It may seem weird to say, but the 12-12 Denver Nuggets are in a better spot than expected considering their circumstance.
Denver came into their seven-game road trip, the longest of the season, carrying the weight of a six-game losing streak and too many injuries to count which put them in a dangerous position. Not only are the Nuggets likely without PJ Dozier and Michael Porter Jr. for the rest of the season and unsure of a timetable for Jamal Murray’s return, but they also found themselves losing the likes of Will Barton III, JaMychal Green, Bones Hyland, Nikola Jokic, Austin Rivers, and Zeke Nnaji for stretches of games as well. The injury bug has plagued the Nuggets season in a vicious way.
So, when seeing the Nuggets, who are 3-2 in their last five games – all of which were on the road – find their way back to .500 after such a rocky start to the season, it is hard not to feel positive about their current trajectory. Denver surely still has more issues than solutions at this point in time, but it’s finding ways to stay in the hunt and everything begins with the Serbian Sensation Nikola Jokic.
Regardless of who is available, Jokic’s incredible statistical production is seemingly inevitable at this point. He could be thrown out onto a NBA court with four ball boys and still give the Nuggets a chance to win and that has been clear all season long as Jokic remains one of the only constants in a tumultuous season for the Nuggets.
On Wednesday night, Jokic reminded everyone just how good he can be with an incredible 39-point, 11-rebound, and 11-assist triple-double on 17 of 23 shooting en route to an overtime victory in New Orleans against the Pelicans.
Jokic currently is averaging 26.3 points per game which is tied with Trae Young for fifth-best in the league this season and just 1/10th of a point behind fourth-ranked DeMar DeRozan. He is averaging 13.4 rebounds per game which slots him in as second in the entire NBA behind just Rudy Gobert. Even his 7.1 assists per game places him at 12th in the league despite many of his potential assists ending up as missed shots due to a lack of scoring talent surrounding him.
Simply stated, Jokic’s production is hard to quantify being that nobody in the history of the league has ever averaged 26.3 points, 13.4 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game according to Stathead; let alone while his efficiency is historic as well. According to Stathead, no player in NBA history has averaged over 26 points per game while posting an effective field goal percentage over 63 percent. Even if you lower the effective field goal percentage to 60 percent as the criteria, only seven players have ever accomplished that feat including Jokic last year on his way to winning Most Valuable Player.
To make things crystal clear, Jokic is having arguably the most efficient volume scoring season ever seen while being second in rebounding in the NBA and averaging 7.1 assists per game despite being without his two best teammates in Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. all while taking multiple leaps forward as a defender. His impact is dumbfounding.
Jokic’s season also goes far beyond stuffing the stat sheet as well. The Nuggets as a team are dominant when he is on the floor, but they fall off a cliff the second he heads to the bench.
With Jokic on the floor, even despite all of the injuries, the Nuggets are a powerhouse, earning a 114 offensive rating, which would be second-best in the NBA, and a 101.4 defensive rating, which would also be second-best in the NBA, equating out to a net rating of +12.6 which places the Nuggets as the second best team in the NBA according to net rating.
When Jokic goes to the bench, everything falls apart. Denver’s offensive rating falls to 99.9, which would be the worst mark in the league, as their defensive rating balloons to 114.2 which would also be the worst mark in the league. That means Denver without Jokic plays at a level below the Orlando Magic, who have the worst net rating in the NBA.
If that is not enough evidence, take a look at the raw numbers from when Jokic is on compared to when he is off the floor. In Jokic’s 622 minutes on the court, Denver has outscored their opponents by 162 points. In Jokic’s 535 minutes on the bench, Denver has been outscored by 164 points.
The tough truth is that Denver currently cannot survive without their MVP on the floor which makes their margin for error terrifyingly thin. Denver relies on Jokic being masterful just to have a chance to be in the game late. So if the Nuggets really want to find a way back to consistent winning, they need more from their role players; especially off the bench.
So who needs to step up on the Nuggets bench unit?
