Can the Nuggets win a championship relying on Jokić as much as they are?
A few weeks ago, Charles Barkley said something insightful on national television in my estimation that was taken out of context. He stated that the Nuggets were relying too heavily on Nikola Jokić and needed to give the ball to other players at times. Many fans reacted strongly to this online. “They give it to him because he’s the best!” “Those other guys aren’t as good as him!” “The Nuggets win more games because Nikola Jokić has the ball a lot.”
To that I say: yep. All true.
And yet, the Nuggets are playing for both the present AND the future to be the best possible team they can be. I question whether they can be that team while being as dependent on Nikola Jokić as they currently are.
Let’s go over the numbers:
On the season, Nikola Jokić is averaging 26.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 8.7 assists per game, all career highs. He’s also averaging an astounding 35.8 minutes per game, a career high for Jokić and the seventh highest MPG average in the NBA. Jokić has actually exceeded 38 minutes 10 time this season, and the Nuggets are 2-8 in those games.
The implication isn’t that the Nuggets are worse when Jokić plays more, to be clear. The questions begin to arise for why the Nuggets are playing Jokić extended minutes. Three of the eight losses in those specific games went into overtime, an understandable reason to play heavy minutes. In four of those games, Jokić had a positive plus-minus, yet the Nuggets were just 1-3 in those games with Denver losing the few minutes Jokić sat by a substantial margin. Two of those losses came against the Sacramento Kings.
There’s also the concern of how Denver’s players operate when Jokić is on the floor versus off the floor. Here’s the effective field goal percentage of every Nuggets player when playing with Jokić ON the floor versus OFF the floor as of Sunday’s Los Angeles Lakers game:
It’s understandable that receiving crispy passes from Nikola Jokić is going to have a major effect on Denver’s offensive efficiency, but some of those changes in percentage are downright alarming, especially for Denver’s primary starting unit. Jamal Murray isn’t someone I expected to be as impacted as he has been thus far when Jokić sits down. He’s meant to be Denver’s second star, but unless he can raise his game in the moments when Jokić leaves the floor, the Nuggets are at a major disadvantage.
But for the entire starting unit, this represents a larger trend that has become more and more true over years of playing together: Nikola Jokić has become a crutch the props up everything the Nuggets do. They feed him the ball consistently, pass and cut frequently, and Jokić, being the player that he is, rewards the starters with easy opportunities to score points.
Take that away, and it’s unclear just how far the Nuggets would fall.
To be clear, not every player is affected in this way. For a few bench players, Jokić’s presence has actually limited their efficiency. Michael Porter Jr. is the greatest example, though the conversation is more layered than “Michael Porter doesn’t need Nikola Jokić” because he definitely does. The Nuggets are undergoing growing pains with Porter attempting to learn a larger role, and when he and Jokić don’t share the floor, the dynamic is drastically different. For some players, that dynamic is easier to operate. For others, clearly not. JaMychal Green and PJ Dozier seem to be similar situations as well. Green in particular has a drastic role change when playing with and without Jokić, and he fits as a stretch center better than as a traditional power forward for his own stats’ sake.
To be the championship contending team the Nuggets hope to be, they’ve never needed Jokić on the court more. Denver as a +8.0 Net Rating with Jokić on the floor that drops to -3.0 with Jokić off the floor. The offensive rating specifically goes from 119.8 points per 100 possessions to 100.4 points per 100, an absurd drop.
Murray has a similar net rating impact, and I discussed why on Monday’s edition of Starting Five.
For a team with aspiring championship expectations though, the Nuggets must figure out how to operate when Jokić isn’t out there. The Western Conference Finals are a great example, as Jokić sustained foul trouble in several of those games that left the Nuggets to their own devices against the soon-to-be world champion Los Angeles Lakers. That might seem like an exercise in futility, but it isn’t. NBA players don’t play every minute for a reason, and the best teams are often the ones that can survive the longest without their best player because the rest of the infrastructure is capable of carrying on.
Right now, the Nuggets don’t have that infrastructure. Lineups with Murray, Harris, Barton, and Millsap that don’t include Jokić have played just seven total minutes this season and have a -87.8 net rating. No, that isn’t a typo. The small sample size is also a shocking reminder of just how important the development of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. truly is. Both could be key factors in Denver becoming less dependent on Jokić. So far, the results have been mixed and have occurred primarily against bench units. It would be interesting to see whether Denver could survive without Jokić by running things through those two young star talents.
The NBA champions of the last few seasons could operate without their brightest star when the playoffs rolled around. Rajon Rondo and Anthony Davis formed an impactful pick and roll tandem while LeBron James rested. Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and the Toronto Raptors could survive without Kawhi Leonard, though not for long. The Golden State Warriors were unfair. The Cleveland Cavaliers had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to bridge the gap while James sat out for them.
The Nuggets are going to need a great plan for Jokić bench minutes when the playoffs roll around. It might not be perfect, nor does it need to be. It has to be better than what’s going on right now though. Denver has several good players to operate things while Jokić sits, but if starters are asked to do too much when Jokić isn’t out there, I have my concerns for Denver in a difficult playoff series.