Leaner Nikola Jokic eager to lead Nuggets back to playoffs
DENVER — Nikola Jokic added more muscle in the offseason so he wouldn’t be jostled while setting screens or snatching rebounds.
Those days are over, the Denver Nuggets big man insisted. He even cut back on cheesecake and pizza — two of his culinary vices — to make it happen.
All part of his primary course of action: Leading this franchise back to the playoffs. The Nuggets improved by seven games in 2016-17, only to miss the postseason for a fourth straight year. In a busy offseason, they added All-Star Paul Millsap, traded for Trey Lyles and brought back Mason Plumlee.
Denver could very well be a sleeper team in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, especially with a leaner Jokic leading the way.
“We can be really good,” Jokic said, “because we have really, really good players.”
Most of the lineup is set: Millsap at power forward, Wilson Chandler at small forward, Jokic in the middle and Gary Harris, fresh off agreeing to a four-year, $84 million contract extension, at shooting guard.
Point guard remains the only unsettled spot.
On a day when coach Michael Malone sang the praises of an old floor leader, he was still trying to figure out his new one.
And no, Nuggets great Fat Lever wasn’t in town Tuesday to audition. He showed up at practice as a guest, only to be surprised by the team announcing they were retiring his No. 12 in a December ceremony.
Lever suited up for the Nuggets from 1984-90 and helped run the show in coach Doug Moe’s high-octane offense.
Malone is looking for that sort of leader this season. It’s a race between Jamal Murray, veteran Jameer Nelson and Emmanuel Mudiay.
“Not one has just floored me and said, ‘Wow,’” Malone said. “Not one has been so bad where it’s made the decision easy.”
One of the surprises last season was the high-level play of Jokic, the Serbian standout who averaged 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists.
His six triple doubles last season were the fourth-most in the league, behind star players Russell Westbrook, James Harden and LeBron James.
Now, Jokic’s trying to take his game to even loftier heights. He dropped 10 pounds and shed about 5 percent body fat. It wasn’t easy, either, given his fondness for cheesecake and pizza. Just don’t tell his trainer about the occasional slice of pizza.
“I feel like my conditioning is better, my body is better — I can take contact more,” the 6-foot-10, 250-pound Jokic said. “I need that much power to make a screen, to rebound, to do whatever to help this team.”
Here are things to know before the Nuggets travel to Utah for the season opener next Wednesday:
DEFENSE FIRST: The Nuggets averaged 111.7 points last season — one of the top marks in the league — but surrendered 111.2, which was among the worst. Malone wants to keep that offensive tempo going, with a few more stops thrown in along the way.
“People say, ‘I thought Malone was a defensive coach,’” he said. “Trust me, I am. I’m going to continue to pound that rock until it breaks.”
BACKUP MINUTES: The backup role to spell Millsap is boiling down to either Kenneth Faried or Lyles. Faried brings instant energy off the bench and is a crowd favorite. Lyles appeared in 71 games for the Jazz last season, before being obtained in a deal on draft night.
“They bring energy every single day, which only makes that decision all that much harder,” Malone said.
LOADED DYESS: As a kid living in Denver, Millsap said he went to one Nuggets game. He was impressed by two people on the floor — forward Antonio McDyess and the mascot Rocky.
“I remember going home after that game and saying how amazing Antonio was,” said Millsap, who later moved to Louisiana. “I’ve always been a fan.”
HARRIS’ TASKS: Harris has two areas of emphasis this season — being more of a vocal leader and improving his defense, given that he’s responsible for covering an opponent’s top scorer.
“I think it will be pretty easy. Just being more vocal, I can control that. And defensively, I know I slipped last year and can be better,” Harris said.
STREAMLINING THE MESSAGE: Malone’s message to his team before games will be rather rudimentary: Simplify and be more aggressive.
“If you overburden your players’ minds, now they’re thinking and not playing,” Malone said.