For a season and a half, the Denver Nuggets had a good problem. On their roster were Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic, two young centers the team was examining.
Initially, the team tried to make it work, having two young and dynamic centers. But as time progressed, it became abundantly clear the idea was great, but in reality, the pairing wasn’t meant to be
During the 2015-’16 season, their first together, the two played a total of 92 minutes over seven games together. In their limited time, they posted a 94.7 offensive rating, 103.8 defensive rating, and a net rating of -9.1.
The following season, the two played 12 games and 108 minutes together and got worse. Their net rating went farther into the negatives at -13.8, the fourth-worst two-man Nuggets lineups playing at least 100 minutes that season.
A change was needed, and Jokic let head coach Michael Malone know about it.
“The tone of the conversation was basically he was frustrated,” said Malone regarding his talk with Jokic. “He did not think the pairing of he and Nurkic was going well, but more importantly wasn’t helping the team. It wasn’t just about Nikola and Nurk. It was more about it’s not helping our team and that’s what you love about Nikola. It’s never about him. It’s always about the collective good. It also speaks to him being a selfless superstar.
“At that point in time, he was on his ascension to becoming an MVP player. He was well on to say, ‘man, take me out the lineup. Start somebody else. Let me come off the bench, let me play my game. Soon thereafter we made the decision to make Nikola our starting center, and we haven’t looked back since.”
The emotional conversation led to Malone granting Jokic his wish and temporarily using him as a reserve before the team eventually traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Nurkic has become the center Portland has been looking for and has been an ideal pairing alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
As for Denver, they’ve established themselves as a team on the rise around the league. Especially after overcoming a 3-1 deficit a season ago against the Clippers, and pushing the eventual champion Lakers to six games.
“I think the effect speaks for themselves,” Malone said. “Since that point in time, our team has taken off on Nikola Jokic to become an MVP. We’re the only team in the west to have home-court advantage three years in a row and we’ve advanced out of the first-round two years in a row, something that hasn’t happened in a long time in Denver. So, those are the effects.”
Since then, Jokic has blossomed into an All-Star, All-NBA, and MVP talent, with his team also having some of their best playoff success since the 1980s.
Denver had a trove of riches and is still reaping the benefits with Jokic becoming one of the best players in franchise history. His conversation with Malone helped the team get to where they are now.