It seems unfair to put the pressure of saving the bench unit on a rookie lead guard, but with the Nuggets injuries to Murray and PJ Dozier, that is the situation Hyland finds himself in.
Hyland has the rare mixture of space-bending shooting range, a strong handle for his age and diverse finishing moves around the rim. That combination of skills, when utilized correctly, can stretch a defense to their limits, but due to a right ankle sprain and a battle with COVID-19 health and safety protocols, Hyland has been unable to fill the role the Nuggets need him to embrace badly. That has left Facu Campazzo as the only true ball handler off the bench which led to issues for Denver.
The Nuggets reserves were unable to keep their spacing functional without Hyland active which allowed the defense to shrink the floor making life even harder for the diminutive Campazzo every time he attacked the paint. With the lack of paint penetration, Denver was unable to collapse opposing defenses forcing its offensive actions to move side to side instead of downhill dragging them deep into the shot clock and resulting in bad isolation shots. If Hyland was able to play, he could break down a defense with or without a screen while being a constant threat to score from beyond the three-point arc. That would in turn open up more room for a big man rolling to the rim or a shooter to get open on the perimeter.
On Wednesday night, Hyland returned was cleared to return from health and safety protocols and was available for the Nuggets, but his play showed that it is going to take time for him to get his legs back under him and rhythm back. Hyland had missed five straight games between his ankle issue and bout with health and safety protocols and it was clear he was feeling the effects of that stagnation against New Orleans. He still managed to finish with nine points on six shots in 16 minutes, but he was only 2 of 6 from the field, 0 of 2 from 3-point range, and did not record an assist.
With Campazzo unable to add enough offensive punch as the lead guard, Hyland becomes wildly important for the remainder of the year if the Nuggets hope to survive the minutes Jokic is on the bench. There is still no indication if Murray will be able to return this season after tearing his ACL last April and Dozier will not return until next season at some point. With no reinforcements on the way, the pressure is on Hyland to elevate the Nuggets bench unit, but even if he is the catalyst, he still needs help.
Tthat is where Zeke Nnaji comes in.
Nnaji’s growth this season has been an overlooked aspect of the Nuggets chaotic season. After struggles throughout his rookie season and a bad showing in summer league, there were questions about how good Nnaji could truly be, but he has shown he belongs over the past couple weeks.
Nnaji is averaging just 7.1 points and 3.3 rebounds, but his impact goes much further than that. He has consistently defended at a high level and takes on the challenge of slowing players of all shapes and sizes. The pressure Nnaji puts on the rim when rolling is a big reason why the Nuggets bench unit is able to collapse opposing defenses. Oh, and I forgot to mention he is shooting a nuclear 60.7 percent from 3-point range this season on 28 attempts. Suddenly, after over a year of waiting to see what type of player Nnaji could grow into, he has begun to find himself on a NBA basketball court.
Nnaji has developed into a true ‘three-and-D’ big man which is a very rare archetype to find. He is 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds which gives him validity as a small-ball center or as a floor-spacing and defensively focused power forward. He has the foot speed to keep up with guards on switches and the power to keep big men away from the rim. Additionally, his 3-point shooting appears to be no joking matter. In his career so far, Nnaji has taken 87 3-pointers for the Nuggets and has made 41 of them which is 47.1 percent, but what makes Nnaji so exciting is how much better he can still get.
Nnaji knows how to put pressure on the rim as a roller in the pick and roll, but he is still learning the details of creating space at the NBA level. While it will take time, Nnaji seems on his way to becoming a much more effective roller as opposed to just a 3-point shooting big. Additionally, his timing as a shot blocker is getting better. He still leaves his feet too early and is getting used to the blinding pace of the NBA, but he has shown an aptitude for defense and has the physical traits to become extremely productive on that end.
All of his skills came together against the Knicks. Nnaji posted a career-high 21 points and five 3-pointers to go with eight rebounds and some stellar defense to help the Nuggets overcome the Knicks in Madison Square Garden.
If the Nuggets can get that version of Nnaji more often, they could become a team to be reckoned with once again.