As the Denver Nuggets attempt to navigate an injury plagued season, they have dropped back down to 18-18, currently sporting an average record for a season that has been anything but.

On one hand, Nikola Jokić has been absolutely fantastic. 26 points, 21 rebounds, and 11 assists last night underscored what was an excellent performance for the Nuggets MVP center. He has been asked to do everything for the Nuggets this year, and short of growing a third arm or cloning himself, there probably isn’t anything else he could do to maximize his contributions.

On the other hand, the Nuggets still lost.

That’s been the story of the season. No matter what Jokić does, it never seems to be enough, particularly because he never seems to be on the floor when the Nuggets start falling apart. Take last night for example: to start the second quarter, the Nuggets were tied at 26 with the Utah Jazz. Then, the Nuggets score two total points between the start of the quarter and Jokić comes back in at the 8:27 mark. The Jazz went on a 10-2 run, and a game that was tied just three and a half minutes ago is trending toward getting out of hand. Denver went to a frontcourt featuring JaMychal Green and Bol Bol during those initial minutes, and though Bol scored Denver’s only two points of the first four minutes of the quarter, he was also taken out. The Nuggets had to soldier on with Jokić and Gordon, who appeared to re-aggravate his hamstring injury later in the game.

Now, that stretch didn’t lose the game for the Nuggets; however, I have a theory that the Nuggets starters play worse in the second half when they are asked to play harder in the first half. Often, the starters come back in and save the team’s bacon in the second quarter, with Denver sporting the best net rating in second quarters in the entire NBA.

In fact, here’s Nikola Jokić’s net rating mark juxtaposed with the rest of the team:

It’s clear that his successes are going to carry the day in a lot of cases, but the important numbers to identify here are the differences between Jokić’s net rating and the rest of the team, particularly the first quarter and fourth quarter numbers. When there’s a drastic difference, it means that the results are drastically different when Jokić is on the floor versus off the floor.

Here’a another visualization of Denver’s net rating swing when Jokić plays by quarter:

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In those particular instances, the Nuggets often go full-bench, relying on Facundo Campazzo, Bones Hyland, and JaMychal Green to do everything they can to drive success. Sometimes, Will Barton or Aaron Gordon will stagger with the bench in those moments, but Denver’s foundation in those lineups is based around a 5’9” guard that struggles to score, a 175 pound rookie that struggles to defend, and a 6’8” power forward turned center that’s shooting 25% from three. Needless to say, the Nuggets have struggled with Jokić off the floor.

Campazzo in particular has been on the floor for many of Denver’s struggles, especially in the fourth quarter. He’s currently the leader in the NBA in lowest plus-minus in fourth quarters 36 games into the year, with Jeff Green a distant second.

Plus-Minus “Reverse Leaders” in fourth quarters for the 2021-22 NBA season

  1. Facu Campazzo, -126 in 242 minutes
  2. Jeff Green, -90 in 161 minutes
  3. Cam Reddish, -81 in 236 minutes
  4. Peyton Pritchard, -80 in 161 minutes
  5. Tyrese Haliburton, -78 in 313 minutes
  6. Naz Reid, -76 in 156 minutes
  7. Malik Beasley, -75 in 255 minutes
  8. Richaun Holmes, -68 in 154 minutes
  9. Jaden McDaniels, -67 in 238 minutes
  10. Garrett Temple, -65 in 162 minutes

It’s pretty clear that the Nuggets need to change how they handle fourth quarters. They’re an abject disaster at the moment, the worst in the NBA, and that’s not an accident. It’s not a fluke. It’s also not something that will necessarily be solved when Jamal Murray ultimately returns, which means that Denver should be heading this problem off before it becomes a season defining problem.

It’s time to get Nikola Jokić more involved in fourth quarters.

Staggering Jokić with the second unit

The great thing about building a roster around Nikola Jokić is that Tim Connelly and company have had plenty of time to find players that work well with Jokić. To be clear, Jokić makes the process pretty easy by doing just about everything himself. For the most part though, the Nuggets have surrounded Jokić with players that can play around his skill set. They just do it in different ways.

