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Stiffs Mailbag: Nikola Jokic’s conditioning, Jamal Murray’s ceiling, and more

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Answering the questions of Denver Stiffs readers

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Hey Denver Nuggets fans! It’s Friday, and the Nuggets are on a seven-game winning streak. That means it’s time for another Stiffs Mailbag. If you have a question for future mailbags, make sure to send it to me on Twitter (@NBABlackburn) or to my email (link in profile).

Let’s get right into it!


This feels like a trick question. It’s Nikola Jokic!

Throughout all of the injuries this season, Jokic has been the steady facilitator, rebounder, and defender, repeatedly making the right play on offense and defense regardless of whether the shot is going in. That steadying hand has been the architect of Denver’s early success. With Jamal Murray and Gary Harris struggling to shoot, Will Barton going down with an early injury, Torrey Craig and Juancho Hernangomez splitting time as Barton’s replacement, and Paul Millsap being good but not great offensively, the Nuggets needed Jokic to be elite, and he has absolutely provided that. Only nine players can say they have hit 16 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists in a season: six Hall of Fame guys, Fat Lever, Russell Westbrook, and Nikola Jokic.

That should say everything about Jokic’s value to the Nuggets this year.


Actually, Jokic playing less time should be mostly celebrated.

There’s certainly a balance between resting a player more frequently and being concerned about whether a player can handle heavy minutes, but I’m not concerned about Jokic at all. Last season, Jokic averaged 30.3 minutes per game prior to January 1st. After the new year hit, his minutes ramped up to 34.0 per game. His physical ability to play heavy minutes isn’t the issue. My read on it is that Malone likes to manage his minutes early in the year to keep Jokic more fresh as the season wears on.

And why shouldn’t he? With an elite backup center in Mason Plumlee anchoring a solid bench unit, the Nuggets aren’t being hurt in those minutes. Technically, the team has a better Net Rating with Jokic off the floor this year, but the reason for that has less to do with Jokic and more to do with surprising bench contributions.

Nikola Jokic is a positive presence, but this year, the bench unit without him is even better.
Basketball Reference

Jokic has played 718 minutes this season. Karl-Anthony Towns is at 842. Joel Embiid is already at 892. The difference? Those teams don’t have a reliable backup center that they can put on the court for extended minutes without watching the lead disintegrate. For as long as the bench keeps performing and the Nuggets keep winning, I’m not concerned about this at all.


I assume you mean one turnover, but you’re absolutely right. Wednesday’s game against the Orlando Magic was an impressive one for Murray. He didn’t have the efficiency on a night where he had to take a high number of shots, but he kept the turnovers low. This gave him more opportunities to get into rhythm, and he hit his most important shots during the overtime period when the Nuggets needed him most.

My best guess is that Murray’s ball handling usage will decrease as Will Barton, Isaiah Thomas, and others become healthy. Right now, Murray is averaging the eighth most passes made in the entire NBA at 57.9 per game, fourth most among point guards behind Ben Simmons, Jrue Holiday, and Mike Conley. I’d expect that number to go down as Denver gets other guards and wings back in the lineup who can handle the ball.

That being said, I think the efficiency goes way up. Murray starts every year slow, but after January 1st the last two years, his efficiency has risen. Combining better shooting efficiency with his improved assist-to-turnover ratio puts him on the edge of the elite point guard mix. He’s on the border of top 10 point guard status if he recovers his shooting.


Here are all of the guard combinations you specified:

All of Denver’s primary guard combinations have excelled this year.
NBA.com

Nuggets fans knew going into the year that the Murray-Harris duo had star potential written all over it, but the backup guard positions were question marks. With Will Barton moving to starting small forward, Isaiah Thomas on the shelf to start the year, and Monte Morris and Malik Beasley remaining unproven, Denver needed an answer. Now, they have one in Morris.

Morris has been Malone’s most valuable asset this year. With the flexibility to play on and off the ball, shoot off the dribble, shoot off the catch, play smart defense, and never turn the ball over, he has been a revelation.

The Net Ratings that include Morris are all better than the one that doesn’t include him. That doesn’t mean that a +5.0 Net Rating should be any less important. Denver gets off to a solid start, then they generally blow the doors off teams when Morris comes into the game.


At this current moment, the Nuggets possess a 111.3 Offensive Rating (7th), a 104.0 Defensive Rating (5th), and a +7.3 Net Rating (3rd).

As Denver gets back reinforcements, I think the offense will get even better. Having shooters and creators to take the pressure off Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray should alleviate some stresses, even though there will be a minutes crunch. I don’t see Denver getting better defensively though. If anything, I think they slide just a bit. Denver’s opponents over the next six weeks aren’t strong, but of the players that are returning (Will Barton, Isaiah Thomas, and Gary Harris) only Harris is a good defensive player.

I’d expect Denver’s Offensive Rating to be in the Top 5 when February rolls around (about 113.0 or so) while the Defensive Rating slips to higher than 106.0 (which probably puts Denver in the 6-10 range on that end, a respectable number).


My first inclination is to say Malik Beasley, but the more I think about it, I’d say it will be a rotating committee.

Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez have earned their time this year. Both played in crunch time on Wednesday against Orlando, primarily because the two have turned into solid defenders and efficient shooters. Lyles has improved defensively as well, but the shooting has left him this year, as he’s making just 28.4 percent of his three-pointers. The difference in spacing between Lyles and Beasley/Juancho (41.3 and 45.9 percent on threes respectively) is impactful. Denver can’t just send those guys back to being benchwarmers. They’re too good.

Then there’s the whole Isaiah Thomas vs Monte Morris situation that could become a serious issue soon.

That being said, I’d expect Malone to mix and match based on the opponent. If the opposing team likes to space the floor with the bench unit, then Malone may try to punish them inside with Lyles. If the bench unit has a tall small forward, Juancho may play over Beasley. Either way, I think it will rotate, a dangerous game to play given the dominance of Denver’s current bench unit.


Sell. I love what the Nuggets have done so far, but we must put Golden State’s injury issues into perspective: Golden State is 17-9 after 28 games. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green have played 28 games total.

The Warriors went through a lull in November. Draymond Green was in open rebellion against Kevin Durant. They honestly could not care less about the regular season. And despite all of those things, they’re still 17-9. Denver is 17-7, and while I expect them to maintain a similar pace through January, there will be a time when Denver hits that wall too, much like their 1-6 skid in November.

I expect Denver to hit about 52 wins this year, an excellent total that goes well over their expected number of victories. That won’t be enough to match Golden State though, who will be getting back DeMarcus Cousins relatively soon as well. I expect Golden State to crack 57, so it’s not impossible that Denver could match their total, but it would take a minor miracle.


Time will tell whether this comes to fruition, but it’s something I will be looking out for after January 1st. It’s hard to be really good in the NBA for a long time. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Nuggets look at their January schedule, think they should be fine, then drop a few random games versus Cleveland, Miami, or others due to the simple grind of the NBA season.

I’d be more worried if Nikola Jokic was playing heavy minutes, but as I mentioned earlier, he’s not. Under 30 minutes per game will help him stay fresh deep into the year, and the reinforcements of Barton, Thomas, a healthier Harris (and maybe Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt?) can only help the energy level.

Will that be enough to get Denver over the hump in a playoff series? It simply depends on the matchup. Denver matches up with some teams well and other teams poorly. New Orleans? That’s a bad matchup. Utah? Great matchup for Denver to advance.

I wouldn’t worry about this team losing their energy late in the year like a Tom Thibodeau squad though.