After breaking onto the superstar scene last year, Nikola Jokic’s startling regression has kept the Denver Nuggets from truly exploding.
The Denver Nuggets are an exception 14-5 on the 2019-20 campaign, good for second in the Western Conference. It’s actually a two-game improvement over the same time last season, where the Nuggets would up with 54 wins and the No. 2 seed.
There shouldn’t be any worry in the Mile High, and yet there is, because as well as they might be playing, whatever title hopes they have rest on the shoulders of their superstar center, a player who, for whatever reason, has lost that previously discovered magic.
Averages of 14.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game would be career-high type stats for a majority of the NBA, but they represent in a decrease in production for Nikola Jokic from the prior year.
This comes without a stark change in minutes or shot attempts per game. Jokic’s usage rate is down 3.4 percentage points, but that hardly justifies 5.2 fewer points with a 6.0 and 8.5 percentage drop in field goal and 3-point percentage, respectively.
Nobody on Denver has taken the shine away from Jokic. Jamal Murray‘s scoring and usage rate are roughly the same compared to last season. Gary Harris continues to regress in the scoring column. Will Barton and Paul Millsap are past that potential stage in their careers.
Denver’s pace is among the slowest in the league, but such was the cast a season ago when Jokic made his first All-Star Game. Their passes per game are down 8.2 but still ranks among the 10-best in the NBA.
Jokic ranks third in touches and No. 1 in passes per game and the Nuggets still rank top-five in cuts and handoffs per game. His assist percentage, however, has dropped five and a half points and he’s averaging almost two fewer potential assists per game.
What might serve to explain Jokic’s early-season struggles is his placement within Denver’s 18th-ranked offense.
Whereas roughly 1/4 of his possessions came via post-ups a season ago — 25.4 percent — that number has dipped to approximately 1/5 — 21.3 percent.
The frequency with which Jokic serves as the roll man is up 9.3 percent, but his points per possession have dropped from 1.02 to 0.79.
Fewer of his shots are coming within three feet of the rim and 23.1 percent of Jokic’s shots are coming within 10 feet out to the 3-point line as opposed to 15.3 percent in 2018-19.
These systematic changes would make a lot of sense with a busy offseason from the Nuggets, but all 10 of their most-used players from a season ago have returned, with Jerami Grant the only notable addition garnering significant minutes.
It seems so long ago when Jokic was dominating his first-ever playoff run with eye-popping numbers that rewrote the record books.
Across 14 outings during the 2019 postseason, he averaged 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game. Those numbers have been replicated by only Oscar Robertson, and Jokic managed to outpace the Big O in efficiency as well.
Denver lost a heartbreaking Game 7 on its home court in the conference semi-finals, but the bitter sting of defeat was softened by the bright future that had arrived faster than expected thanks in large part to the Joker.
Given his immense talent with a near-identical core from a season ago, there’s no reason to think Jokic can’t rediscover the form that helped place him fourth in the most recent MVP voting.
For Jokic to dominate and have the Nuggets look the part of contender — as best they can — perhaps his doughy frame needs to be worked into some semblance of shape.
Or maybe, Denver might have to tweak a mode of play that would sacrifice continuity and success in the short-term for potential that hopefully stretches deep into the postseason.