Here are Denver’s rotation players and their Net Ratings next to Jokić, minimum of 50 minutes played together:

  • Jokić + Aaron Gordon, +10.2 Net Rating in 781 minutes
  • Jokić + Monte Morris: +12.0 Net Rating in 770 minutes
  • Jokić + Will Barton, +5.3 Net Rating in 692 minutes
  • Jokić + Jeff Green, +11.0 Net Rating in 523 minutes
  • Jokić + Facu Campazzo, -1.2 Net Rating in 275 minutes
  • Jokić + Austin Rivers, +8.2 Net Rating in 227 minutes
  • Jokić + Michael Porter Jr., +11.3 Net Rating in 219 minutes (sad)
  • Jokić + Bones Hyland, +6.5 Net Rating in 159 minutes
  • Jokić + PJ Dozier, +7.1 Net Rating in 123 minutes (more sad)
  • Jokić + Davon Reed, +23.7 Net Rating in 94 minutes
  • Jokić + Zeke Nnaji, +20.3 Net Rating in 78 minutes

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that Jokić works well with everyone outside of possibly Campazzo, whose fourth quarter plus-minus is certainly dragging this number down. Everyone else has found success with Jokić, even Reed and Nnaji. The deep bench players finding significant success actually amplifies my belief that Jokić and the Nuggets would both benefit from staggering with second units.

Right now, Jokić averages nearly 10 minutes per game in the first and third quarters. It’s a standard rotation for him where he plays the vast majority of the quarter before the Nuggets try to give him about two minutes off on one side of the break and about five minutes off on the other side. Unfortunately, that creates two roughly seven-minute stretches stretching from the first to second and third to fourth quarters that have become Denver’s dead zones. That’s where the games are often won or lost, because if the Nuggets lose both of those stints, then the burden of staging a comeback often becomes too much for Jokić to bear.

Given that the Nuggets have found success with Jokić + bench lineups, it also makes sense to throw the kitchen sink at the non-Jokić minutes with several starters trying to carry the load.

Here’s an example rotation that includes Denver’s normal rotation outside of Murray, Porter, and Dozier:

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By having Jokić on the floor at the beginning and end of every single quarter, the Nuggets run less of a risk of an opposing team going on a substantial run in those minutes. By cutting down on the momentum of other teams, the Nuggets also reduce the amount of variance that can hurt them from multiple 10-2 runs allowed by the bench unit every game. Denver’s starters are forced to be perfect when that’s the case, and bolstering the bench may very well have a positive effect on the starters too.

The Nuggets wouldn’t be reinventing the wheel here either. Several other teams are utilizing their superstars in a similar staggering pattern. The Jazz would have staggered Rudy Gobert against the second unit last night had he been healthy, likely to devastating results. The Milwaukee Bucks use a similar stagger for Giannis Antetokounmmpo, and they won a championship last year. The Golden State Warriors stagger Stephen Curry as well, and they have the best record in the NBA this year.

There’s no written rule that the Nuggets have to play Jokić for the entire first and third quarter. It’s how they’ve conducted Jokić’s rotation for his entire career, and in the years where the bench has really struggled, the Nuggets have also struggled in second and fourth quarters. The Nuggets this year (and Jokić specifically) are throwing so much energy at the second quarter to make up for a poor finish to the first quarter, that they now have no energy left in the second half.

By keeping Jokić’s rotations as uniform as possible, the Nuggets can ensure that he continues to play 34 to 35 minutes at more strategic times. They cut down on the number of minutes for JaMychal Green at center, neutralize the “full bench” minutes, and also give every single player the opportunity to play with Jokić. There’s a psychological benefit to playing Jokić with the bench beyond just helping them out. It becomes less about starters vs bench and more about the team as a whole, with Jokić doing what he can to help both units.

Whatever the Nuggets decide to do, they should do it quickly. Denver currently sits at 18-18, a perfectly average record in the eighth seed in the West. The schedule is about to lighten up, and Jamal Murray will also be back to help ease the stress levels that everyone’s currently feeling right now. Things will get better than where they are right now.

But until Murray gets back, the Nuggets will continue to be shorthanded. The trade deadline isn’t for another month either, so reinforcements aren’t really close just yet. All they can do is endure, and the best way forward is to trust Jokić unconditionally.

The Nuggets could use a changeup, and staggering Jokić is the best way to freshen things up for everyone involved.

Quarter Team Net Rating Net Rating RANK Jokić minutes per quarter Net Rating WITH Jokić per quarter Net Rating WITHOUT Jokić per quarter
First Quarter -0.3 18th 9.8 +10.4 -21.8
Second Quarter +14.6 1st 7.3 +27.4 +0.9
Third Quarter -4.1 22nd 9.8 +0.3 -12.9
Fourth Quarter -14.0 30th 7.1 -4.2 -21.2