From stretch five to point center—indeed, the evolution of basketball players and their roles continue, shaping and reshaping the strategic design of offense and defense.
The next chapter is transitioning from a mere half-court playmaker to a full-fledged point center. Nicola Jokić has been a willing beta tester ever since he joined the Denver Nuggets, and come the NBA restart, it seems that Denver is ready to roll out their new product: a starting unit comprised of a backcourt plus three 7-footers, two to protect the paint and one to call the plays.
This is unorthodox but not shocking; in fact, this makes sense for Denver considering what Jokić can do (and most importantly, what he wants to do, which is to pass the ball—very rare among centers who are used to receiving the ball and are expected to attack and score). Jokić converting to point center is sensible because for one, he is the best player in the team in terms of passing. We see him orchestrating plays most of the time; a half-court point center if you will. He is a good dribbler and a good shooter, too. Most importantly, he displays a high basketball IQ, has a good court vision, and a willing passer.
We have this belief that if you are very tall you are not supposed to be at point, but if Jokić possesses all the necessary qualities, I think we can flip the script and instead look at his being tall as an asset which makes him better equipped at handling point.
Here is the upside: Jokić is pulling the tallest defender of the opposing team outside of the paint, and that defender can’t afford to sag and cheat the zone because Jokić is a shooter, too. No coach will put a shorter defender on Jokić because it will make passing and shooting easier for the athletic Serbian.
This poses a challenge on centers set to defend Jokić. They will have to improve on their footwork if they want to close the driving lane once Jokić puts his head down and attacks the rim off the dribble. Wing defenders will always have to choose between putting a body on the driving center or staying connected to outside shooters to remove kick out options.
There is a downside, too. First, playing point removes the Serbian from the paint, which will impact his average of 10 rebounds per game. But if Denver sticks to their strategy of fielding three 7-footers all at once, offensive rebounding will not be a problem considering the length of the Nuggets forwards on the floor.
Another problem is Jokić falling in love with outside shooting. Coaches bemoan seeing their bigs abandoning post play. Outside shooting is addictive and once you have confined your game there long enough, it will eat away your offensive instincts in the 2-point field goal department until you are a one-dimensional player. You will be slower in your pivot, and when you attack the interior defense, it is often awkward or mistimed, even indecisive—all because these motions are seldom used and your muscle memory is compromised. What was once your go-to move now becomes an unfamiliar territory for you.
Another downside I think is lost opportunity for point guards, two guards or combo guards in the active roster. Sure, those at the top of the pecking order will still get their minutes, but guards in the third (or even second) unit will have extended stay on the bench.
For all the things we’ve heard about how the NBA restart is not going to be exciting, I think finding out for ourselves whether this experiment of the Denver Nuggets will work or not is one good reason to watch the games starting July 31.
Call it a new normal at a micro level —but not for long though. If Denver’s experiment lands them the Larry O’Brien trophy, does this mean the end of the small-ball era? I won’t be surprised if teams adopt the same approach, and with the NBA’s style of play influencing basketball practices inside as well as outside of the United States, it won’t be long before coaches institute the point center paradigm in their programs too.