Much like rappers who keep their ears to the ground for the next hot sound, basketball coaches watch games to see what they can repurpose as their own. In 2014, not long after Drake released a remix of Migos’ “Versace” and began incorporating the Atlanta trio’s ratatat flow into his own music, Michael Malone, then in his first and only full season as head coach of the Sacramento Kings, saw the San Antonio Spurs eviscerate the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals four games to one. The Spurs exacted revenge for their crushing seven-game loss to the Heat in 2013, which featured Ray Allen’s miracle 3, by playing the Platonic ideal of team basketball. Their coordinated series of passes, cuts and screens made the Heat rattle around the floor as if they were in a blender.
The idea behind the Spurs’ attack, which coach Gregg Popovich called “Summertime,” was simple: Don’t hold the ball for more than half a second. It’s something Malone has preached to his players since taking over in Denver four years ago.
“A point-five mentality,” Malone said. “It’s stolen from the Spurs like everyone else has stole it from them. A point-five mentality means don’t hold the ball. We don’t want guys holding, dribbling, iso-ing. If you’re open, shoot it. If you’re not open, get off the ball with a point-five mentality. That makes you and us as a team really hard to guard because the ball is going move a hell of a lot quicker than the defense can.”
Quick decision-making has become a core tenet of Denver’s offense. The Nuggets rank seventh in passes made per game and eighth in average seconds per touch. They assist on 65.4% of their field goals, second only to the Warriors. Their insistence on breaking defenses down by spreading the ball around and turning down good shots in favor of great ones has made them one of the NBA’s toughest offenses to stop. Denver, averaging 112.2 points per 100 possessions, is on pace to finish in the top seven in offensive efficiency for the third season in a row.
“They’ve done a great job,” Popovich said. “Mike’s really got them honed in on attacking and being aggressive and playing through their teammates. The attack is great. They’re willing passers and good shooters, so it works really well for them. They make a lot of great cuts, backdoor cuts and curls, slashes. That kind of thing. They’ve moving as well as anybody in the league.”
“Playing through him is our best play”
At Tim Duncan’s retirement ceremony three years ago, Popovich insisted that he “would not be standing here” if it wasn’t for his big man whose unassuming nature masked preternatural skills. “I’d be in the Budweiser League someplace in America,” Popovich joked, “fat and still trying to play basketball or coach basketball.”
Popovich is on the fiery end of the spectrum of NBA coaches, unafraid of lighting into players when necessary. He can demand that his players fall in line because for so long, his best one was willing to do so.
In Denver, Malone is similarly blessed by having Nikola Jokic as the team’s face of the franchise. Denver’s unselfish ethos starts with him.
“Passing makes two people happy. Scoring only makes one person happy,” Jokic once remarked.
Jokic assists on 36.6% of his team’s field goals when he’s on the floor, an absurd number for a 7-footer. Jokic has snatched Kevin Love’s crown as the game’s best outlet passer. Oftentimes, Jokic has already decided he’s going to launch it 85 feet downcourt when the ball is still on the rim.
His foresight is just a part of it; he’s also got a cannon that allows him to squeeze the ball into any window.
In the half court, Jokic is the star around which everything else orbits. He hangs out in the middle of the floor, passing, handing off and screening until fissures form in the defense. Jokic averages 70.3 passes per game, the most in the NBA. Jamal Murray might bring the ball up the floor, but Jokic is effectively the team’s point guard.
“Playing through him is our best play,” forward Juancho Hernangomez said. “He can pass full court passes. He can pass in the half court. He can rebound and dribble the ball. We’ve just got to be aggressive.”
Jokic has 21 double-digit assist games this season. The next-closest center, Marc Gasol, has three. Overall, he’s averaging 7.4 helpers per game, the third-most all-time among centers behind Wilt Chamberlain, who handed out 7.8 in 1966-97 and 8.6 in 1967-68.
“We’re really lucky to have our All-Star be the guy who is averaging eight assists per game,” Nuggets assistant coach David Adelman said. “And he does it from all different parts of the floor. That San Antonio team was the ultimate example of giving yourself up. That’s where we’re trying to get to. We’re trying to get to that level, and we’re working every day.”
The Nuggets emphasize dribble handoffs over pick and rolls because they give the defense less time to react. Coaches also instruct guards to throw the ball ahead to bigs early in the shot clock and cut to try and catch defenders snoozing.
