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Basketball is positionless: how the Denver Nuggets use Nikola Jokic at point guard

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Jonathan Simon new author
Roar Rookie
27th July, 2020

Let’s remember something, positions in basketball are a fallacy. This isn’t the NFL where players are designated to specific positions. Neither is it baseball.

You wouldn’t see a shortstop throw a pitch with a designated pitcher standing on the mound. There’s no goalkeeper either like you’d see in soccer.

Basketball is all about putting together the best lineup of talented athletes and then concocting a playbook around them. Either that – or you write the script and recruit players who fit that particular style. It’s Hollywood for sports.

Think Ocean’s Eleven. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle and the list goes on…

A hall of fame cast with all stars off the bench. Is this Hollywood’s equivalent to the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors? Did Steve Kerr phone Steven Soderbergh to try and figure out which actors to slot in certain scenes?

What if film was limited to positions like other sports? Clooney at point guard with a dilemma: you can then only pick Pitt or Damon at shooting guard. There’s no rule stopping it, so why not just play three guards? Throw Julia Roberts in at forward and Bernie Mac at the five. Slip your fab fitting five on the court and you’re good to go.

I could throw five Draymond Greens on the court and no referee would call our team for a violation – although maybe a bucketload of technical fouls. There’s no set rule specifying positions on a court, only the total amount of players you’re allowed at any one time.

Every basketball coach numbers their players one to five. ‘One’ is known to fans as the point guard, ‘five’ the centre – you know the rest in between. Each coach requires something different from their players. For instance, Frank Vogel’s ‘one’ for the Los Angeles Lakers is different to Mike Budenholzer’s ‘one’ for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Some teams even have interchangeable positions. Each guard on the Bucks interchanges between the one and two spots. Their role can change depending on the possession. Same with the San Antonio Spurs – whichever big man nabs the rebound becomes the four – the other who doesn’t, sprints down the court for an early score.


The Lakers might require their 5-man to play in the low post whereas the Milwaukee Bucks generally play their 5-man at the top of the perimeter. Watch this first Bucks play carefully. Ersan Ilyasova rebounds the ball and becomes the five – meaning Brook Lopez needs to fill in the other guard spot on the wing.

This works fine for the Bucks because their offence is designed to include interchangeable positions. One possession Lopez is the five, the next possession he’s a shooter working the perimeter.

It’s not uncommon to see Giannis Antetokounmpo fill in the five spot one play, then occupy either of the two guard spots on the next trip down the floor.

The Denver Nuggets recently matched up against the Washington Wizards and it presented an opportunity like no other: how would a positionless lineup fare against one of the biggest offensive threats in the league?

The Nuggets went for a patented lineup that included Nikola Jokic (7’0”), Jerami Grant (6’8”), Bol Bol (7’2”), Paul Millsap (6’7”) and Mason Plumlee (6’11”) – the modern day Monstars. Pace and space you’re thinking? Nope, they’ve gone with slow gameplay, post ups and spaced shooters.

They’ve gone backwards – and it works.


Jokic may have been listed at point guard, but he would play his normal role for most of the game. Crisp clean passes in the open court, looking for teammates coming off screens and don’t forget elbow post ups. The Nuggets are a little different than your average team. Players like Jokic and Plumlee distribute the ball from the top and work a nice two-man game with scoring guards like Jamal Murray and Troy Daniels.

Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets . (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

For a lot of teams, it’s defence first. If a matchup works defensively, what can we do offensively? The Nuggets began in a 2-1-2 zone. Why don’t we see zones more often in the NBA? Zones slow down the pace of the game for the opponent, critical for the Nuggets who are the second slowest team in the league in terms of pace and possessions. The Wizards however?

They’re the 6th fastest team in the league and one of the worst defensively. It’s also difficult to beat a zone against length and we established that the Nuggets starting lineup against the Wizards was a combined 500 feet tall, that’s a plus.

One of the biggest difficulties playing a zone in the NBA is that the central player must avoid a defensive three second call. FIBA rules don’t enforce this, which is why you see a greater number of international teams exploiting the strategy. In the NBA, a defensive player may not remain in the paint for longer than three seconds, unless they’re actively guarding an opponent. Couple that with the fact that the NBA also contains some of the best shooters in the world, making zone defences troubling to execute.

The Nuggets posted up on almost every possession to begin the game. They were solely focused on exploiting guard Shabazz Napier in hope that Washington would take him off the floor and succumb to the pressure. Ironically, sitting Napier on the bench would probably help the Wizards more than the Nuggets.

Yesterday’s matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans was no different. Denver looked to post up everyone from J.J. Redick – to Jrue Holiday – to Lonzo Ball.


Napier is 6’1” and looked like Calvin Cambridge in a Quentin Tarantino directed version of Like Mike. If the Nuggets could utilise this mismatch, the other Wizards guard on the roster was no lengthier. Ish Smith was only 6’0” tall himself – sign the real Bow Wow onto the roster and you’ve got yourself a script.

Possession after possession, they posted up Napier. Nuggets coach Michael Malone didn’t even need to call set plays, neither did Jokic. Whoever Napier was guarding would force themselves close to the hoop and seal the innocent short man, resulting in an easy two points for the Nuggets. The other players spaced on the three-point line and gave the player room to work – even Mason Plumlee, who has hit two three-pointers in 524 career NBA games.

They abused Napier down low. I mean totally milked it – like when The Footy Show cashed in on Garry Lyon on the stretcher, that kind of milking. Finally, a timeout was called and the Wizards resorted to a zone defence to keep Napier on the floor.

Once Troy Daniels set foot on the floor for the Nuggets, Denver returned to their iconic two man game at the top – a signature play that’s normally used between Jokic and Jamal Murray. Despite this being an exhibition matchup, what was inexplicable was the Wizards lack of full court pressure on Jokic.

If he’s bringing the ball up the court, your best bet is to pressure him to either keep the ball out of his hands or force him out of control. Make Denver go small and bring a ball handler onto the court.

Regardless, positions in basketball differ from one team to another. How you design your system one to five defines the nuances of each player’s role, as well as who is interchangeable.

Even if you play as the three-man on offence, you have freedom of choice over which position you want to guard defensively. The Nuggets could throw their Monstars lineup on the floor as they weren’t intending to do anything but post up and zone.

But it got me thinking: what is the best positionless lineup you can put together from NBA history? Can I request five Michael Jordans?


As Bill Simmons said on his podcast a few years back, “five Michael Jordans might end up shooting each other over gambling debt, it wouldn’t work.”

One documentary later and I’m totally convinced they might.