The small ball era had a good run. The Denver Nuggets — led by 6-foot-11, 285-pound center Nikola Jokic — officially expired the small ball era with a brand of old-school basketball principles that rely mostly on size and strength over pace and space.
The Nuggets plowed through the 2023 NBA playoffs, winning 16 of 20 games. Their 16-4 postseason mark is the best since the 2007 San Antonio Spurs. Denver put an exclamation point on its historic playoff run by winning the franchise’s first NBA title after overpowering and overwhelming the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
“[The Nuggets] have what Golden State had. They’ve changed the game,” Fox Sports NBA analyst Ric Bucher said on FS1’s “The Herd.”
“With a point center in Jokic, now I expect teams are going to be looking to find that athletic 7-footers who might be able to match up with him to make the game difficult,” Bucher added, “or find some sort of wrinkle that is going to have an answer for Nikola Jokic.”
The Nuggets roll out a conventional starting five with Jamal Murray (point guard), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (shooting guard), Michael Porter Jr. (small forward), Aaron Gordon (power forward), and Jokic (center). They all have ideal size for their respective positions. Murray is a 6-4 point guard who can score at all three levels and post-up smaller guards. Caldwell-Pope is a 6-5 guard with elite defensive talent as a 3-and-D wing. Porter Jr. is a lengthy 6-10 shooting forward who can provide instant offense. Gordon is an athletic 6-8 forward who started his career in Orlando as a spectacular slam dunker, but became a rugged player willing to do all the dirty work and take on difficult defensive assignments.
And then there is Jokic.
The big man from Sombor, Serbia, is a throwback center with a touch of modern. He takes high percentage shots. He sets solid screens. He rebounds the ball. He can hit 3-pointers, but it’s more a luxury than a necessity. What makes Jokic special is his ability to be playmaker as the 5-man. The Nuggets run their offense through Jokic, and he’s very comfortable being the quarterback.
Having the center be the focal point is certainly nostalgic. It goes against the new-school way where threes are better than twos. Analytics shifted the attack from inside-out to outside-in.
The Nuggets don’t subscribe to this approach. They are more of a conventional team that would have been a good fit in the 1980s and ’90s.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone — whose father Brendan won two championships as a member of Chuck Daly’s staff with the Detroit Pistons — leans heavily on his starting five. He usually finishes games with his core five guys, an anomaly in today’s game as most coaches prefer going small instead of staying big. The Heat deployed this small-ball, perimeter-oriented philosophy and rode it to an improbable postseason run, becoming the second No. 8 seed to reach the NBA Finals. The Heat advanced through each round by wearing down opponents with 3-point shooting, near-flawless execution in the fourth quarter, and a perplexing zone defense.
It almost work until Miami ran into Denver in The Finals.
Miami’s formula worked against Eastern Conference teams. It wasn’t as effective against the bigger Nuggets, whose size, strength, and skill — three traits that define their all-world center Jokic — were too much to overcome. Jokic and Co. found the mismatches and punished the mismatches throughout the series.
Jokic enjoyed a sensational NBA Finals debut, averaging nearly a triple-double (30.2 points, 14 rebounds, 7.2 assists) en route to winning Finals MVP. He was too big and too skilled for his counterpart Bam Adebayo. Bam had a solid series (22.3 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists) but his numbers were pedestrian compared to Jokic. Adebayo’s effort would have been good enough against the majority of NBA centers. But Jokic is no ordinary center.
Bam is an undersized center (listed at 6-9, 255) best suited as a big forward. In boxing terms, Bam would be a light heavyweight. He was simply no match for a super heavyweight like The Joker.
Denver’s core group is homegrown. The Nuggets drafted Murray in the first round in 2016. Two years later, they drafted Porter Jr. Team executive Calvin Booth, who took over as general manager in 2020, made two important acquisitions: Gordon in 2021 and Caldwell-Pope in 2022.
Caldwell-Pope gave the Nuggets some much-needed perimeter defense with championship pedigree (he won with the Lakers in 2020), while Gordon provided athleticism and versatility on both ends. He has embraced a supporting role after being the featured attraction in Orlando.
“He’s been put into the perfect role as the third guy [behind Jokic and Murray],” said Bucher, who compares Gordon’s arc to Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins, the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, struggled to carry the burden of being the face of the Minnesota Timberwolves, but thrived as the third or fourth wheel with the Golden State Warriors.
Gordon entered the league with a ton of hype and a ton of expectations as the No. 4 overall pick by the Magic in the 2014 draft, the same year Jokic was drafted.
Jokic’s NBA odyssey was an unlikely one. He was drafted in the second round. Forty players were taken ahead of him. He looked overweight and out of shape when he first played in the Las Vegas summer league.
“I always think about this and laugh because that first Summer League in Vegas, 300 pounds, out of shape — he’s a nice player,” Malone said of Jokic, whose draft scouting report read something like this: Slow-footed, below-average athlete; doesn’t get much lift off the floor; doesn’t have the speed or burst to drive past opponents or stay in front of them laterally on defense.
No one ever could have seen Jokic winning MVPs and becoming the most dominant big man in basketball since Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan.
“That speaks to his dedication to his craft, getting in great shape and understanding that for him to fulfill his potential, he had to work harder, and he’s done that,” said Malone, who quickly realized he had something special in Jokic during his rookie year in the 2015-16 season.
“There was a game in his rookie season at San Antonio. He put up a crazy stat line,” Malone recalled. “[He put up] 25 or 26 points, 12 or 13 rebounds, six or seven assists against a guy like Tim Duncan. That was for me when the light bulb went off and saying, ‘Wow.’ What he just did, who he did it against, on the road against this team, coached by [Gregg Popovich]. This kid has a chance to be a special player.”
Malone had one more puzzle to figure out. Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic were both on the roster and room wasn’t big enough to house them. Malone had to chose one.
“I was bringing Nikola off the bench,” Malone recalled. “After we lost a game at Dallas, I remember having the conversation [and said to myself] ‘What am I doing?’ This kid was All-Rookie as a center. I started him the next game, probably around December 12th Year 2, and that’s when our team took off, he became the focal point of everything we did. And we realized we had a player we can build an offense and a team and an organization around.”
Malone made the right call.
With Jokic as their centerpiece, the Nuggets are now sitting on the Iron Throne ruling the basketball world. It took seven years, but it was worth the wait. Denver’s loyal fans waited almost five decades to celebrate a championship. Thanks to a plus-size starting lineup spearheaded by an uber talented big man rewriting the NBA record book, the Mile High City finally got its championship banner.