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- The Nuggets are 13-5 despite Nikola Jokic’s slow start.
- Is his lack of conditioning reason for concern or optimism?
- Either way, Denver is poised to look much different as the season continues.
On the surface, the Denver Nuggets have lived up to expectations in the season’s early going. They’re 13-5 and ranked third in the Western Conference behind the Lakers and Clippers.
Based on wins and losses alone, Denver is pretty much exactly where it was expected to be, at the front of a loaded pack of Western Conference sub-contenders. But digging deeper into the Nuggets’ play reveals ample evidence casting doubt on the viability of their early-season performance.
Is Denver overachieving or underachieving? The answer is indeterminate, and Nikola Jokic’s dispiriting start amid his team’s strong play over the first six weeks of the season is the biggest reason why.
‘The Joker’ Isn’t Himself
Jokic was named First Team All-NBA last season, and his dominant play at the FIBA World Cup provided more justification for those who believed he was on the brink of MVP contention entering 2019-20.
Instead, he’s been the most disappointing marquee player in basketball. Jokic’s per-game numbers and rate statistics are down across the board. He’s shooting career-lows from the field, beyond the arc, and free throw line, and fouling at a higher rate higher than any season since his rookie year.
Jokic, frankly, has barely been a shell of the player who finished fourth in MVP voting last season, and silenced many critics in his first taste of playoff basketball by averaging 25.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, and 8.4 assists per game.
A Fat Silver Lining in Nikola Jokic’s Awful Play?
A few years ago, The Athletic’s Ethan Strauss coined the phrase “fat is potential in disguise” to describe the dynamic allowing room for both optimism and concern about players who lack NBA-level conditioning. It’s still unclear on which side of that spectrum Jokic’s level of fitness will ultimately fall, and history doesn’t serve as that helpful a guide.
Jokic is arguably the pudgiest superstar ever. He comes from a family of real-world giants, and Denver gave up hope long ago of his body becoming chiseled. From a physique perspective, Jokic will always stand alone from his peers.
But part of what made his postseason debut so impressive is that Jokic proved questions about his conditioning moot when the Nuggets needed him most.
His efficiency jumped and defensive effectiveness increased in the playoffs despite playing nearly nine more minutes per game than he did in the regular season. Jokic often looked like the only player with energy left during Denver’s epic quadruple overtime loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round.
He’s noticeably heavier this season, though, and the extra weight has no doubt contributed to his overall decline. Data that tracks speed and distance traveled indicates he’s playing with less energy and activity than a year ago, too, a reality most easily confirmed by the eye test.
Nuggets Enjoy Surprising Success
Even more surprising than the Nuggets’ place in the standings amid Jokic’s struggles is the driving force behind their success. Denver ranks second in defensive rating and 20th in offensive rating, the exact inverse of what was anticipated from Mike Malone’s team coming into the season.
Further complicating matters is that the Nuggets are still better on both sides of the ball with Jokic in the game.
There’s data suggesting Denver will regress defensively. Opponents won’t shoot league-worst percentages from three-point range and mid-range all season long. But it’s also fair to surmise that Jokic’s conditioning will improve as the 82-game grind continues, potentially lifting the Nuggets’ offense to top-five heights.
Denver should simply take solace in its strong start, but keep an eye on this team as the season wears on. Through the improvement of Jokic or its opponents, the Nuggets are poised to look far different in the near future than they do today – for better, worse, or both.