The Sixers complete their West Coast trip tonight with a battle in Denver against the Nuggets. I talked to Eric Spyropoulos of Nuggets.com about a team many had pegged as a contender going into the season.
Joel Embiid vs. Nikola Jokic has become a common debate among NBA fans. Since you cover him so closely, make the case for Jokic as the NBA’s best center.
Since we’re still under the 10-game mark of the 2019-20 season, I’ll make the case based on last year’s performance. Jokić played in 80 games and was one of the most dominant offensive forces in the entire league given his level of scoring and playmaking. With averages of 20.1 points and 7.3 assists per game (on nearly 59 percent true shooting), Jokić was the lifeblood of Denver’s offense, which finished seventh in the league in the 2018-19 season. Embiid is a dominant scorer, but he trails in his playmaking ability, which can limit the Sixers’ offense at times.
On the defensive end, no one will argue who provides more impact. Embiid is a ferocious shot blocker that intimidates guards from even driving to the rim in some instances. However, Jokić’s defense has become somewhat underrated. Sure, he doesn’t rack up blocks or impress with his mobility on the perimeter, but he contributes in different ways. When we strip away our pre-ordained view of how centers must contribute defensively (blocking shots, protecting the rim, etc.), we can better understand Jokić’s role on that end of the floor, where he plays more like a guard.
Last season, Jokić ranked second in total deflections and third in steals among centers. His court awareness allows him to be in solid defensive position most of the time, and he can even thrive against more ground-bound big men. In the first round of the playoffs, Jokić held LaMarcus Aldridge to 44.2 percent shooting, a steep drop off from his regular-season average of 52 percent. Finally, I believe that availability is a trait that players bring to the table and so far throughout their careers, Jokić has been on the court more than Embiid.
When I look at Denver’s depth chart, I am astounded by their depth but troubled by the lack of a player I have confidence in as the second-best on a championship team. Do you think any player on the roster has that kind of potential? If not, could you see the Nuggets taking a big swing and trying to make a trade for a star?
I think such a conversation begins and ends with Jamal Murray. After he received a five-year extension this past summer, the attention shifts to him developing into a clear number-two option on this Nuggets team. Over the course of his first three seasons in the league, Murray has improved his scoring average each year. However, his efficiency hasn’t always improved on that same path.
For instance, last season he averaged a career-high 18.2 points per game. However, his true shooting fell from 57.6 percent in 2017-18 to 53.8 percent last season. While Murray will never have to serve as the team’s lead playmaker due to Jokić’s presence, his scoring efficiency and consistency will have to improve in order to develop into a 20+ point per game scorer that is in the running for All-Star teams.
An area where there is room for improvement is in shot selection. Despite the league trending more and more towards 3-pointers, Murray’s three-point attempt rate has actually decreased in each of his first three seasons. While his percentages haven’t been elite from beyond the arc throughout his career, he is certainly a good enough shooter to warrant an increase in attempts from deep.
To answer the last part of the question, I don’t think there is a star that is currently available or will become available in the near future that Denver will swing for. Bradley Beal was a hot name heading into the season, so perhaps Denver could revisit that possibility in the offseason if the Wizards are at the bottom of the standings and the Nuggets fall short of their playoff goals. A player like Jrue Holiday would certainly be a compelling addition to this Nuggets team given his defensive ability.
I often like to use these Q&As as avenues to check up on former Sixers, so I’m going to ask about Denver’s biggest offseason acquisition, Jerami Grant. What kind of role has Grant had so far this season, and do you expect the Nuggets to attempt to bring him back in free agency this summer?
Grant has been serving as the first player off the bench for Denver so far this season and has fit in well with the team’s scheme on both ends of the floor. Some poor shooting numbers have dampened his production, but his usage rate is higher compared to last season and he has made some highlight plays that have energized the team and the home crowd. His 3-point shooting should bounce back up to at least league average and he could see even more playing time as the season progresses and the Nuggets look to rest Paul Millsap more.
I’d be shocked if Denver didn’t try extremely hard to re-sign Grant this summer. Given his age (25) and skill set, he looks like a perfect fit on the court for the foreseeable future with Denver’s young core. Also, Denver traded away their 2020 first-round pick to acquire Grant and given Millsap’s age, one would think that they made that trade to secure their power forward of the future.
Big thank you to Eric for taking the time to chat!