The potential of a Paul Millsap–Nikola Jokic frontcourt has captured the imagination of Denver Nuggets fans, while piquing the curiosity of observers league-wide since the former agreed to terms with the franchise back on July 3, 2017.
It’s only logical. After all, Millsap – a creative distributor and superior basket-getter – will fill a massive hole Denver had not just at the 4-spot, but on the less glamorous side of the ball as well.
The former Atlanta Hawk surely doesn’t get enough pub for his excellence on defense – and considering head coach Mike Malone’s team finished 2016-17 with the league’s second-worst defensive rating, his services are sorely needed.
Plus, just watching him whip passes around with Jokic will be fun as hell to witness. Add in how captivated we are as a society with whatever the next big thing is, and it makes sense why we may be ignoring the fact Denver already had one superb duo on the roster pre-Millsap.
And that would be the underrated tandem of Jokic and swingman Gary Harris.
Last season, Harris became just the 34th player in NBA history to average at least 14 points, 3 boards, 1 steal and 1.5 threes per game before reaching the age of 23.
Meanwhile, according to various advanced metrics, Jokic is coming off one of the greatest second-year campaigns ever.
Potential be damned, the dime-dishing big man and his counterpart on the wing have already proven how good they are together. Not to mention, both guys are still merely 22 years old, so the sky remains the limit for the budding partnership.
Let’s take a look at what makes the two young men such a force together, and why there’s likely room for further improvement.
Why the pair meshes so well
Per NBAWowy.com, Denver had an absolutely torrid 121.6 offensive rating in the 1,181 minutes Jokic and Harris shared the floor last season – a mark that would have easily led the NBA if prorated for the entire year.
Though their defensive rating in the same time frame was egregious (115.3), the overall +6.1 net rating (again, if prorated) would have been the league’s third-best, trailing only the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.
In the most basic terms, Malone’s squad scorches the Earth offensively with their 7-foot point-center in the game because he can do it all.
It’s not just that he’s a supreme passer, but he’s also elite working out of the post, scoring 1.12 points per possession (PPP) when backing down opponents (which puts him in the 94.7 percentile).
He’s not merely a mix of brute strength and deft touch down low either, but his instinct on the offensive glass allowed him to produce 1.24 PPP (79th percentile) on put-backs.
And he doesn’t only hound for boards; his finishing out of the pick-and-roll created 1.15 PPP, outpacing rim-diving beasts like Anthony Davis and Marcin Gortat.
Further consider his effectiveness as a cutter (82nd percentile) and as a spot-up shooter (76.4 percentile), and it becomes rather obvious that Jokic has the entire package with the ball in his hands.
To maximize the havoc created by the big Serbian, Malone surrounds him with low-usage, efficient players who can shoot with their feet set and attack closeouts when the situation calls for it.
That’s where Harris comes into the picture.
Harris’ skill set fits perfectly next to the Joker
Though his averages in 2016-17 were somewhat ordinary (14.9 points and 2.9 assists per contest), Harris is one of the NBA’s most promising young shooting guards.
His knockdown spot-up shooting, prowess in transition and athletic finishing near the basket make him an efficient machine of a scorer. The Michigan State product finished last season with an impressive 61.1 true shooting percentage – the No. 8 clip among guards who participated in over 50 games on the year.
More importantly, Harris’ effectiveness off the rock makes him the perfect complement to a ball-dominant big like Jokic.
For starters, as a cutter last season, Harris dropped 1.39 PPP, outscoring the likes of Millsap and Jimmy Butler. He’s both instinctual as to when he should dart to the basket, and has the hops to comfortably score once he arrives at his destination.
Furthermore, the 6-foot-3 guard is absolutely deadly with his feet set. In 2016-17, Harris boasted a fiery 68.1 effective field-goal percentage when shooting without taking a dribble – the NBA’s second-most potent mark among non-centers (cut-off: at least 300 such shots), trailing only some guy named LeBron James.
And finally, Denver’s starting shooting guard also excelled in transition. Among players who had at least 100 attempts in the open floor last year, Harris ranked third, scoring 1.38 PPP (91.8 percentile) – outproducing superstars like Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Though he may not have otherworldly athleticism like some of the guys behind him in transition scoring, he knows when to hightail it down the floor for easy looks. And he’s not exactly a poor athlete either.
Harris will throw one down on you when you least expect it.
In an era so hyper-focused on efficiency above all else, Harris is the prototypical 2-guard. He prefers threes to mid-range jumpers (shooting a healthy 40 percent from three in 2016-17), attacks the basket with aplomb and doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be a major factor offensively.
Next to Jokic, he’s a near-perfect fit. And the scariest part for opponents? The duo still has plenty of room to grow.
Potential for improvement remains
Apart from age and experience, other reasons for optimism exist regarding the future of the Serbian and the former Spartan.
For one, in only his second year playing next to Jokic, Harris saw immense growth in offensive value added – a metric that shows where a player ranks in production compared to the league average.
Sure, part of that has to do with his own development, but don’t underestimate the importance of the pair’s still-blossoming chemistry.
Moreover, if we put the second half of last season under a microscope, we can already begin to see glimpses of both guys taking their game to the next level.
As the former continues to sharpen his accuracy from beyond the arc, and the latter learns to draw more fouls (Harris averaged a paltry 2.4 free-throws per night during the aforementioned stretch), their already ridiculous efficiency will only become more obscene.
To be fair, as is, they’re already a joy to watch.
Nevertheless, to make noise in the Western Conference as it’s presently constituted, further improvements need to come – particularly on the defensive end.
But with added maturity, more focus on the opposite end of the floor and the addition of a point-stopper like Millsap to the lineup, the duo’s issues last year could very well remain in the past.
Looking around the league, it’s hard to find a better pairing consisting of an outstanding high-post player and a super spot-up shooter/cutter.
And though more will be needed if the Nuggets plan to contend for postseason relevance in a stacked conference, odds are that Jokic and Harris have yet another surge in them – one we’ll start to see early in 2017-18.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.