“It’s not just ball movement,” Adelman said. “It’s body movement. It’s the same idea. The cutting, the moving, getting off the ball and trying to gain an advantage in some way for your teammate is a big part of what we do.”
There are certain rules the Nuggets follow, but most of what they do is unscripted. Their read-and-react style requires players to learn each other’s tendencies. They also have to understand how to think the game. One wrong cut can screw up the spacing for everyone else.
“Obviously, we’re blessed to have guys who have the I.Q.,” Adelman said. “To play off the ball like we do, you’ve got to know how to play. And we’ve got a lot of guys who know how to play the game.”
To work on spacing, the Nuggets do a drill in practice where they put 18 seconds on the shot clock, tell players they can’t run any pick and rolls and require them to shoot the ball in the last four seconds before the buzzer sounds.
“Just trying to create a mentality of it doesn’t matter who gets the shots. It’s how we produce it,” Adelman said.
“He gives them a canvas to paint and play”
In the aftermath of the 2014 Finals, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra wasn’t so much despondent that his team lost the series as he was resigned to the fact that the better team won it.
“You absolutely have to credit their offense,” said Spoelstra after the Game 5 clincher. “It was exquisite basketball — ball movement, player movement, unselfish basketball. Everything seemed to click at the right time for them.”
The Spurs shot 55 of 118 from 3-point territory in the Finals — a 46.6% conversion rate that’s higher than any mark Steph Curry, the greatest shooter of all time, has posted in a season. Spoelstra understands better than anyone the horrors of trying to stop that Spurs’ attack.
In February, when asked if he noticed any similarities with the way that Spurs team moved the ball to how the Nuggets whip it around, Spoelstra said he instead saw overlap between Denver and another high-powered offense from the early ‘00s.
“They remind me of the Sacramento Kings during the heyday when they had Vlade and C-Webb,” Spoelstra said. “That’s who they remind me of. They have great passing bigs. It’s not just Jokic. Jokic is exceptional. Plumlee is one of the most underrated passers in the league. And Millsap — we’ve seen him in the East for a long time — he’s one of the more complete basketball players in the Association.”
Perhaps those Kings teams are a more apt comparison. The 2013-14 Spurs had plenty of big men who were capable playmakers in Duncan, Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter, but Tony Parker (5.7 apg) and Manu Ginobli (4.3 apg) did most of the table setting. The 2001-02 Kings are more similar to the 2018-19 Nuggets in that their big men took on as much, if not more, playmaking responsibility as their guards. Players 6-foot-8 or taller have accounted for 50% of Denver’s assists this season — the exact same rate Sacramento got in 2001-02 from players of that height.
Webber was an all-around force for the 2001-02 Kings team that had the Kobe-Shaq Lakers on the ropes in the Western Conference Finals before coming up just short. Webber threw one-handed darts from the post to spot-up shooters and was agile enough to lead the break himself. Together, he and Divac formed one of the greatest passing front courts the game has ever seen.
Jokic is rightfully credited as the engine of Denver’s high-scoring attack. But Plumlee, who’s eighth among all centers in assists per 36 minutes, and Millsap, who four times averaged 3.0 assists or more before signing with Denver, are no slouches in the playmaking department themselves.
“Coach (Malone) has done a great job with stuff that we’ve put in for our guys,” said Adelman, whose father, Rick, coached the early-aughts Kings. “He gives them a canvas to paint and play. When you have guys like Jokic and Plumlee and Paul, you can be creative and let them make decisions on the court. Not everything is black and white with those guys. That’s the hardest thing to guard.”
Malone deserves credit for tailoring his scheme to his personnel. In Sacramento, he had DeMarcus Cousins and not much else, so the Kings pounded the ball inside. They averaged 3.36 seconds per touch, the most in the NBA.
In Denver, Malone initially tried to play Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic together, but that experiment flopped, and he recalibrated. The Nuggets’ offense isn’t nearly as deliberate as it was when he took over. They’re averaging 20 more passes per game and 0.2 seconds less in average seconds per touch this season compared to 2015-16, Malone’s first here.
By encouraging his players to play with a “point-five mentality” and empowering Jokic and his other skilled big men, Malone has put out his own spin on “Summertime.”
“The ball moves,” Murray said. “The ball flies. Guys are cutting for each other. We’re all making unselfish passes. Everyone wants to make the next pass. We have fun looking for each other. We just love moving the ball, and you can see it in the way we play.”