Taking the next step from fringe All-Star candidate to legitimate All-NBA threat is a difficult one for any young player. Defenses are working harder to stop that player, studying that player’s habits and movements to find weaknesses in the armor. The conditioning of carrying a team can wear out certain players.
Nikola Jokic has struggled with all of that, but he’s breaking out of it now.
Over the last 14 games, the Nuggets are 10-4, having played primarily against playoff teams. Three games against the San Antonio Spurs, two against the Houston Rockets, one against the Golden State Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Boston Celtics, and a partridge in a pear tree have come to neutralize the Joker. Overall though? Jokic has bounced back and flourished under such pressure.
Here are his per game numbers during the Nuggets’ hot streak:
|Points||Rebounds||Assists||Steals||Blocks||Turnovers||Field Goal %||Three Point %||Free Throw %|
It doesn’t take a genius to say that he’s been extremely productive. He has once again become the fulcrum around which the Nuggets rotate, cut, and operate their offense, and it’s paying off in the win column.
There are five major reasons why this is happening:
1. The ball runs through Jokic’s hands nearly every possession.
On the season, Jokic holds the ball, on average, 83.6 times per game. Before this recent hot streak, that number was 80.8 touches. Since January 22nd, that number rises to 92.0 touches, which ranks fourth in the entire NBA behind Ben Simmons, Russell Westbrook, and Blake Griffin. Not even LeBron James touches the ball as frequently during that stretch.
Because of this, Jokic is getting the opportunity to accomplish more offensively through simple volume, and it’s working. Denver’s Offensive Rating during these 14 games is 115.1, third in the NBA behind Golden State and Houston. Denver’s Offensive Rating with Jokic on the floor? 118.7, an absurdly high number, sandwiched in between the five biggest offensive stars in the Western Conference right now:
2. He is being more aggressive.
One of the best pieces of Jokic’s game is how fast he whips the ball around the court, providing advantages for his teammates at every possible avenue. This hasn’t changed, as he only averages 2.02 seconds per touch during this stretch, down from the 2.19 seconds beforehand. Among bigs, this is right around the number players like Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, Al Horford, and LaMarcus Aldridge fall.
What’s different now for Jokic is where those seconds are being spent. Jokic averaged 4.4 elbow touches and 6.7 post ups per game before this recent hot streak. Right now, he’s at 5.0 elbow touches and 8.7 post ups per game, sixth and fifth in the entire NBA respectively.
The post ups are more pointed, more seasoned. There was a point this year when Jokic’s efficiency on post ups wasn’t high, and he went away from it as a viable way to score. Now, he’s at 229 post ups that finish with a shot, foul, or turnover, the ninth most in the NBA. For every post up he finishes himself are another two that he passes out of in favor of better position or a better shot for someone else, but by being aggressive, his presence inside is treated similarly to players like Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid.
3. His teammates and coaches are trusting him.
It’s not easy for a 23-year-old to be the focal point, but success or failure, the Nuggets are tying their wagon to Jokic-ball again this year. Through this stretch Jokic is playing 33 minutes a night, averaging close to three turnovers, and struggling through three quarters defensively (in the fourth quarter, Jokic becomes more aggressive and a better defender).
For most coaches and players, a center that averages three turnovers and only playing good defense for 25 percent of the game? That would drive them crazy. It probably drives Michael Malone crazy regardless of the result. Still, the team is empowering their young star, letting him try a variety of things, and it’s working.
4. He is surrounded by quality three point shooters and wings that like to run.
The only player in the regular rotation shooting less than 34.0 percent from beyond the arc during the last 14 games is Devin Harris, who has only played five games in a Nuggets uniform and doesn’t have the sample size to be judged yet. As for the rest of the team, they are lighting things up from beyond the arc.
As a team, the Nuggets are shooting 39.5 percent from behind the three-point line during the last 14 games, good for third in the entire NBA behind (you guessed it) Golden State and the (you didn’t guess it) Sacramento Kings. The extra spacing makes things easier for cutters in the half court and for interior play. It’s harder to cheat off of the three-point line when the estimated points per possession of a three-point attempt for Denver is 1.185 PPP.
Denver is also averaging the eighth most fast break points on the season at 13.7 per game. Jokic loves to make the long baseball pass to players down the floor. He’s made a few of those this year.
Above all though for Jokic’s individual numbers, he hasn’t been playing with another big for awhile Mason Plumlee has been injured, as has Paul Millsap. Trey Lyles spends more time with the second unit as a focal point, which leaves Jokic to command the first unit with Wilson Chandler as the power forward. That has provided ample space, and while the defense is terrible, the offense is even more extraordinary.
5. He’s simply playing better.
There are very few ways to explain the below performance against the Milwaukee Bucks. At some point, the competitive advantages are nullified, and the most important factor is that Jokic is simply playing well right now. He’s seeing the cuts and how the defense rotates as a passer, and he’s putting the ball in the basket more frequently as a scorer.
The Joker is capable of these kinds of performances due to his sheer talent, and while the above four factors are extremely helpful, his talent is what matters most, showing through against some of the toughest competition in the NBA.
There are shots that he’s making and passes he’s attempting that may not be as successful in the future, but at the moment, he’s doing some amazing things, and it would be crazy to nitpick the details.
Now that Plumlee is back healthy and Millsap is soon to return, I am interested in seeing how Jokic reacts individually. Those two players were brought in to ease his burden as a playmaker offensively. If they are able to do that down the stretch and it doesn’t hurt Denver’s record, the additions will be very welcome.
If however, Denver struggles to incorporate different playmakers in the front court during the rest of the year, it will be interesting to see how the team reacts in the offseason. The goal with this young core should be to maximize their potential. If the front court players that are missing can’t do that while they are on the roster, then there are some fundamental things Denver must consider changing.
I have faith that Denver will absorb the front court talent they are getting back healthy and continue to be a quality team. Hopefully, everyone plays well. Jokic certainly has lately. Let’s keep that snowball rolling downhill into the playoffs this year.