Make Life Easy

Make Life Easy

It is cliché — which is certainly not to suggest that it isn’t true — that one element of individual greatness in team sports is the ability of one player to make their teammates better. I found myself thinking about this as I anticipated Sunday afternoon’s matchup between the Nuggets and the Jazz, two teams notable for the way they seem to orbit around their centers. I realized that I don’t know exactly what better means. 

Without question, Nikola Jokić and Rudy Gobert are tremendous basketball players. Jokić is an offensive system in and of himself; he’s a gravitational force around which bodies swirl unpredictably, and he has a space-bending ability to connect his teammates with long range laser-passes and short range dribble handoffs executed with balletic perfection. Gobert does his best work on defense; he exists as solid as a citadelle, or a kind of space station from which his teammates are able to travel as distant satellites in orbit mucking up the passing lanes of the opposition.

Playing offense with Jokić would be a blast. You’d get to try stuff out, to be creative, to stretch your limits. When you found yourself open, the ball would find you as if by magic. Playing defense with Gobert might have a similar kind of joy to it. You’d be able to take more chances, to be a little bolder. These kinds of joy have benefits beyond the immediate moments of their happening, too. When you stretch yourself, you get better at doing that. Trying things out allows you to know more about what is possible; even better, it actually expands the range of possibility. 

Of course, the problem with Jokić and Gobert is that, in spite of their greatness on one side of the ball, they are far more ordinary on the other. Jokić is able to use his great hands and tremendous feel for the game to generally be in the right place and to rack up a ton of steals for a center, but he’s a liability because of his speed. Gobert provides his team’s offense a kind of vertical space, and he’s a wonderful screener and rebounder, but given his lack of shooting touch, it’s not difficult to account for him defensively.

When we talk about making one’s teammates better, maybe what we’re talking about is a kind of ease of existence. Does the presence of the player make it possible for the players around them to be better than they would otherwise be? Does that version of better have any permanence to it? Playing with a guy like Jokić, you would think, would make you a better passer, but would you be a better passer once you moved on from him? Once you signed a new contract someplace else? 


As a Celtics fan, this whole way of looking at greatness has me thinking about The Jays. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown look absolutely incredible this season, and their development in the context of the Celtics’ disappointing offseason has me feeling a little frustrated. It feels a little like if they just had one more good teammate, the whole thing could really start humming.

On the other hand, why is everyone struggling around them so much? They’ve each improved so much as passers and ball handlers, and they’re each so solid on defense — so locked in to the concept of what the team is doing as a unit. It isn’t enough somehow. When they played the Lakers last night, it jumped off the screen to me how easy LeBron makes things for his teammates. Sure, The Jays can get where they want to get on the floor, and they were playing with admirable ferocity and efficiency, but there seemed to be countless sequences in which one of them would create a bucket out of nothing at the end of a whole possession of difficult labor, and then the Lakers would come down and LeBron would do some subtle little thing, seemingly as simple as a wave of a wand, and suddenly one of his teammates would have the easiest look in the world. It’s a wash. In the end, the Lakers won by a point.

And that’s a kind of okay, right? The C’s lost Marcus Smart down the stretch, and Kemba Walker couldn’t throw it in the ocean, and they lost by a point to the prohibitive title favorites. Nevertheless, I found myself appreciating LeBron more than ever. His control over the game is so total at this point that it nearly vanishes. The way he creates open space for his teammates, the way he seizes certain moments on defense, the way he bails his team out of rare moments of listlessness: it’s all so lovely. Maybe greatness is a kind of disappearance or acquiescence. It’s not so much that you’re making your teammates better; it’s that you’ve hit a kind of selflessness in which you can lose yourself. We’re trying to be ourselves, and when we get there — if we get there — we find to our happy surprise that we are part of everything.

2019-20 Previews: Denver Nuggets

Losses: Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon, Isaiah Thomas.

Additions: Jerami Grant, Tyler Zeller, P.J. Dozier, Vlatko Cancar.

