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.
“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.”