Are the Denver Nuggets doing right by Nikola Jokic?

Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets accepts the 2021 NBA MVP award before Game 3 of the Western Conference second-round playoff series. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets accepts the 2021 NBA MVP award before Game 3 of the Western Conference second-round playoff series. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images) /

It’s only right to start the new year off hearing from the NBA’s MVP and Denver Nuggets star himself Nikola Jokic. Nikola sat down for an interview with Arena Sport TV, a Serbian sports outlet, and provided some cool and funny insights into his life, basketball, and thoughts.

The interview was done in his native language with Miroslav Cuk who was kind enough to translate some of the key points from the conversation.

There were several tidbits from the piece that gives us an insight into the Nuggets star but some takeaways that the team shouldn’t ignore.

There is no secret that this basketball season has been a rough one for many teams across the league and that goes for the Denver Nuggets as well. Not only has the roster been going through everything with COVID-19 protocols, but Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and P.J. Dozier are out for the entire season while Monte Morris and Will Barton have been in and out.

Outside of these issues, Jokic told Arena Sport TV that:

"“[The Denver Nuggets] just need some extra points in our hands every night.”"

This one is pretty obvious, the Nuggets struggle to score with their other scorers out due to injury. As of 4 Jan. 2021, Denver ranks 18th in points per 100 possessions, much lower than many other playoff teams.

But it can get really bad when Nikola Jokic goes to the bench for rest. Jokic does so much for this team and is incredibly efficient while simultaneously raising the level of play of everyone around him too. The numbers when Nikola Jokic is on the floor compared to off the floor are astounding.

Nikola mentions how he hopes everyone can stay healthy and maybe even get some guys returning, especially his co-star Jamal Murray in which he joked:

"“I hope everybody we have now will stay healthy, but I also hope some of our injured guys will return, because it is much easier for me to play when I have Jamal who can score 50 points when needed.”"

Indeed Nikola was joking, and Murray for sure would help this team but “next man up” is the focus right now and the rest of the roster should still be filled out to complement its superstar, instead, it isn’t designed to help Nikola Jokic. It isn’t designed to make Jokic’s job any easier or take any pressure off of him when it could have and should have been.

When speaking on the pressure he faces every night, Jokic says:

"“It’s hard, I have to make the right decision on every offensive and every defensive possession. Also, I understand I have to be the best player on the court if we want to have the chance to win."

He even goes as far as saying that he’s not having fun on the court right now:

"“I am not [having fun]. There is a lot of beating on the center position, I pressure myself to hit every shot I take. I’m in the gym every day.”"

These comments are very telling.

Nikola is incredible and hyper-efficient, it’s easy to see he takes the game seriously and is very focused on the details.

However, the Denver Nuggets front office has to help him and should have been in a better position to do so despite the injuries. The front office hasn’t prioritized shooting or players who can create their own shot.

It’s part excusable given that two of the players who can create for themselves are out indefinitely (Jamal and MPJ) but the lack of shooting help from role players is hurting the team now and doesn’t help the team at full strength.

Nikola Jokic surrounded by good shooting would be lethal, and it is perplexing to have a team that features such a dominant big man who is one of the best passers in the NBA and if we’re being honest, he’s the best passing big man this league has ever seen, and the mindset isn’t to surround him with the best shooting you can possibly find. Instead, Michael Malone, the front office and company love to acquire a certain type of player.

The Denver Nuggets internally need to have a real and honest conversation about the roster construction outside of the max players. It is obvious from hearing Malone during his pressers, that he loves defensive-minded players that play hard, give a ton of effort, and bring energy or tough veteran players despite the offensive skill.

The Nuggets may have a couple of players too many that fall into these categories having these types of attributes in which coach Malone favors. The problem is, this is what’s surrounding your unselfish superstar whose incredible on offense and setting up his teammates. You would think to help him out by adding more offensively skilled role players to the mix to balance out the roster.

Often times after a loss, Malone will say the team didn’t have enough energy or the defense wasn’t good. There are many losses that happen because of the minutes when Jokic, who is also the best offensive player is off the court, so what’s left on the court are a bunch of defensive effort and energy players, ball handling passers, and some trusted veterans who don’t really have the offensive talent to run with their opponents.

