Most NBA experts were forecasting a dominant Los Angeles duopoly in the Western Conference this season. But some savvy pundits were looking to the Denver Nuggets to be something of a thorn in the side of the Lakers and the Clippers. After all, they trounced the pack in the Northwest Division last season to claim second spot in the Conference, before going down 3-4 to the Trail Blazers in the semi-finals.
Of course, if the Nuggets were to exceed expectations this term they would need big performances from their main men, not least the Serbian rebound machine Nikola Jokic.
But the seven-foot center has not reached the literal and metaphorical heights expected of him, and statistically, he is having his worst season in a number of years. Accusations on the 24-year-old’s charge sheet include a lack of motivation, a loss of focus and a complete absence of fitness, with some rather cruelly suggesting that Jokic is overweight and lacking in the stamina department. There could be some justification for the latter, with the former All-Star averaging 30.8 minutes per game this season – his lowest turnout since the 2016-17 campaign.
So what is the problem with Jokic? And will it be enough to derail the Nuggets’ play-off push? The Nuggets still have a great chance to make the playoffs in the tough NBA Western Conference.
While the Denver franchise rank first for various defensive stats, it is their offense which must be a cause for concern. Most problematic is Jokic, whose points per game return of 14.9 is way down on his normal level of performance: in his breakthrough campaign of 2018-19, for example, he was up at 20.1.
How crucial could those missing 5.2 points per game be in the final shake-up?
Since joining the Nuggets back in 2015, the Serb had never dropped below 50% for his field goal percentage going into this season – this year, he’s currently operating at 45.1%.
This is not designed to be an out-and-out critique piece on the man known as ‘The Joker’, but the stats confirm what the eyes are telling most: all is not well in the Jokic camp, and a lack of conditioning could be the major factor behind that.
Michael Malone has come to the defense of his talisman, claiming he needs to be more ‘aggressive’ in his approach but denying there was any rift in the Nuggets’ roster. “I see him actively engaged, making the right reads, making the right plays, he’s in a good mood,” the coach has said.
What is the most interesting thing here is that despite the giant center’s struggles, the Nuggets are still going well. They are currently leading the Northwest Division with a 17-8 record, fourth in the Western Conference and heading into a schedule of games that they would really expect to come out of with a serious haul of wins.
Even without their star man firing on all cylinders, the Nuggets are -137.50 to win the Northwest Division in the latest 2019-20 outright NBA betting odds, +800 at the time of writing to win the Western Conference and +1400 to take down the Championship. If Jokic can find some form, those prices will start to look excellent value indeed.