession he played in that game. His fellow starters are taking it easy on him, because they know how often coaches are in his ear.
"Coach wants him to be a point guard, but he's really a scorer," Jokic says.
"They are getting beaten over the head a bit," Millsap says of Murray and Mudiay.
Murray doesn't have point-guard timing yet; he'll abort drives early, when he has only just compromised the defense, or venture one dribble too many:
He's shooting a ghastly 29 percent from deep. Denver is confident that will turn.
Mudiay has drilled 47 percent on 3s, a pleasant surprise. Teams duck under picks against him, anyway. His playmaking is haphazard, and he remains a wild finisher around the basket. The Nuggets are scoring just 0.79 points per possession on any trip featuring a Mudiay-Jokic pick-and-roll, the second-worst figure among 157 duos that have run at least 50 such plays, per Second Spectrum.
Against good half-court defenses, the Nuggets have expended a lot of time and effort going nowhere -- moving the ball from station to station, but failing to get it below the elbows in any productive way.
"If you have all five guys hanging around the perimeter, you become easy to guard," Malone says. "We have to put some pressure on the rim."
That was Kenneth Faried's job as a manic lob-catcher, but he's not playing as much. (He should play some of Mason Plumlee's minutes, and in tandem at times with Millsap.) Harris is a tentative driver who has struggled horribly on pull-up jumpers. This is why Will Barton, chaos engine, feels so weirdly essential -- Denver's one balls-to-the-wall speedster who just gets from Point A to Point B.
Barton is solid, but his being indispensable is not a great sign for any team.
The offense will settle in. They are already discovering things, and pushing the pace so they get into the offense before everyone takes up residence near the paint:
They've produced good looks out of an artful spread pick-and-roll set that flows into a Millsap dribble handoff, and finally (if necessary) into a quick-hitting Jokic post-up:
It takes time to mesh scripted sets like that with last season's glorious "run and cut around Jokic" randomness. Jokic and Millsap have rare combined skill for a big man duo; they will figure it out. They stumbled into some super-sized pick-and-rolls, and they are hunting opportunities to unleash it in semi-transition:
Mudiay has shown new pick-and-roll craft, including a Eurostep. He is sniffing out cuts -- a must for any Jokic teammate:
Mudiay and Murray are improving, and they will get good. Most lottery picks get good in their mid-20s. Harris just turned 23; he will expand his game. This group with Millsap will organically grow toward 50 wins.
Whether they can nudge past 55 in a few years, and how they might add post-Millsap talent to do it, are open questions. Actualized versions of Murray and Mudiay may top out as league-average starting point guards. Harris will be better than that as his position, but perhaps never an All-Star.
They don't have a long-term answer at either forward position, and they may not have cap room to find one in any of the next three summers. They are banking hugely -- maybe too much -- on internal development.
They are confident they still have the goods to butt into trade talks for the next disgruntled star. That is uncertain. Bit players like Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley have value, but they aren't blockbuster centerpieces. Denver is out of extra first-round picks after coughing one up to dump JaVale McGee, and tossing another into the Plumlee-Jusuf Nurkic deal -- an overpay.
They doubled down by inking Plumlee to an untradable new contract when he had zero leverage in restricted free agency. Trading down from No. 13, where Utah picked Donovan Mitchell, for Trey Lyles and the 24th pick looks like a net loss; the Nuggets targeted OG Anunoby (among others), sources say, but Toronto snapped him up.
Connelly's remark about Denver perhaps overvaluing its own players -- or being conscious of avoiding it -- rings true. They sold late on Ty Lawson, and passed up chances to flip Danilo Gallinari for picks. Barton's contract is no longer a golden chip in its final season.
It's unclear how they could deal for a star without sacrificing one of Harris and Murray. Then again, crazy things happen in the superstar trade market. Good teams -- like Denver -- can take more swings than awful ones; they can feel confident a stud on a ticking contract will enjoy winning there and re-up. Even so, Denver nabbing a lesser forward from a team facing a cap crunch is more realistic.
They were prepared to move Harris in a three-way draft night trade with Indiana and Cleveland for Kevin Love, but the Pacers pulled out. The Nuggets are better off having signed Millsap into cap space. Chasing Paul George on an expiring deal was a no-go.
As I wrote over the summer, there is one guy they might regret not going all-in to get: Kyrie Irving, just 25, with two years left on his deal. A package of Murray, Chandler, and a top-three-ish-protected first-round pick would have gotten them into the bidding. Talks never got that far; Denver would not include Murray, sources have said.
Perhaps Irving sent signals he would not re-sign in Denver, though there is no indication of that. Building an elite defense with Irving and Jokic up the middle would be trying. It will be trying with the current roster, too.
It's tempting to say the Nuggets don't need a ball-dominant point guard around Jokic. The Bucks rejected that line of thinking in slotting Eric Bledsoe next to Giannis Antetokounmpo, and they were right to. Even LeBron needs a second star playmaker.
Unless someone really pops, the Nuggets need more juice around Jokic to contend for titles someday. Jokic is a foundational star. He can obliterate smaller guys in the post. On defense, he's not quite the sieve he's made out to be. He'll never be a fearsome rim deterrent, but he has smart feet and hands; he is swiping almost two steals per 36 minutes, an elite number for a big man. He has rated well in ESPN's real plus-minus system -- not the be-all, end-all, but something. The Nuggets can build a decent defense around him.
He has also scored in single digits in five of Denver's 14 games. Some of that is by choice; Jokic finds real joy in lifting his teammates. But against most defenders his size, Jokic is not a bucket-getter who can zoom wherever he wants and command a crunch-time offense. That's OK. He can still be a superstar, and borderline top-10 player; passing savants impact shot quality and team chemistry in ways that are hard to capture in numbers. Denver just needs another big-time guy.
The Nuggets aren't ready for that heady talk just yet. They would be satisfied with a string of competitive playoff appearances. Jokic is confident he can get them there his way -- even it means irritating Malone now and then by stretching the game's artistic boundaries.
"If you don't try something, you never know," Jokic says. "I need to try. I don't really hear him yelling during the games, anyway."