One big change that has turned the Nuggets into viable playoff contenders

Someone has to be the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.

Right now, through 40 percent of the season, the Sacramento Kings, with a record of 14-19, occupy the spot. It’s fair to say they’re not running away with that final playoff berth.

There’s still plenty of hope for teams like the Blazers, arguably the NBA’s worst defensive team; the Pelicans, who started the season with eight straight losses; the young and talented and 11-23 Timberwolves; and even the Lakers, should anyone find them after they fell off that cliff.

And if those teams can make the postseason, why can’t the Denver Nuggets?

(Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
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For the first two-and-a-half months of the season, there was a good reason the Nuggets weren’t going to make the postseason: they stunk.

And if you needed verification of that, A 20-point blowout loss to the Mavericks on Dec. 12 should have done it. That loss put the Nuggets at 9-16 on the season.

But at that point, with not much else to lose, Nuggets coach Mike Malone made a big change to the Denver lineup — he inserted 6-foot-11 sophomore Nikola Jokic into the starting lineup, at center.

Getty Images/Kevork Djansezian

The Serbian had been primarily used as a power forward under Malone, in part because of his preternatural court vision and passing ability, but also because the Nuggets had Jusuf Nurkic, a 6-foot-11 Bosnian, now in his third year, as the team’s starting center.

Having two young big men worthy of starting is deemed an abundance of talent in the modern NBA, but the pairing of Nurkic, a true grind-em-down big, at the 5 and Jokic at the 4 didn’t work — when the duo played together this season, the Nuggets were a woeful bunch that had a negative-15 net rating over 212 possessions.

The pair started the first eight games of the year before being split. Jokic went to the bench, and between Nov. 12 and Dec. 14, Malone didn’t play the two big men together.

And an interesting trend developed during that month-long period — the team was significantly better with Jokic on the court than off it:

The Dallas game proved to be the push Malone needed to make the move that the data — and his eyes — should have told him weeks earlier: The Nuggets are a better team when Jokic is their main man at the 5.

While Denver’s record hasn’t exactly been sterling since Jokic entered the starting lineup alongside Gary Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Emmanuel Mudiay — they’re 5-4 — the effects of the move have been undeniably positive: The Nuggets, playing a 4-out/5-out system though Jokic in the high post, have posted a blistering 114 offensive rating (and 8 net rating) over the last nine games with him on the court, with an effective field goal percentage of 56.4 and an assist percentage of 71. Those are elite numbers, even if the defense leaves something to be desired.

Jokic and Nurkic have played three possessions together since the change.

It’s easy to see why the Nuggets have been successful with Jokic in the lineup — he might not be the most athletic big man in the NBA, and he’s certainly not the longest on the defensive end (7-foot-3 wingspan), but he’s one of the smoothest offensive players in the game, with a deft passing touch and a disarming inside-outside game.

How can you guard a man who has exceptional low-post moves, but can also do this, this, this, and this? And also, this:

via NBA.com

And while floor spacing was at an extreme premium with both Nurkic and Jokic on the floor together — even with the Joker’s ability to play in the high post — by separating the centers and tightening the big-man rotation at the 4 in favor of shooters (Jokic has barely played with Kenneth Faried or Darrell Arthur since his shift to the starting five) the court has opened up for Denver’s poor-shooting, but immensely talented point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, the No. 7 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.

Mudiay is playing the best offensive basketball of his young career by using the open space on the court, created by the Jokic-at-the-5 system, to get to the hoop: Since Jokic has joined the starting lineup, Mudiay has posted an effective field goal percentage of 56 with the big man on the court, a huge jump from his 39.5 percent overall EFG mark before the switch, when teams were forcing him to shoot from distance.  That dramatic improvement is a major boon for the Nuggets’ long-term prospects.

And even in a season where Russell Westbrook and James Harden are re-establishing the standard for box-score exceptionalism, Jokic’s numbers have been stellar: In the last nine games, he’s played an averaged 25 minutes, 17 points, 9 rebounds, and 5.6 assists.

Not bad for a second-round draft pick in his second year in the league.

Jokic has been one of the NBA’s best players over the last few weeks — no small feat. And while he probably won’t make the All-Star Game — he’s a relative unknown on the NBA’s most forgotten franchise — if he and the Nuggets are able to maintain their pace, they could well be facing off against Harden or Westbrook come April.