What coach Malone often time overlooks when he makes these comments is that bad shooting and bad offense can lead to bad defense. and more often than not, that’s what’s happening to his team. It’s his own belief/motto, but the other way around is done to his team where if you play good defense it will lead to good offense and the offense will take care of itself.

So if you turn that around and you have a bad offense, it’s essentially the same as the other team playing good defense putting them in better positions offensively. When you miss shots and have turnovers, it leads to the other team getting out and running while your team is out of position defensively no matter how good the defenders are on the court. This is what leads to crazy runs by opponents when Nikola goes to the bench for rest. Bad offense is a killer for your defense and morale.

Even when Jokic comes back into games, if it’s not already too much of a deficit, he has to try to be perfect in order to save the Nuggets sometimes. Even then, role players have to make shots off of his playmaking ability.

Of course, shooting won’t be there every night, but one could wish the Nuggets were better in this department, especially when being set up nicely by their superstar’s ball movement.

For example, take the other MVP candidate Steph Curry. The Golden State Warriors have Curry and Klay Thompson (when he comes back from injury) two of the best shooters in the league, there is no question they’re offensively gifted because of these two. They jumped from being a play-in team last year to the number one seed in the Western Conference this year because they didn’t just think to themselves to add defense and energy around Curry.

They have developed and surrounded him with more offense and shooters to make the team even more dangerous because why wouldn’t you? Plus they play an unselfish brand of basketball much like the Nuggets.

Andrew Wiggins has an offensive game, they’ve developed Jordan Poole into a nice shooting guard who can really shoot the ball and will make them even more lethal for when Klay Thompson comes back. They also brought in Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica who are offensive sharpshooters.

It isn’t just Curry surrounded by defensive energy players or players that can just handle the ball and pass, there’s a balance with the role players the Denver Nuggets don’t have with theirs.

Related Story. What the Nuggets can learn from the Warriors rebuild. light

Coach Malone deserves a lot of credit for the success of the Denver Nuggets and that shouldn’t go unnoticed. He and the front office have developed this team into a consistent and competitive 50-win team.  But the coach himself makes some interesting decisions when it comes to certain players. Especially when talking about playing time, who plays over who, and who gets a short leash vs a longer leash. One could also come to the conclusion that he may just not know how to incorporate more offensive-minded players and develop them.

Michael Porter Jr. is as offensive-minded as they come and it’s easy to see the offensive talent he has, but he’s had a weird journey taking a backseat to players like Paul Milsap and Will Barton and a very short leash when he made mistakes compared to others.

It took a Will Barton injury for Porter Jr. to play more and eventually start games. Even when he was playing a lot, many wondered why he would often not be a part of the offensive gameplan unless he came around a screen taking a hand-off from Jokic, if it wasn’t that, he would float in the corner expected to get his opportunities through hustle or a backdoor cut.

You had the whole offseason with Murray out due to injury to create more synergy between your superstar and your offensively gifted player. Why not try to have Michael Porter, who is your without a doubt best shooter, develop a bit of pick-and-roll action with Jokic and see what that looks like? It can’t hurt to try to put your best offensive players in a pick-and-roll to put pressure on opposing defenses.

It is unclear whether or not the organization and coaching staff know what to do with raw offensive talent. For example, the controversial Bol Bol situation. There’s plenty one can say about Bol Bol and point out where he needs to be better and give more effort. One can also say, it is very clear the things he can do on the court. It feels like the focus is so much on what he isn’t doing and not on what he can do.

Someone who is 7’2″, can alter shots near and away from the basket, run the floor and make open shots can’t find the floor at all? And when he did get any sort of real chance you told him to matchup against Kevin Durant?

Bol Bol has spent a few off-seasons with the Denver Nuggets thus far, there is no reason someone couldn’t sit with him and make him watch film on someone like JaVale McGee and tell him that’s what we need. Someone who plays tall, runs the floor, plays with energy, set picks, roll/cut to the basket, and be a shot-blocking presence.

A move that was a breath of fresh air for the Denver Nuggets was selecting Bones Hyland. They did their homework on the kid out of VCU and it seems to be a great pick by the front office. It was clear since NBA Summer League that Bones Hyland has the ability you’re looking for out of a guard in today’s league. He can shoot, he can break his defenders down to get into the paint to finish or make a nice pass, and he’s showing he can work in pick-and-roll situations.

