As the Nuggets’ offense continues to struggle, all eyes are on Nikola Jokic

Los Angeles Lakers guard Danny Green (14) knocks the ball away from Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) in the first quarter at the Pepsi Center.
Dec 3, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Danny Green (14) knocks the ball away from Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) in the first quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

As the first 25% of the 2019-2020 NBA season comes to a close, there has been one trend that has encapsulated the Denver Nuggets season thus far.

“Making shots,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said after the Nuggets 105-96 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “We struggled to make shots…It is something that has been plaguing our offense. The reason that we are the 18th-ranked offense right now is because from the field, from three, and from the foul line we are below average. That is just the bottom line.”

“We just did not shoot the ball well,” Nikola Jokic reiterated when discussing Denver’s lack of shot making. “Even when we found open guys, we were not making it. It is the story of the season right now.”

Simply stated, the lack of shot making is the reason for the Nuggets now 20th-ranked offense, which is incredibly obvious. Despite a 13-5 record, the Nuggets are 23rd in field goal percentage (44.5%), 24th in three-point percentage (34.5%), and 23rd in free throw percentage (74.5%).

While the lack of made shots is absolutely a reason for the Nuggets offensive struggles, it does not actually provide any evidence as to why shots aren’t falling. It is easy to say that shots just are not dropping, but there has to be some reasoning as to why so many shots seem to miss their mark.

The first place to look for answers is at the center position where Nikola Jokic has been a shell of himself this year which is something entirely new and foreign to Jokic as he learns to deal with a long-lasting slump.

“I don’t know. I never struggle,” Jokic explained in front of his locker after sustaining the Nuggets fifth loss of the season. “I never thought I was struggling, but right now I cannot make shots so it is what it is.”

It seems insane to think that Jokic has never struggled like this before, but when looking back on his career, he was the Adriatic League Most Valuable Player the year before coming over to the Nuggets where he became one of the more impressive rookies in the league.

From there, Jokic’s ascension was as rapid as it was unexpected. Jokic began to show off his incredible passing ability and proved that he can score at all three levels despite not having the athleticism of typical NBA centers.

But now, Denver’s offense is as dysfunctional as it has been since Jokic took control of the Nuggets franchise. When Will Barton III was asked what needs to happen for the Nuggets to get back to their free-flowing offensive ways, he gave a pretty clear answer.

“Getting the big fella back being dominant in the paint and in the post.”

“Listen, man. We have to play through him,” Barton III explained. “Every year that is going to work best for us. We are a good team when he is not scoring, but we are a great team when he is being dominant down there and we have championship potential when he is cooking and we know that. We can get away with it some games and beat teams, but to be the team that we want to be, we have to play through him.”

With 18 games under his belt this season, Jokic is currently posting career-worst marks in multiple areas. His field goal percentage of 45.2% is 4.7 percentage points worse than his second-worst mark. From three-point range, Jokic is shooting a career-worst 22.5%. He is even shooting the lowest percentage from the free throw line of his career at 77.6%. Additionally, Jokic’s points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks are all down compared to last season.

So why is Jokic struggling despite being one of the most gifted offensive players in the entirety of the National Basketball Association? Well, that has been the question that everyone has been battling with so who better to ask than Juancho Hernangomez, who is Jokic’s closest friend on the roster and the person who probably knows Jokic’s game best?

“I think we play less through him,” Hernangomez explained to Mile High Sports. “Last year, he got the ball every time, he made the right decisions, and he got more post ups. He wanted to post up more last year.”

Hernangomez hit the nail on the head.

Jokic is not actively hunting for more post-up opportunities this season which means less touches which leads to less rhythm as a scorer. Jokic is currently posting up for 20.7% of his offensive possessions which is the second-lowest mark of his career. To make things even more concerning, Jokic is scoring a career-worst 0.77 points per possession on post-ups this year which has led to him playing even more dismissively than in years past. For the majority of the 2019-20 season, Jokic not being involved as a scorer in the Nuggets offense.

“Sometimes I am getting the ball in the post, but right now I am struggling,” Jokic explained after the Nuggets loss to the Lakers. “Coach is a smart guy. He is not going to give the ball to the guy who is not making the shots. I am cool with it. I am good.”

Sure, it is nice to hear that Jokic is ok with not getting shots, but Jokic not shooting the ball and being aggressive hurts the Nuggets drastically. Denver needs Jokic to take on more of a scoring load.

In Denver’s last four games, the Nuggets are 2-2 with losses to the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers. Over those four games, Jokic has struggling in a big way. He is only averaging nine points, 12 rebounds, and six assists while shooting a freezing cold 37.5% from the field and an even worse 0-6 from three-point range.

Those numbers continued against the Lakers where Jokic only finished with 13 points, five rebounds, and eight assists while shooting 4-12 from the field. Jokic also had five turnovers as well.

While Jokic’s numbers against the Lakers were bad, there was an even more concerning trend that revealed itself.

There were multiple occasions where Jokic had a smaller guard or forward switched onto him and Jokic just refused to back them down and play bully ball.

That decision alone is extremely detrimental for the Nuggets as a team because Jokic aggressively backing down a smaller player means that the opposing defense will have to send help. Once they send help, Jokic can then use his transcendent vision from the center position to find the open man.

Jokic being aggressive is the most important aspect of the Nuggets offense when it is at its best. That is why Barton III makes sure to stay in Jokic’s ear reminding him to remain assertive and attack.

“I’ll go talk to him just to tell him to stay aggressive,” Barton III explained. “No one is out there stopping him. Look at the shots he missed today. He was missing bunnies that I have never seen him miss and I’m talking about joking around. His touch is that good. Him BS-ing around in shootaround or workouts, he make those shots. Right now, no one is doing nothing to him. He is just missing and I think he is thinking a little bit too much. Once he is out of his head, he’ll be back to him.”

While Barton III’s faith in Jokic was a common theme as players talked to media after losing to the Nuggets, there is still pressure on Jokic to figure things out for himself because everything the Nugget do on both ends of the floor was designed with Jokic in mind. So if Jokic decides to not play like the superstar he is, the rest of the team will suffer.

“This is his team and this is his offense,” Barton III explained. “He has the ball in his hands for the majority of the game. He is making the plays, he is getting his touches, and he just has to finish and he will…I feel like with him missing right now, he is thinking a little bit and he don’t need to think. He is that good. Just go out there and play your game and he will be fine.”

“It is just a tough stretch for him right now. Stars go through that. He is just going through a stretch that we are not used to seeing from him. I think he will figure it out and he will get back to being the stud he is.”

Still, Hernangomez and the rest of the Nuggets roster know that Jokic will bounce back.

“He knows he is struggling,” Hernangomez told Mile High Sports. “He is really smart so he knows that. He is going to get better. He is our best player. He is an All-Star. He is all of this stuff.

“He is going to get better and get more wins for us.”

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