Two weeks into the season, the Nuggets have posted a 5-2 record, sit atop the Northwest Division and are currently tied for second in the Western Conference. So all is right in Denver, correct?
Nikola Jokic was one of the main reasons why people were high on the team heading into the season. The 24-year-old center was just starting to blossom, coming off a season in which he was named to the Western Conference All-Star team and selected first-team All-NBA at season’s end.
He was a trendy pick to be the league’s MVP this season, as the Nuggets run their offense through the versatile big man. Jokic’s ability to score and rebound make him a big part of the team. His passing skills make him a difference maker.
Through the first seven games of the season, however, Jokic has been underwhelming. Statistically, his production is way down from a year ago. Currently, he’s averaging 14.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists. Those aren’t terrible numbers, but they’re nowhere near the 20.1, 10.8 and 7.3 that Jokic posted a year ago.
This drop in production has everyone wondering what’s up with Jokic. It’s to the point where Michael Malone has already had to address the situation, with both his star player and the local media.
“Bottom line, Nikola’s gotta be more aggressive,” the head coach said. “We’ve talked about it.”
This comes on the heels of multiple games in which the center has disappeared at times. He barely played in the first half of the team’s opener at Portland due to picking up three silly fouls in the first four minutes of the game. He was non-existent before halftime in a win last week against Orlando. And in Tuesday’s home win over the Heat, Jokic posted a very pedestrian stat line of 9-5-5 in just 23 minutes of play.
“In terms of people thinking he’s checked out or not playing hard, I don’t see that as the case at all,” Malone added. “I see him actively engaged, making the right reads, making the right plays.”
The head coach went on to explain that Jokic is in a good place mentally.
“He’s in a good mood,” Malone added. “He’s with his teammates, so it’s not like he’s on an island by himself.”
That’s all well and good, but it’s also concerning. These types of questions shouldn’t be swirling about a bona fide star. And the coach shouldn’t have to have a heart-to-heart conversation within the first two weeks of the season.
“I just have to make sure I keep on reminding him of how important he is to us, being aggressive and setting the tone,” Malone explained. “When he’s aggressive, he takes everybody with him. And the same way, when he’s not aggressive, he takes everybody with him.”
These aren’t the words expressed by a head coach if the problem is an aberration. This is what happens when a troubling pattern is arising.
Such is the case with Jokic. His struggles aren’t confined to just the first seven games of this season.
Late last season, the center got ejected from a game in the final minutes, leaving his team in a bad spot. Denver went on to lose at home to Washington, a defeat that could’ve had a major impact on their playoff seeding. It was the second time in two weeks that Jokic got the heave-ho from the official, a fact that was frustrating to his head coach.
“He can’t get tossed,” Malone said after the game. “I don’t care what they do to him and how bad the refereeing is. He’s too valuable for our team.”
The same sentiment was uttered this summer by Jokic’s coach at the FIBA World Cup. After the center was ejected in the third quarter of a game against Spain, Aleksandar Dordevic expressed his displeasure.
“I didn’t like the stupid reaction of our player who should be on the floor,” the head coach of Serbia said after the game. “That’s an episode that we just must understand, analyze and I hope it will not happen again.”
Ouch. Harsh, but true.
Jokic has developed a pattern of repeatedly hurting his team by moping and complaining. He takes himself out of games, both physically and mentally, which has a negative impact on everyone else.
If the Nuggets are truly going to reach their potential, if they’re going to achieve the lofty goals many set for them this season, this can’t continue. Nikola Jokic has to carry himself like a superstar. Right now, that’s just not happening.