This Denver Nuggets season like many other teams hasn’t been what team has hoped with all the protocols and injuries. Which brings up a valid point, besides trying to stay healthy, what should the goal of this season even be? The team that wins it all could end up being just the most healthy team there is, so what should the focus be?

Speaking about how chaotic this season has been with the injuries, Jokic says:

"“I honestly don’t know what are our (Nuggets) expectations for this season. I don’t have a personal goal, either, except to stay healthy.”"

The superstar of the team that has possibly the closest connection with the staff and front office doesn’t even know the expectations for this season. But it should be clear, and that is to develop the young players, specifically Bones Hyland.

The Denver Nuggets’ top priority this season should be giving Bones, among some of the other young players, as much experience as possible while other big pieces are out due to injury. This is hard to do when considering the coach’s philosophy, he loves Facundo Campazzo and has pretty much trusted him since day one because he plays extremely hard and is somewhat a veteran player and even Austin Rivers.

The only problem is when you think of the future and getting guys back healthy, Bones Hyland will be more crucial to the Nuggets and their main goal of winning a championship than both Facu and Rivers. This is not a dig on them, they are fine players to have on the roster for minutes when the team needs a boost in energy or effort, but Bones simply makes the Denver Nuggets more dangerous, especially in the long run.

The most ideal outcome would be Jamal Murray and a more developed and experienced Bones Hyland at the guard positions with Michael Porter and Aaron Gordon at the forward positions along with your MVP. That could end up being the most dangerous lineup the Denver Nuggets could put on a court in a long time.

Coach is someone who will believe and put more stock into Campazzo than Bones Hyland when it’s clear who needs the experience and development for the betterment of the future of the team. If we’re being honest, the Denver Nuggets really should be looking to start Bones Hyland next year as a combo guard with Jamal Murray with the thought to put the most lethal guard combo on the court alongside Nikola Jokic.

As of right now, Campazzo is only a better decision-maker than Bones Hyland, but that will only come with time and experience, which is why this time is so crucial in his development and not to be taken lightly. Campazzo and Rivers at the same time doesn’t make much sense alongside Nikola Jokic because they offer similar qualities on the court, and there needs to be a balance.

This is all about Nikola Jokic and surrounding him with the best talent that makes sense to his skill set. He is downright special, and sometimes it looks like he does all of the thinking for the Nuggets. There are plenty of times during a game when Nikola Jokic is seen directing players on where to be and where to go before running a play.

Who are we kidding? Nikola Jokic does do a lot of thinking for the team, basketball isn’t just physically taxing on him, but he has to be mentally sharp as well since so much of the offense is run through him. He’s even picked it up on the defensive side of the ball as well and he operates in a similar fashion as if he’s a second coach on the court. Because of how unique Nikola is in this way, is also the reason debating Nikola Jokic vs. [insert any center] never made any sense because no center does what he does, they don’t have nearly as many duties as he does on the court and they aren’t depended on in the way Nikola Jokic is.

With that being said, as wonderful as Nikola Jokic is, he does need help. Right now Jokic is wearing many hats for the Nuggets, and he needs role players that make sense when looking at what he does well. Nikola Jokic will almost always make the right pass and set up his teammates. He takes actual joy in setting up his teammates to score, and what the Denver Nuggets need to do more than anything is have role players that will convert on those opportunities, otherwise, you are doing Jokic a bit of a disservice and putting more weight on his shoulders.

The priority should be to make it as easy as possible for your superstar to succeed which will lead you to a championship, it should be a crime to have the best passing big man ever and one of the best passers in the league who attracts so much attention and not have players that convert when they’re passed to.

This is a piece full of criticism, but hopefully, it’s understood that it comes from a good place and wanting better for the organization and better for this unforeseen superstar in Nikola Jokic who landed right in this franchise’s lap in the second round in the 2014 draft. It is certainly possible that if no injuries ever occurred, then such an article like this would ever exist because the core players are good enough to mask any issues and rotations would be easier. Nevertheless, the Nuggets should always be searching for a more balanced roster when it comes to role players around its superstar. It’s incredible and absurd how much he does for this team, and as an organization, you should only want to make his job easier.

Next. Nikola Jokic in a perfect spot for MVP race. dark