Likely Starters
Guard: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris
Wing: Will Barton
Big: Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić

Predicted Record: 58–24 | 1st in NBA | 1st in West

Full disclosure: I love this team. This is a roster full of singular players; somehow, it is also a roster that coheres in exciting ways. You’ve got key players who are still incredibly young—Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokić, and Gary Harris will be 22, 24, and 25 this season, respectively—and veterans like Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee who tie the young guys together. Everybody is a really good passer, everybody can make plays for themselves or for their teammates, and everything in this paragraph makes this a really good team that should improve over what they did last season.

On just what I’ve already written, you could argue that the Nuggets will be the best regular season team in the league this season. I’m suggesting here, though, that they will be more than that. I think this team is about to be great, and the reason for that is Nikola Jokić.

On a team of singular players, Jokić is a fucking singularity. He warps and curves the space on the floor in astonishing ways. Yes, he’s lumbering and plodding, but his physical form belies the effect he has on the game. You don’t need to be fast if you can alter space and time. You don’t need to move from point A to point B if you can fold those points together. It’s such a cliché to suggest that great players make their teammates better, but in the case of Jokić, his capacity for making his teammates better is his greatness. How to you quantify the effect it has on players to play with someone like that?

Here’s something so obvious you might miss it: it turns out it is valuable to have the best rebounder on your team be an all-time great passer. When Jokić gets a defensive rebound, his teammates can fly; they know if they’re open on the wing, down the floor, anywhere, the ball will magically fall into their hands. Jokić’s unique skill set fuels what would otherwise be a mediocre offense. The Nuggets were 6th in offensive rating last season despite finishing 27th in free throw rate, 15th in 3-point rate, and 15th in effective field goal percentage. You know why? They were 2nd in offensive rebound rate and second in assists. In a league that is figuring out the value of quick-hitting kick-out passes, Jokić came along fully equipped to deliver them more often than anybody. Philosophically, this becomes a way of building a team—Millsap and Plumlee are great in these areas too.

It’s fair to critique Jokić for his defense, but his effort and intelligence puts him ahead of plenty of players on that end too. It’s fair to wonder if there will be playoff matchups in which Jokić just can’t check anybody. On the other hand, he creates matchup problems too. The best playoff teams find things that work and pick them apart. Jokić is able to process that information in real time. You don’t have to call a timeout. He brings up the ball, he bulldozes his way into the post, and the offense swirls around him like a hurricane. My bet is that he can survive on defense. The great ones have a tendency to survive.

There’s a lot of peripheral stuff to be excited about in Denver. Jerami Grant is an awesome fit on this roster. Jokić didn’t shoot the ball particularly well last season and still was one of the best players in the league. The Nuggets are incredibly deep, and they are one of the few contenders with the contracts to swing a big trade at some point. If Jamal Murray can find some consistency in his best performances, this team is going to be a juggernaut. Whatever. The main attraction here is Jokić. He’s the thing that takes them from very good to anything’s possible.

It has become conventional wisdom that regular season success and playoff success are fundamentally different in basketball. It’s true, of course. Over the course of a series, it is much harder to get away with giving minutes to players with weaknesses the other team is capable of easily exploiting. We’re deep into an era in which players with the athletic profile of Nikola Jokić get played off the court against teams that can go small in the playoffs.

And yet, one quick look at the history of, well, anything will tell you that whenever we start thinking we know something, we should start considering the idea that we’re probably wrong. Jokić isn’t just some stiff. If you accept the premise that his greatness as a passer is evidence of a kind of genius when it comes to processing the game in real time, you can probably imagine that he’s capable of figuring out how to avoid getting roasted in the playoffs. The dude is 24 years old, and he’s already some kind of howling vortex at the center of a star, but he’s still becoming. He’s not what he’s going to be. Not yet; not even close.

As our basketball data gets better and better, there’s a risk in placing too much importance on what can be measured. Consider the way the 2014 Spurs were able to pass the ball until the Heat’s defense stretched and broke. Intuition—that holy basketball skill we refer to as feel: it is hard to value it properly. It requires a little bit of faith. The Nuggets are up to their elbows in it, and their center is a gravitational force, closing all distances, knitting everyone together. That’s why I think the Nuggets are going to win the 2019-20 NBA title.