All stats are through four games. Stats from October 31, 2019 New Orleans Pelicans matchup were not included.
The Denver Nuggets are Nikola Jokic’s team. They go as he goes, and, through four games, he hasn’t been playing up to the standard that has been set for him which has the team playing below their expected levels.
Denver Nuggets All-NBA center Nikola Jokic is coming off the best season of his career. He averaged a career-high in points, rebounds and assists, and he led his team to their first playoff berth in six years. They even won a seven-game series against the San Antonio Spurs. His Serbian national team got fifth in the FIBA world cup. We’re four games into the regular season, and Jokic just doesn’t look like himself.
He’s averaging a career-high 3.8 fouls per game, and his turnover percentage of 19.7 percent is 4.2 percent higher than any other season in his career. He’s averaging just 15.5 points per game on 43.6 percent shooting from the floor and 23.1 percent from 3-point range. Far too often, he’s looked out of sorts when he gets the ball without a plan of what to do with it.
The most surprising part of everything is the fact that advanced stats don’t tell the full story. He’s often been a darling to them in his career, and they look like he’s still performing great. He’s leading the team in usage and assist percentage, but it seems like, more often than not, he’s deferring to his teammates on the offensive end of the floor.
Jokic ranks second on the team in shots per game, but he’s been inefficient because of where he’s taking his shots. He’s only taken 15 shots at the rim this season, and he’s taken his other 40 shots from outside of three feet, including 13 3-point attempts. At his size, 7’0” and 253 pounds, he can bully a lot of the players he’s going to face, but he’s been too content to take shots from outside.
Jokic’s offense is what has made him such a revolutionary talent on the offensive end, and, with point forwards becoming more and more prevalent, he’d become a true point center. His passing ability is unmatched at his position, and we haven’t seen him utilizing that as often this year.
The Nuggets’ offense has stagnated so far this season, and a major part of that has been because of their lack of ball movement. They’re currently 20th in passes made per game, and they’re 28th in potential assists. Jokic needs to be the hub that this offense operates around because that’s what has helped them become the top-10 offense that they’ve been over the last five years.
The Nuggets are just 15th in offensive rating this season, so it makes sense that they have fewer assists and assist opportunities. Their defensive rating is 13th in the league right now, and they can’t expect to win close games every night as a long-term strategy. It’s not effective. The offense needs to go back to what has worked for them the past few seasons.
That all starts with Jokic being aggressive on the offensive end of the floor. Early on during Thursday’s game over the New Orleans Pelicans, he was calling for the ball, and he was doing something with it once he got the ball in his hands. This was just some a small example of what he can do, but it’s important because the entire offense follows his lead. When he’s passing, they’re doing the same.
The Nuggets are currently the fifth-worst team in the NBA in scoring frequency for isolation plays, and they’re the sixth-worst team in points per isolation possessions. Teams like the Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks, who all have a player that will take you off the dribble with relative ease, are at the top of that category because they will score from distance with their iso possessions. That’s not what Denver wants to do.
The Nuggets like to get the ball inside either off of post-ups or cuts off of passes from, you guessed it, Jokic. They were fourth in points in the paint last season with over 52 per game, and they’re currently 29th in that category with just 41.0 per game. As I mentioned before, Jokic isn’t getting to the basket with his shots, and the team is following suit by shooting further away from the basket.
In addition to Jokic being more aggressive, one thing that could help them would be to increase their pace of play. After being one of the slowest teams last season, they’re currently the slowest team in the league this year. Denver doesn’t push the ball up the court unless their bench unit is on the floor. When the starters are out there, they like to work the ball up the floor before they dissect defenses.
Their slow pace didn’t hurt them last season because they made up for it with their efficiency. They shot 46.6 percent, which was 13th in the NBA, but their efficiency isn’t there this year. They’re shooting 41.2 percent from the field which is 26th in the NBA this season. When you’re taking fewer shots than your opponent, you have to make a better percentage of them. Between Jokic struggling to find his shot and the rest of their team following suit, they’ve been forced to rely on their defense.
Jokic is still the All-NBA center that he was last year, and he’s going to have more highlights than lowlights. At this point in the season though, you have to wonder what is going that is causing his struggles on offense. He shouldn’t be tired after an offseason to recover from last year’s playoff run, and they’ve only really added one new player to the rotation.
Defenses have been keying on Jokic early and often which is forcing other players to beat them, and those other players haven’t been stepping up. Among players averaging at least five shots per game, only Millsap and Malik Beasley are shooting over 45 percent from the floor. Everyone else has been struggling with their efficiency, and they’re not always getting the good looks they’re used to seeing.
Every team has one guy that they can look to right the ship and go get them a bucket. That’s supposed to be Jokic for Denver, but he’s not looked like that guy through the first five games of the season. He’s constantly trying to get other teammates going while letting his offense come later. When your teammates are struggling to score as his have been, he has to put them on his massive shoulders and carry them to their goals.
This offense generates open looks, and players are going to start hitting shots. It’s not going to happen overnight though, and you have to think that, when Jokic picks up his level of play, the rest of the team will follow suit. It’s early, so we shouldn’t be hitting the panic button yet. However, if this lasts a while longer, we may have a bigger problem to look at.