This edition of Stat of the Week will focus on how great Nikola Jokic is, while also looking at the strides the Nuggets have taken without their star big man on the floor.
The Denver Nuggets are a good team. End of story. The upward momentum of the team will always center around the progression of Nikola Jokic as a star player, but he hasn’t been the only reason for success. Gary Harris has shown new skills as a ball handler. Jamal Murray has grown and added to his game on both ends. Trey Lyles has come seemingly out of nowhere to become the best scoring forward off the bench in the NBA.
Most teams rely on one or two guys to carry them throughout the year, but when those guys go to the bench or are out for a significant period of time, the team struggles. The Nuggets are no different, but the degree to which they rely on Jokic to win basketball games has lessened.
The Nuggets are 3-4 in games that Jokic has missed this season. Here are the records of other teams when their star big man has missed games:
Obviously, it doesn’t help any team when a star is injured, but winning over 40 percent of games without a player who impacts winning so greatly is a major testament to a team’s resolve. The Jazz have done a great job of surviving without Rudy Gobert because of Donovan Mitchell. The Pelicans have survived Anthony Davis’ absences because DeMarcus Cousins has averaged 32.4 points, 15.6 rebounds, and 5 assists in the five games Davis has sat.
The Nuggets have survived by committee. In the games Jokic sat, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris split the scoring load, averaging 19.4 and 19.3 points respectively. Mason Plumlee also improved his defense and efficiency during this stretch. His 106.9 defensive rating in those seven games represented the best defensive mark among starters, and his 68.3 eFG% would have ranked second in the entire NBA. Combine that with improvements from Trey Lyles during the month of December and a Wilson Chandler reboot, and the team has the personnel to at least survive.
It’s not just when Jokic misses games though. Last year, when Jokic so much as left the floor, the Nuggets collapsed. The same can be said the year before. This year? Denver is learning to grind through the minutes without their best player.
It’s not perfect, but it’s better. The numbers might be even more encouraging had Paul Millsap not sustained a torn ligament in his wrist as soon as the Nuggets were learning to play with the four-time All-Star power forward. Despite the missed games though, the Nuggets have been resilient, and it hasn’t just been one guy. It’s been a group effort.
By the way, you’re reading that right: Emmanuel Mudiay has been a good offensive player when Nikola Jokic is on the bench. A 57.0 true shooting percentage and 24.9 assist rate are actually really good for a backup point guard. WITH Nikola Jokic is another story: his 41.7 TS% while the Serbian center is on the floor would be the second worst mark in the entire NBA. Last year, the opposite was the case for Mudiay, so it’s possible this is a statistical anomaly rather than an indication of a larger problem with the Mudiay-Jokic pairing. It certainly is interesting though.
Most of the time, the Nuggets are anchored by Mason Plumlee when Jokic sits, so let’s see how the numbers change when guaranteeing Plumlee is in the lineup while Jokic is out:
That’s right, efficiency is in the green for almost everyone with Plumlee on the floor and Jokic off. Not all of this is because of Plumlee, but it speaks to the offense’s ability to generate good shots while he is on the floor. Plumlee has performed as a pseudo version of Jokic on the floor to help the scorers be successful.
Of course, he’s not the only reason. Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton in particular have done a nice job creating off the dribble lately. In the month of December, as soon as Jokic sustained his ankle injury, Harris has actually been the most efficient scorer off of drives in the entire NBA.
Finally, I’d be remised if I didn’t mention Jamal Murray and Trey Lyles. Murray is averaging 18.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 3.2 assists on a 61.2 TS% during the month of December. That includes shooting 48.7 percent from behind the three-point line. His scoring prowess has combined both volume and efficiency, and during the season, only three guards in the entire NBA have matched those numbers over the course of this season: James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Klay Thompson.
I have spoken ad nauseum about Lyles, but I’m willing to do it again. In December, Lyles has averaged 14.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, mostly coming off the bench. His efficiency is off the charts, shooting 54.3 percent from the field and 49.2 percent from behind the three-point line. His production is even more insane. The only bench player that has provided comparable scoring production off the bench: Lou Williams. Lyles continues to hit awesome three-pointers and is forcing his way into Denver’s young core of the future.
Long story short: the Nuggets’ survival when Nikola Jokic is off the floor has come from a variety of players and solid coaching. Michael Malone has empowered his players to be more aggressive with the ball in their hands, and it’s working. The team has maintained efficiency for this reason, while Harris, Murray, and Lyles have grown up right before everyone’s eyes. Plumlee has helped stabilize the situation, and contributions from Mudiay and Chandler have improved without Jokic.
When Paul Millsap returns, Denver will have a new dimension to incorporate into its offense. Things may take a few weeks, but the defense should improve or maintain pace due to his presence.
Whatever happens though, the Nuggets are in a better place than they were two years ago, or even two months ago. They are less reliant on one player, and for a team with playoff aspirations, that makes all the difference in the world.
Is there one player that’s most responsible for the Nuggets’ success with Nikola Jokic off the floor?
This poll is closed
Yes - It’s Will Barton
Yes - It’s Gary Harris
Yes - It’s Jamal Murray
Yes - It’s Trey Lyles
No - It’s a combination of guys
Other (comment below)