Denver Nuggets: Learning from life without Nikola Jokic

Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) drives to the net against Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis (11) in the fourth quarter at Ball Arena on 10 Nov. 2021. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)
Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) drives to the net against Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis (11) in the fourth quarter at Ball Arena on 10 Nov. 2021. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports) /

With Nikola Jokic removed from the deck of last night’s inter-conference matchup with the Indiana Pacers, the NBA world got to take a look at a Denver Nuggets team playing without their top two scorers.

Jamal Murray’s injury is nothing new, but the league MVP spent Wednesday serving a one-game suspension due to his altercation on the court with Miami Heat forward Marikeef Morris earlier this week.

Out of all the matchups for Jokic to miss, a battle with an All-Star caliber center probably wasn’t the most ideal. Domantas Sabonis came into the Pepsi Center on Wednesday averaging 19.3 points and 11.5 rebounds per game and would end up one rebound away from a 20-20 game (20 points, 19 boards).

The Nuggets struggled to contain him and Myles Turner inside, which then gave way for many easy looks for Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. McConnell. Jokic’s presence was greatly missed, but the Nuggets did what they had to do and found a way to stick with them the whole game

With the reigning MVP out for a very limited amount of time, it was a perfect opportunity to test out the supporting cast and see what this mix of fresh talent and veteran experience can produce. And well, it came down to the wire, but the Nuggets were able to escape 101-98 and improve to 7-4 on the year, good for fourth in the Western Conference.

A very small sample size, but after getting a small taste of what 2021-2022 Denver basketball looks like without its top two stars, here are three takeaways:

Denver Nuggets: Will Barton’s still got it

Will Barton has proved time and time again that he is one of the more talented scorers in the league, and last night was one of those times.

The forward is a threat to pull up from almost anywhere in the half-court at this point, and most of that is due to his ability to catch defenders off-guard. A master at watching for the moment a defender is distracted or looking away, he is often able to give himself a split-second window to rise above and get the shot off.

He can finish hard at the rim, find openings off the ball, and create his own shots off the dribble as well, making him an extremely well-rounded scorer.

Unfortunately, injuries have also plagued him throughout his career, as he hasn’t played more than 60 games in a season since 2018. However, he is currently averaging 17.5 points per game to go along with over four assists and rebounds per contest, an encouraging sign for a Denver Nuggets team that will need people to step up in short-handed moments like these throughout the year.

Playing alongside one of the most defense-bending players of this generation will take away opportunities on offense for a scorer like Barton; but with Jokic off the floor in this game and a little more space to work with, the ten-year veteran put on a performance and showed what he’s capable of.

If he can continue to be a reliable scorer and be yet another elite scoring threat for this Denver team come playoff time, defenses will have their hands full trying to contain the many offensive threats present on this squad, especially Barton.

Denver Nuggets: Is Nikola Jokic a legit paint stalwart?

As much as we learned about the team that was actually out on the court playing, I think the most telling aspect of Wednesday’s game was the lack of inside presence from the Denver Nuggets.

It was clear they were without their starting center, as Sabonis went for 20 points to go along with 19 rebounds, a number you never want to see on an opponent player’s rebound column. Jokic currently ranks fourth in defensive win shares among all players, so the statistics suggest he is playing like one of the league’s top defensive centers. So, after seeing how the Nuggets played defensively in the paint on Wednesday, it confirms what Jokic has been showing us with his play a few weeks into the year: you should be scared of him on defense.

Jokic has always been pegged as more of an offensive-minded player, and many upset Giannis Antetokounmpo fans argued last season that his defensive woes should have prevented him from winning the MVP.

However, in his trophy defense campaign this year, it seems he is putting all those thoughts to rest by being a playmaker on both ends of the court. Denver is second in defensive rating and overall defensive efficiency this season, behind only the league-best Golden State Warriors.

After seeing the Nuggets function for one game without the reigning MVP, I think it is clear that Denver is in need of another tall, inside force. Bol Bol and Zeke Nnaji have not proved to be intimidating paint protectors, and while both Jeff and JaMychal Green can slide to the five spot when needed, the Nuggets were still outrebounded 48-39 and outscored in the paint 56-42 against the Pacers.

I think seeing last night’s game was enough for me to entertain the thought of signing another veteran center. If the Nuggets were to consider adding to their depth at the lead big man spot, Demarcus Cousins, Bismack Biyombo, and Marc Gasol are all big men on the market that would bolster the roster and provide decent value on both ends of the floor.

This isn’t all to say that the Nuggets were bad on defense last night. They were still actually pretty good, only giving up 98 points on the night. Yes, they sacrificed their inside game, but they made up for it by limiting Indiana’s 3-pointers and forcing 15 turnovers.

Even with Jokic out, it seemed like the Nuggets were able to handle offensive duties just fine, hitting 12 of 30 shot from behind the arc, 17 of 20 free throws, and most importantly, closing out the game down the stretch and holding the lead to the final buzzer. Another highlight on offense was the 19-point explosion off the bench from Nnaji, who showcased his ability to be the spark plug of this Denver Nuggets team with his performance last night.

Denver Nuggets: Zeke Nnaji is still the future

I wrote a piece during the Nuggets’ playoff run last year about why we should be excited about Zeke Nnaji. And by all accounts of what I’ve seen this season and last night especially, this could be the year he makes a name for himself.

He definitely still has a ways to go on the defensive and rebounding ends of things, but 19 points on 7-10 shooting to go with five rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench was more than enough to reignite my excitement in the second-year power forward.

It is going to be interesting to see how Mike Malone will handle his minutes throughout the year. As many others do, I see him as a four, but both JaMychal and Jeff Green and Aaron Gordon are also all primary power forwards, meaning we will likely be seeing much more positionless basketball from Denver with their overabundance of fours and lack of true centers.

Nevertheless, Zeke will still get his minutes and have his chance to show what he can bring to the table on a contending team like the Nuggets.

Next. In-depth scouting report from the win over Indiana. dark