Hitting the panic button? Nikola Jokic, even at his best, needs help

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers
Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers / Harry How/GettyImages

Historically, there’s no reason to get overly concerned with NBA regular season games that happen in March and April. Every year we see contending teams take their foot off the gas which leads to flaky results that aren’t symbolic of what will happen in the playoffs.

That was the case last season with the Denver Nuggets, who all but locked up the one seed and were able to coast a bit and rest down the stretch. This led to some poor performances in the regular season that ultimately had zero impact whatsoever on the playoffs.

Something similar is happening this year in Denver as the Nuggets haven’t looked like the same team for the last few weeks. After winning the title last year and still having the likely MVP Nikola Jokić, there should be no reason for concern like usual, right?

Should Nuggets fans be concerned?

But on the other hand, something about this season feels different. What’s concerning to me is that Jokic has been playing some of his best basketball lately doing everything he possibly can on the court and yet the Nuggets are still losing games or just squeaking by against lesser competition, and really struggling on offense. 

Certainly, some of that can be chalked up to Jamal Murray, as any team missing their second-best offensive player is likely to take a step back, but this feels like more. Beyond that, there is no guarantee that Murray can come back for the playoffs and even if he does, he may not be 100% and it may take him time to get back up to speed.

Without Murray, Jokic has consistently been putting up Herculean efforts with some of his most impressive stat lines, routinely putting up triple-doubles with gargantuan assist and rebound numbers, and even mixing in a couple of 40-point games.

Yet on most occasions that’s barely been enough to beat the likes of the Spurs and Grizzlies, or in other cases to even fall short like Thursday night against the Clippers when the team scored just 100 points and fell to a team missing Kawhi Leonard.

Time to hit the panic button?

I’m not ready to hit the panic button just yet but I am definitely concerned. The team's remaining schedule isn’t challenging and they’re currently sitting in third place in the west. It seems clear that their first-round opponent will be a challenging one, perhaps the Suns, Mavericks, Pelicans, or even the Lakers.

The best version of the Nuggets likely beats any of those teams relatively easily, but my issue is that I’m not sure we’ll see the best version of the Nuggets within a week or two and a compromised version of the Nuggets could potentially be vulnerable against any of those opponents.

Hopefully, Murray returns, looks fine, and all of these issues are resolved but what if they’re not? Jokic can’t do it all alone. We’ve seen him try in past years and it’s impressive to watch, but it’s just not enough to win in the playoffs against the best of the best.

And this year is no different. No one on the bench has stepped up in a meaningful way, Michael Porter Junior, and Aaron Gordon are good offensive role players, but they’re not enough to be a true secondary guy and replace what Murray does, even in combination. So essentially, it’s the same story it’s always been. It all just falls on Jokic and he can do an awful lot but even the best players of all-time couldn’t win titles by themselves.

The fact that the bench is this unsettled with only five games left and no one has really stepped up in Murray’s absence is a bit of a red flag. Whether he comes back or not they’ll have to fill minutes and Michael Malone seems like he’ll almost be playing a game of rough Russian Roulette, choosing which player will be right for which moment.

Stay the course

Again, I’m far from panicking and this team is still defending champions, but at the end of the day, the West feels a lot more wide-open than it did a month ago when Denver appeared to be cruising towards another Western championship. 

Now a lot more is up in the air and that goes beyond Jamal Murray’s injury. I have serious questions about what this team can do, especially on the offensive end and to see Nikola Jokić exerting this much effort and energy in the regular season and getting this little in the way of results has my eyebrows raised.

So I keep saying I’m not panicking but my finger is definitely hovering around the button. Michael Malone and Nikola Jokić have a lot of weight on their shoulders and have their work cut out for them. They won’t be able to do this if other guys don’t step up. And if Murray isn’t healthy, they may just be drawing dead. It’ll all play out soon but things definitely seem to have gotten a lot more interesting recently.