DETROIT – Asked whether he’s becoming a leader on the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic shook his head then turned to Gary Harris in the adjoining locker.
“Do you think I’m a leader?” Jokic asked.
“Who?” Harris responded.
“Me,” Jokic said.
“No,” Harris said.
“See,” Jokic said, turning back to me. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
It’s not entirely clear whether Jokic is serious or showing the self-deprecating humor of someone nicknamed The Joker.
Denver is trying to be patient with Jokic – a 22-year-old former second-round pick – but his production and contract status demand his ascent be expedited.
Jokic has arguably been the Nuggets’ best player every season of his three-year career. He definitely is now.
And that has caused Denver to adjust its plan on the fly – all for a player drafted No. 41 in 2014 and who entered the NBA in 2015.
Jusuf Nurkic was coming off a promising All-Rookie second-team season when the Nuggets signed Jokic. It was quickly clear there’d be complications with the two centers coexisting, but Nurkic’s injuries and second-year slump delayed adjudication. Finally, the Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Trail Blazers. Once Jokic became a starter in mid-December, Denver led the NBA in points per possession the rest of last season.
“His rapid development last year kind of changed how we view our organizational development,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly said. “His unique skill set is something we think we can build around.”
Jokic is a generationally good passer for a center, and he works in so many offensive sets. He posts up, screens on pick-and-rolls, spots up and cuts. He finishes well at the rim, and his range extends through the mid-range to beyond the arc, though he’s not quite a knockdown 3-point shooter. He’s a good rebounder on both ends of the floor.
But he’s not much a rim protector. His slow foot speed, especially laterally, hampers him in space defensively.
Power forwards who complement Jokic on both sides of the court are rare, but Denver found one in Paul Millsap, who can space the floor and cut strongly offensively and safeguard the interior and switch on the perimeter defensively. The Nuggets signed the 32-year-old to a contract worth $61 million over the first two years and with a $30.5 million team option for the third season – a clear win-now response to Jokic’s readiness to win.
On the other hand, Jokic’s youth presents a long window for success. Before the season, Denver also waived Jameer Nelson, a veteran point guard whom Nuggets coach Michael Malone often leaned on as a crutch when younger options were undependable. That forced Denver to rely on 20-year-old Jamal Murray and 21-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard. Murray has grown in his starting role and looks like a foundational piece with Jokic. Mudiay couldn’t hack it in the rotation and was replaced by Will Barton, who also plays wing. After all, the Nuggets (24-23, eighth in the Western Conference) are trying to win this season.
It’s a tough balancing act, and the next big question comes with Jokic’s team option next summer.
Jokic is due the minimum salary ($1,600,520) in 2018-19, and that’s obviously a huge bargain. But if Denver exercises the option, he’d become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. By declining Jokic’s option, the Nuggets could make him a restricted free agent this year.
As a restricted free agent, Jokic could probably draw a max offer sheet – which projects to be worth about $109 million over four years (about $27 million annually) – that Denver would surely match. In a direct offer, the Nuggets’ max projects to be about $146 million over five years (about $29 million annually).
Jokic is worth the investment at either price. There’s value in securing him for an extra season during his prime.
But the Nuggets hold leverage. They could condition declining his option on him pledging to accept a sub-max, but still large, contract. After all, that’d still be his quickest ticket to a life-altering payday. That route would require trust, but – Carlos Boozer and the Cavaliers potentially excepted – everyone usually follows through on those informal agreements.
Of course, if Denver offers too little, Jokic could wait until 2019 free agency. There’s even a case for delaying a new contract even with a max offer this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team in 2018-19, he’d be eligible for a super-max contract the following summer. That projects to be worth about $188 million over five years (about $38 million annually) – enough to offset a smaller salary, either the team-option amount or qualifying offer, next season.
To make this even more complex, the possibility of a super-max offer in 2019 could lead the Nuggets to exercise Jokic’s option. They could leverage his low salary next season then have potentially an even larger leg up financially over other suitors in 2019.
Keeping Jokic’s salary low next season is particular important, because Denver already has $110,169,322 committed to 12 players (Millsap, Gary Harris, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, Juan Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Tyler Lydon). Maxing out Jokic could push the Nuggets so far into the luxury tax that trading either Faried or Plumlee alone wouldn’t be enough to avoid paying it. Chandler ($12,800,562) and/or Arthur ($7,464,912) opting out would provide relief, but moving Plumlee (due $12,917,808 and $14,041,096 the next two seasons) and/or Faried (due $13,764,045 next season) won’t be easy.
In simple terms, Denver has two choices:
- Keep Jokic’s salary absurdly low next season, but risk he walks in 2019 unrestricted free agency
- Pay Jokic big money beginning next season, but lose flexibility to spend on his supporting cast
Declining Jokic’s option then leveraging restricted free agency to re-sign him long-term is the safest path.
“I can say with complete certainty that Nikola is going to be here for a long, long time,” Connelly said. “We love him. I think he loves us.”
Whenever Jokic gets his massive raise, it’ll be overdue based on his production. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. Denver plays like a 55-win team with him on the floor and a 27-win team without him, based on points scored and allowed.
He theoretically could have signed a shorter contract initially, proven himself then hit free agency sooner. But he expected to acclimate slowly from the Adriatic League to the NBA, and he appreciated the long-term security a four-year deal afforded.
There’s less slow-playing now, though.
The Nuggets are throwing more on his plate, and that starts defensively.
“Last year, I don’t think he played much defense at all,” Malone said.
Jokic’s athletic limitations will probably prevent him from ever being an elite defender. But his size and basketball intelligence give him a chance to hold his own as a positional defender – if he puts in the effort. Jokic has dedicated himself more this season, and as a result, Denver’s defense has gone from awesome to middling.
The Nuggets also want Jokic to become a more aggressive scorer. He’s such a willing passer, and he’s always looking to make what the right play would be if all players were equal. But they’re not. Denver is 10-4 when Jokic attempts at least 15 shots and 14-19 otherwise.
“He takes greater satisfaction out of making his teammates better than he does scoring himself,” Malone said. “…He needs to be a guy that’s looking to score, regardless if he’s double-teamed or not.”
These are good problems to have. Teammates love the player who’s too unselfish, and so do executives.
“As a person, he embodies everything that we’re trying to be organizationally in terms of work ethic and team-first mentality,” Connelly said.
Those are great traits for a young second-round pick as he develops. But the best player on a team is inevitably turned to for leadership.
So, back to the original question: Is Jokic ready to lead?
“He has some natural leadership ability in terms of, he’s a connector,” Connelly said. “Everyone in the locker room really likes him on and off the court. But we also don’t want to force something prematurely. He’s still a kid.
“We don’t want to put too much weight on his shoulders.
“We’re going to let him grow up on his own timeline.”
There’s no blueprint here. If named an All-Star this year, Jokic – who turns 23 the day after the game – would be the youngest-ever All-Star drafted below No. 30. Heck, even if he doesn’t become an All-Star until next year, he’d still be the youngest All-Star picked below No. 30 in what anyone would consider the modern-draft era.
There’s plenty of time to wait for Jokic to come fully into his own.
But it also might already Jokic’s time already.