Talent and strategy are two different things in the NBA. They can influence each other, and they often run parallel to each other, but strategy exists because there is so much talent dispersed around the best teams that something has to tip the scales between winning and losing.
So, if there’s a certain kind of talent that can be neutralized by a certain kind of strategy it will be exploited by one team after another. In the moment, each individual example of this feels new and novel, but that dynamic has always been at play, and probably has in every sport, or even business or politics or any other setting where someone wants an “edge.” Talent dictates a template and strategy dictates a new template to overcome that specific type of talent, and on and on. The template set by unique talent feels organic and the template set by strategy feels reactionary or revolutionary. In Silicon Valley it would be given a shiny title like “Tech Disruption.”
“Small Ball” is one such strategy in basketball, both more complicated than the average fan might think and simple in that it is just trying to scheme an opponent’s potentially effective big man off the court. It’s been extremely successful with a team like the Warriors because Draymond Green, at his best, is the prototype of a small ball center; he is strong and savvy enough to competently guard a lumbering center and a good enough shooter and playmaker to drag that same center out to the perimeter where he’s rendered an almost useless defender.
But the strategy is so effective that teams have realized that it can be implemented without Green. If you have athletic forwards between 6’5 and 6’9 with basic shooting and ball handling skills then you should exploit other teams centers. Pascal Siakam could be Draymond Green. Josh Jackson could be. Or Kyle Kuzma.
And so there are two elements to the small ball strategy: The center (the one being exploited) and the athletic forwards (the ones doing the exploiting). But when a strategy achieves a certain amount of success, people tend to think it works independent of who is filling those roles. All of this has been about five paragraphs of building towards a relatively simple point: Nikola Jokic is big, slow, lumbering and playing basketball like someone who isn’t particularly interested in being exploited.
Before Denver’s recent game against the Dallas Mavericks, Mike Malone talked of the fluidity of today’s NBA, saying, “I define a player’s position by who they can guard.” By that definition, Jokic is a center, because he isn’t exactly built to guard any other position. Watch him closely and you’ll notice he doesn’t run when he can get away with walking, and he walks with the gait of someone who literally just sat down on the couch before you asked him to give you had hand with the groceries.
But by that same logic, can anyone who isn’t a center realistically guard him. If not, can you really call those players small ball “centers” or are they forwards waiting to be picked apart by Jokic’s immense skillset? He might be one of the three most skilled players in the NBA. He can shoot three-pointers. He can use every bit of his strength and size in the post before finishing with a feathery touch. And he’s averaging 7.7 assists per game. Only Wilt Chamberlain averaged more assists as a center, and I promise you Wilt’s dimes didn’t come with the kind of dopamine hits fans get from seeing Jokic drop a cross court scoop pass to a corner shooter.
A few hours after Malone’s comments, the Nuggets defeated the Mavericks and Jokic finished with 19 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.
The small ball strategy is meant to neutralize a certain type of player. It works against a guy like Kevin Love, who is exploited at too high of a rate to make up for it with his own contributions. But Jokic might be too skilled. He is strong, tall, and patient enough to take a small ball center into the post. Once he’s there, his passing isn’t as simple as kicking out to a shooter from the post. He has nearly just as high of an assist rate for field goals made in the paint. The Nuggets have discovered that surrounding him with shooters and cutters means double-teaming him at any spot on the floor will be chaos for any kind of defense.
The test will obviously be what the Nuggets can do in the playoffs. Jokic can still be a liability on defense against athletic forwards, but can punish them enough to make up for it? At the rate that Draymond Green is currently shooting threes this season (.245%), would Jokic even need to meet him on the perimeter?
Strategies always feel like the future pushing the past off a cliff. But these things exist on a scale and there’s always a tipping point. There’s no inherent value in the strategy itself when the talent level you’re trying to exploit is too high. In fact, you might be walking yourself into a trap, and leaving yourself to be the one exploited. Who’s to say that athletic forwards can guard Jokic any better than a more traditional big like Jusuf Nurkic, who might at least tire him physically?
It’s always helpful to look at strategic trends in the NBA through the prism of the singular talent that was Shaq: Game-planning a way to exploit a bunch of poor-man’s Shaqs is a relatively simple thing to do, even if it’s marketed as the “the future of basketball.” The problem you run into is the possibility that the second coming of Shaq happens to find his way into the league while you’re still running what you think is a revolutionary way to stop him. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to Draymond Green to say that he would not “neutralize” Shaquille O’Neal anymore than Matthew Dellavedova could “neutralize” Steph Curry.
Jokic is not the second coming of Shaq. He’s something else. But when you make choices to implement a strategy to neutralize a certain type of talent, you’re taking a risk. And that certain talent can exploit your risk. You don’t want to give Nikola Jokic room to show you what he can do in the playoffs because you’ll end up watching him play someone else in the next round.