Austin Rivers, Facundo Campazzo, Will Barton, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokic

Your starting five in the Denver Nuggets first round series against the Golden State Warriors in April of 2022. All things considered it was a remarkably competitive series that went five games; with the final three games being down to the wire affairs. A remarkable achievement considering that the bench consisted of a volatile Demarcus Cousins as backup center.

All things considered the 2021-22 NBA season might be Nikola Jokic’s most impactful in the NBA. The weight of carrying that Nuggets team was immense and the way he did it was even more remarkable. That Nuggets team won 48 games by the sheer force of his will. In merely surviving and getting that team to a competitive place in the standings demonstrated something special about Jokic: the ability to make everyone around him, no matter the on-paper talent, that much better.

While everything that Jokic accomplished in 2022 earned him a (rightful) MVP nod, there is a warning that needs to be heeded by the Denver Nuggets. It is simple. Learn the lessons of 2022. Do not make Nikola Jokic carry your team as much as he did that fateful, pre-title season.

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I’ve been accused by many for being an alarmist when it comes to the Nuggets approach to this season. Fair enough. I understand that perception and if that is how I come across it must mean something. While doing some soul searching I’ve wondered why I’ve had such a different take about this particular season than most Nuggets media members. The Nuggets just won their first NBA Title and started this season 8-1 (the team is 10-4 as of this writing) after all. In light of the most recently played two games, however, it dawned on me why I came into this season with some trepidation in regard to the Nuggets approach.

Nikola Jokic might be heading, 2022 style, into big time burn out. Not WEARING Jokic out, but mentally taxing him from having to carry the team again.

Hear me out before you protest what I’m saying! I have reasons for going there.

The signs were there pre-New Orleans Pelicans game. Jokic was a little shorter tempered and definitely a little more impatient on the court. Jokic played out of his mind against the Pelicans, though, posting a stat line that boggled even my cynical mind in a weird loss. These things have, in my view, fully manifested themselves in the Nuggets loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers and most clearly in their victory over the Detroit Pistons. Reminding me of Jokic in the 2022 season. Stressed, a bit cranky and definitely weary. We are only 14 games into the season folks. Getting tossed out after the Cleveland game spoke more volumes than anything.

While fully acknowledging that having three games this early in the season with Tony Brothers as lead official hasn’t helped Jokic’s mindset on the court things have been weird aside from that. With the Nuggets reliance on a group of players who are first and second year the Nuggets margin for error (cushion if you will) has evaporated to nothing. Jokic got himself thrown out of the game against the Pistons (along with Malone) and the incredibly young back end of the roster had to step up. Yes, the Pistons are competing with the Washington Wizards as worst team in the NBA but it was a borderline miraculous win considering how many young players received playing time (who held their own). Thank god for Reggie Jackson.

We can chalk up the Nuggets (Jokic’s) stress to missing Murray for the last seven games. Yet, underneath it all is the fact that the Nuggets are missing that margin for error this seaon. By proxy Jokic has to go into 2022 mode and lift the team. Jokic going HAM mode might improve gaudy stats and impress MVP voters but if you’re a Denver Nuggets fan you don’t want this. There is a very real burnout by over-relying on Jokic yet again for the sake of youth development.

Obviously things can be improved by the return of Jamal Murray. I’m skeptical of the Nuggets approach to this season visa vie time devoted to rookie development and the window for a championship and I feel like this put undo pressure on the starting unit to maintain a championship team with a very young back end of the roster. Jamal comes back and the starting unit goes back to being absolutely lethal, right up there with the Boston Celtics starters.

There is that pesky ‘margin for error’ though.

I won’t rehash my issues with the youth vs competing challenge. However I will say the Nuggets better be careful not do drive Nikola Jokic into the ground at the behest of development. When you go as far as the team has in investing in young players, the side effect (if you want to compete) is taxing your starting lineup … specifically you star players who you’ve invested millions into. It serves them no purpose to get burned out. The team needs to be mindful of the issues presented here and see how they can avoid needing Jokic to go full 2022.

For everyone’s benefit.