No one in the Nuggets’ locker room is more popular right now than Vlatko Cancar.
One week ago, he swished a halftime buzzer-beater from half-court in the Nuggets’ win over the Mavericks that Michael Malone said, “changed the game.” Two nights later in Oklahoma City, Cancar scored a career-high 19 points in a career-high 35 minutes and his fourth-quarter defense against Shai Gilgeous-Alexander helped Denver to another win. Then on Friday in Los Angeles, Cancar was responsible for one of the highlight plays of the Nuggets’ season: a block against John Wall on a 1-on-1 fast break that the Clippers’ guard is surely still thinking about.
“A lot of people have asked me that,” Cancar said in response to a question about how he was able to block Wall’s layup. “I think that’s just my instincts.”
For the first time in his Nuggets tenure — one that’s seen him ride the bench for most of the last four seasons — Cancar is in the spotlight.
“MVP! MVP!” DeAndre Jordan shouted as he walked past the media scrum that surrounded Cancar at practice on Sunday.
But the attention being paid to Cancar right now is warranted. Cancar has played rotation minutes in four of the Nuggets’ last five games — he didn’t play in the home loss to Detroit — and Denver has won three of those four contests. He’s played well too, on both ends of the floor. Cancar’s averaging 11.8 points (45.9 FG%, 38.9 3P%), 2.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1 steal and 1.3 blocks over his last four outings.
He’s excelled by sticking to his own basketball principles. Cancar’s bag isn’t deep. He’s not a lights-out shooter. He doesn’t possess the quick gene. He doesn’t jump that high and isn’t a smooth athlete. At 6-foot-8, he’s severely undersized for a backup power forward or center, the positions he’s been playing on the Nuggets’ bench unit as of late. But Cancar has found a way by playing the only way he knows how.
“I always talk with (Nuggets assistant coach) Ogi (Stojakovic), and he always tells me just to play easy, play like you would play in Europe,” said Cancar. “I feel like that’s really good when you have players that are really good individually, and then me just kind of being the glue guy. Just those small, dirty things that not many players do, and then here I am. I guess it works.”
“That’s just the European style of play.”
It’s a mindset that’s worked for the Nuggets’ bench, at least over the last few games. That unit has looked more connected with Cancar on the floor. They’ve looked more together. Cancar has been playing the Nikola Jokic role on offense too as the playmaking five and at times the initiator of Denver’s attack.
Look at Cancar conduct traffic on this possession like Jokic so often does.
Cancar brings a level of activity on the offensive end of the floor that DeAndre Jordan doesn’t. And of course, the Nuggets’ second unit plays an entirely different style when Cancar is on the floor as opposed to Jordan. Denver’s default bench offense is built around the high pick-and-roll between Jordan and Bones Hyland, who didn’t play in either of the Nuggets’ last two games. That could have been a key reason why Cancar has gotten the nod over Jordan recently too. The Nuggets love the Bones-Jordan pick-and-roll pairing. Perhaps Denver just sat Jordan because Hyland was out of the lineup.
With Cancar, the Nuggets default to more of a Jokic Ball style of play with Cancar filling the shoes of the back-to-back MVP.
This is a play you can envision the Nuggets’ running for Jokic. Here, Denver runs it for Cancar.
The second unit with Cancar plays quicker, with more pace, and has been less stagnant. It’s felt like the ball has had more energy with Cancar on the floor. The Nuggets’ bench has just had more life to it lately. With Cancar in the lineup, it seems like there’s an emphasis to move the ball more too, both side to side and up and down the floor. Defensively, he proved against the Thunder that he can be a versatile, switchable defensive weapon.
It’s too early to tell whether or not Cancar is the answer. DeAndre Jordan hasn’t been impressive this season, but he’s been OK for what a backup center typically brings. However, there’s no doubt that Cancar has injected some much-needed juice into the Nuggets’ second unit. It should be an easy decision for Michael Malone to ride these Cancar minutes while the bench has this momentum.
Tonight’s matchup against the Rockets could provide some clarity to how the Nuggets view what Cancar has done these last few games. Hyland could return to the lineup and that could mean Jordan returns to the rotation too. Maybe it pushes Cancar out of the rotation completely. Maybe it pushes him to backup power forward. Maybe he and Zeke Nnaji still play instead of Jordan. That’s the option I’m hoping Malone chooses.
Cancar has been here before. He’s stepped into the rotation in the past when the Nuggets’ have been hit with injuries and performed. He’s no stranger to the situation and how unpredictable his minutes can be going forward. Whether or not he plays long-term, Cancar is keeping a healthy approach.
He’s making sure to live in the moment.
“We have a really good team,” Cancar said. “I think the rotations are going to change during the season, anything can happen. I’m not trying to look much forward. I’m just trying to go practice by practice, game by game.”