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Nikola Jokic is the NBA’s throwback to the future

He doesn’t look like a player that should thrive in this era, but looks can be deceiving.

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Denver Nuggets All-Star Nikola Jokic is listed at 7’0 and 250 pounds, the height of a center and the weight of a slow, lumbering big man snatched straight out of a different era. Only one non-center, Boston’s Gershon Yabusele, weighs more, and the few centers that do look like chiseled statues next to Jokic and his dad-bod.

Yet as Jokic and the Nuggets continue their emergence as Western Conference mainstays, it’s worth wondering how a team built around a style and player that harken so obviously back to the past is succeeding in a league that’s pushing so brazenly into the future. If the Warriors have inspired opponents to treat the center position like an antique, how does a player like Jokic average a double double while ranking in the top 10 in the entire league in assist percentage?

The reason is because Jokic, precisely because of his retro frame and modern game, has blended two completely different styles into one, creating something new in the process. Rather than simply being an outlier, he actually most defines the league’s positional revolution.

To be clear, “positional revolution” and “positionless basketball” aren’t the same thing. The former refers to a player or group of players possessing a unique set of skills that define an entirely new type of system. “Positionless basketball” is one product of the “positional revolution,” not the revolution itself. Or, as Free Darko’s Nathaniel Friedman, the first to use the term of the term many eons ago, put it:

What intrigued us was that players were being allowed to play their own game and have that dictate their roles, rather than have roles imposed on them by a traditional (or non-traditional) system. In turn, players being themselves created new systems, one where a team consisted of making the best out of the ingredients on the roster. No two teams were supposed to be alike and potentially, the functionality of a team could vary from possession to possession. It wasn’t that players were being granted absolute freedom but that they were being given the opportunity to define themselves from play to play and by extension, to define roles and systems.

The latter evokes a team of five players that all do a little bit of everything, a platonic ideal in which teams yearn to replicate the Warriors, only to create off-brand versions that can never measure up to the original.

Other teams are like that, but not Jokic’s Nuggets. His functionality — and in turn the functionality of the four teammates that orbit around him — varies not just from possession to possession, but within the possession itself. He toggles between point guard and center, molding the two skill-sets into one by constantly flipping between them.

In its most basic form, Jokic uses two age-old tools to flip that switch. One is the dribble handoff, the modern game’s evolution on the pick-and-roll. The Nuggets’ most common sets involve Jokic pick-and-popping for Jamal Murray going one way, then dribbling to the opposite wing to spring Gary Harris going downhill. It’s a powerful transition made possible because Jokic can act as a big man to start the play, only to flip into a point guard that sets an opportunity up for Harris.

A lot of teams run similar plays with their big men, but Jokic is the one player in the league that possesses both the playmaking mastery to time his hand-off and the screening intelligence to angle his body to account for the way Harris’ man is defending him. Jokic is able to execute a more stationary handoff...

... an in-the-flow “toss off” that lets his guard attack on the move.

... a backdoor pass to account for teams trying to short-circuit the play by trapping.

... or, a late roll to sneak behind the defense when they trap.

If the defense overcomes Jokic’s powerful combination of big- and small-man skills and switches effectively, Jokic simply morphs back into a center to punish the smaller player.

Or, he tosses the ball back to the guard and gets out of the way so they can cook a slower big man.

The same principles apply with Jokic’s second weapon of choice: the give-and-go. He delights in playing pitch-and-catch with Murray, turning a run-of-the-mill between guard and big man into a guessing game for defenders.

Who actually starts the sequence, you might ask? It doesn’t matter! Murray can simply dribble into a normal Jokic screen.

He can pass to Jokic to initiate a dribble handoff or pick and roll.

He can let Jokic dribble it up and pass to him first.

He can screen for Jokic to attack, fully inverting the usual ball-handler/screener dynamic.

Or they can simply toss the ball back and forth while until they feel like doing something.

Jokic’s versatility allows the Nuggets to keep defenders off-balanced, never totally sure which of the two is the play creator and which is the play finisher. Like any pick-and-roll, one player is creating an opening and the other is exploiting it, but the difference is that the player doing each part of the operation changes mid stream. It’s as if they’re executing a relay in which each player does half the job of the other, then they grab simultaneous batons to finish each other’s relay.

Try to imagine how that play mirrors this one:

They’re actually much more similar than you might think at first glance. Both feature a two-man game at the top of the key. In both examples, the defense reacts by crowding the ball, convincing one of the two offensive players to dart down the lane and draw a third defender to account for his run. The success of each play hinges on the other offensive player’s ability to read that third defender’s movement and decide, in a split second, whether he should pass to the roller or to the open corner shooter that third defender has momentarily left.

The only difference? The second clip features a ball-handler making the skip pass and a big man darting down the lane. The first one, on the other hand? It shows the ball handler starting the play as the ball handler, but finishing it as the roller, leaving Jokic to both set the screen that sprung the roll and make the playmaking decision that results. He has created and exploited the opening within the same exact sequence.

That real-time duality is what makes Nikola Jokic revolutionary. It’s what allows the Nuggets to recycle mismatched parts from disparate systems past and present to build a tough-minded, deep team with two like-sized guards, flanked by specialists and a rugged power forward, all operating around the nexus of a do-everything center. It’s what allows the other four members of their team to play their own games instead of molding themselves to fit The Way The Game Is Played Today.

And in a league that increasingly mistakes the ingenuity of the Warriors’ revolution for their actual style of play, it makes Jokic and the Nuggets an especially fascinating threat to the league’s hegemony.

Could Jokic define the next set of imitators that merely react to the original? Maybe that’s asking a lot, but I hope to keep watching him try.