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Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic doesn’t need to do more

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Washington Wizards v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Denver Nuggets fans have been panicking through the first fifth of the season because last year’s MVP candidate Nikola Jokic has been “struggling” to put up raw counting stats. He’s scoring the second-fewest points per game in his career at 16.1, and his overall efficiency has fallen as well. The Nuggets have relied on Jokic to carry their team for much of the past few years. They aren’t needing that from him now, and fans should be happy about that fact.

A few weeks ago, I thought that the “issue” with Jokic was that he wasn’t getting to play how he wanted to close to the basket and as a hub of the offense at the elbow. After further inspection, it looks like this is the exact way that he wants to play by letting everyone else do the work. Do we all want Jokic to average a 25/12/10 triple-double for the season? Of course, we do. However, he doesn’t need to.

Through 16 games, Jokic is averaging 16.1 points per game to go with 10.4 rebounds and 6.0 assists. He’s only registered three triple-doubles to this point in the season, and he has gone for 20 or more points in seven games. Head coach Michael Malone has assembled a team that can take the load off of Jokic because he knows that what matters is seeing him take over in the playoffs, not in November.

In Tuesday’s win over the Washington Wizards, Denver’s defense locked in by holding the NBA’s second-best offense, which was averaging over 119 points entering the game, to just 104, and there was a fair bit of those that came late in the game during garbage time. Six different Nuggets got into double digits for scoring, and Jokic was not one of them, as he finished the game with just eight in 25 minutes of play.

Jokic is taking on the role that Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James has been searching for his entire career. He’s doing the little things while everyone else is doing the scoring. How is Jokic doing the little things, Gage? Thank you for asking. His rebounding is elite with his ability to get in the right spot combined with his size allowing him to get boards far more easily than others. They were +22 in the rebounding battle on Tuesday night, and Jokic had 20 rebounds by himself.

Among the players that have played at least five games for the Nuggets, Jokic is fifth in net rating at +9.9. He’s also top five on the team in just about every advanced stat. He’s second on the team in assist percentage and assist ratio, and he leads the team in defensive rebounding percentage along with rebound percentage. Jokic has found his role, and he’s doing everything that he needs to.

“I don’t want him to be just a role player though because he’s supposed to be an MVP candidate.” I get what you want him to do, but that’s not what he’s going to do as long as the team is playing like this. All five of the starters are averaging in double figures, and the team is the best defense in the NBA right now. The important thing to understand is that he’s playing his role, but he’s not just a role player for this team.

When they matched up with the Philadelphia 76ers, who are arguably the best team they’ve played thus far, Jokic took the game into his own hands, and he led them to a victory. He finished that game with 26 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. he also added two steals and two blocks. Jokic, Jamal Murray and Will Barton all got into the 20-point club for that game, but they weren’t getting a ton of contributions elsewhere which is why Jokic took that game into his hands.

Last season, Jokic played 600 more minutes in the entire season, including the playoffs, than in any other year of his career. He also played in the FIBA World Cup this summer where he was far and away his team’s best player. He got a month off before the season started, but he was probably exhausted because this was the least bit of rest he’s ever had in his career.

We’re Heading Somewhere

“Load Management” has become the tactic that a lot of the top teams in the NBA have been utilizing to preserve their stars this year and in years past. The Nuggets aren’t utilizing that with Jokic, but they are also not forcing him to carry a heavier workload to keep him fresh for the end of the season, which are the games that matter the most. Ask the record-breaking Golden State Warriors if their 73-9 season was worth it when they didn’t win the title.

No player on the Nuggets is averaging more than 32.9 minutes per game, and that’s Murray who’s leading the charge. Compare that with LeBron who hasn’t averaged fewer than 35.2 minutes per game throughout any season in his career. Malone sees the light at the end of the tunnel, and, while he understands that regular-season wins matter, he also understands that the most important 16 wins are the final 16.

He knows that Jokic will be needed in a major way for the games against the Western Conference’s best teams. For instance, Jokic has a size advantage against teams like the Lakers, LA Clippers and Houston Rockets. Jokic needs to be fresh for those matchups rather than playing on worn-out legs. As long as the team is winning, does it matter that Jokic isn’t putting up insane stat lines on a nightly basis?

Jokic is doing everything that his team needs him to for them to be successful. He’s the ultimate teammate for that reason. While others are out hunting stats and looking to put numbers on the board for themselves, Jokic is making sure that his team is getting wins when the game is all said and done. I know that you want Jokic to do more, and, when the time calls for it, he will. Until then though, be happy that your All-NBA center doesn’t have to play 40 minutes a night for his team to get a win.