Centers have always played an integral part in the history and the popularity of the league. Many of the greats like Kareem, Shaq, Wilt, and Hakeem were able to lead their teams to multiple championships. However, in the new era of small-ball, the “traditional” center has become more and more of a defensive and offensive liability. While some might see this as the near-extinction of the center position, it has actually lead to players utilizing the position in ways not seen before. This lead me to my NBA Player of the Week, Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets.
Before I get into the stats and the specific reasons for the selection, it’s important to provide some context. The Nuggets entered this season with moderate expectations. After missing the playoffs due to an away overtime loss to the Timberwolves at the ebd of last season, many believed that this was the year that the Nuggets would return to the playoff as a projected 5th or 6th seed. The Nuggets have surpassed these expectations as they have the best record in the Western Conference- ahead of juggernauts like the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. A big part of the Nuggets’ success has come from their man in the middle and his unorthodox play at the center position.
What makes Jokic great is that despite playing at the center position, he is the one that is essentially orchestrating the offense for his team. Most centers are known as dominating forces that play most of their game in the post and normally rely on their teammates to feed them the ball. Jokic flips this dynamic as he is the one feeding his teammates with ridiculous passes all over the court. In addition to this, he has a multitude of options all over the floor for him to score on offense. Like many centers of the past, Jokic has a plethora of post moves that he can utilize to bully smaller players. Yet unlike centers of the past, Jokic has a reliable shot and is able to score from the mid-range, and has shown the ability to shoot the three. While he does not have the greatest 3–point shot (30% this season), it is good enough to where opposing defenses are forced to respect the shot. This leads to the opposing center moving away from the paint to guard Jokic- and consequently allows space for Jokic’s teammates to cut into opposing defenses as they know that Jokic will find them if they are able to get open.
This unorthodox offense was on full display last week as the Nuggets, through Jokic, were able to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies. Veteran center Marc Gasol was tasked with guarding Jokic, and did a decent job. Jokic was able to score 24 points, while also grabbing 4 rebounds and recording 4 steals. In addition to this, he scored the go ahead field goal in the fourth quarter that pushed the Nuggets up by 1 with 36 seconds remaining in regulation. While this was not his best game, he was still able to find a way to lead his team to victory. The next game, the Nuggets played the Pelicans, and Jokic was able to get a triple double scoring 20 points, in addition to 10 assists and 13 rebounds. Yet his most impressive game of the week was against the red-hot Houston Rockets. Despite James Harden continuing his 30-point streak, it was essentially irrelevant to the outcome of the game. Jokic was able to dominate the Houston defense on all levels scoring 31 points, along with 9 dimes and 10 rebounds.
While this week showed the strengths of Jokic, there is one glaring weakness in his game- the fact is that he has never been a good defensive player. This can cause him to be a huge defensive liability, as many opposing offenses utilize his inability to defend the pick-n-roll or rim protect to score the ball. This is why in late game situations, the Nuggets will put Jokic on the bench and replace him with Mason Plumlee. Despite this flaw, it is clear that the Nuggets would not be this good without the incredible offensive play by Jokic. Through his work, he has shown that in an era of small ball, centers can still dominate the game.