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2018-19 Season Preview: Nikola Jokic is set up for success

Harrison Wind Avatar
September 12, 2018

Nikola Jokic watched helplessly from the bench in the fourth quarter of an early March matchup against the Mavericks as his Nuggets fought for their playoff lives. With just four points to his name, Jokic exited what would go down as one of Denver’s worst losses of the season with 3:38 left in the third quarter and did not return.

The Nuggets fell 118-107 to the Mavericks as Jokic sat next to Nuggets coach Michael Malone for the final 15 minutes of regulation.

Whatever message Malone was trying to send to his star center was received. Just 24 hours after Denver’s loss in Memphis, Jokic exploded for 36 points against the Cavaliers on 14 shots. Two days later, Paul Millsap publicly declared after a 125-116 win over the Lakers that Jokic is “the engine” of Denver’s potent offensive attack and the Nuggets’ offense should run through him.

Over the final month of the regular season, Jokic averaged 24.0 points on 53.8 percent shooting from the field, 47.6 percent from three, 11.5 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game. His numbers reflected the best stretch of basketball that the 23-year-old has played over his short but eventful NBA career.

His run to close last year serves as a preamble to his fourth NBA season — one where Jokic will have to rise to the lofty standards that the Nuggets’ fan base will place on his shoulders. And there’s reason to think he’ll fulfill their expectations.

Denver enters the 2018-19 season with clarity. There’s no three-way point guard battle that will consume training camp. Will Barton is entrenched as the Nuggets’ starting small forward. Trey Lyles won’t have to beat out Kenneth Faried for minutes at power forward. Michael Malone knows the nine or 10 guys he’s going to battle with every night.

But most of all the Nuggets are a season into the Jokic and Paul Millsap front court. This time last year it took four days of practices for the two to pop for the first time on the floor together. After Denver’s 2017 preseason wrapped up Malone compared his two big men to a couple on their second or third date who were “getting a feel for each other and kind of seeing how it goes from there.”

As expected, there were bumps and bruises once the Nuggets got to the regular season too. Denver’s offense, which led the league in scoring efficiency over the second half of the 2016-17 season, scored just 96 points in each of its first two contests. Jokic struggled to find himself too, tallying just seven points in the Nuggets’ opener and going scoreless in Denver’s win over Sacramento a few nights later.

Even though Millsap missed 44 games last season, the two gelled at times before he went down on that fateful night in Los Angeles and also when he returned to the lineup in late February. During Denver’s grueling stretch run last season, the majority of the Nuggets’ most efficient lineups included both Millsap and Jokic.

There will be growing pains at the start of this season too, but with both players entering training camp healthy, Jokic and Millsap should click earlier than they did a year ago.

Denver’s new three-guard starting lineup will play to Jokic’s strengths. Jokic thrives around high-IQ, playmaking guards, who can run pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop and keep the defense honest from three. He’ll get that with Barton Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. Last season the five-man combo of Murray, Harris, Barton, Millsap and Jokic only logged 65 minutes together, but they were among the best lineups in all of basketball, outscoring their opponent 179-126.

The Murray-Harris-Barton-Millsap-Jokic lineup consists of five players who are all threats from three-point range and four who shot 37 percent or better from distance last year. Jokic averaged a pristine 18.5 points on 49.9 percent shooting from the field and 39.6 percent from three last season to go with 10.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game. If he plays most of the season alongside the Murray-Harris-Barton trio, Jokic’s numbers and efficiency could climb even higher.

Jokic’s star power is also on the rise. If his All-NBA caliber stretch to close last season came in November or December, then Jokic could have made his first All-Star game last year. Don’t rule that out happening this year, especially if the Nuggets take advantage of what’s setting up to be a favorable schedule at least over the first few months of the season.

If the casual NBA fan doesn’t recognize Jokic’s offensive brilliance now, they will this year. The Nuggets are locked and loaded in the pursuit of their first playoff appearance in six seasons. Jokic will be Denver’s best player and lynchpin all year long.

The triple-doubles, which Jokic had 10 of last season, good for fourth in the league behind Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Ben Simmons, will be there this season. The flashy, highlight-reel passes will grace Sports Center’s top-10 on a nightly basis. Jokic’s counting numbers, which many NBA pundits still cling to, will likely climb to a new level. Of course, his advanced numbers will be off the charts again.

If Jokic can gain some quickness, which was his main focus throughout the offseason, and make strides on the defensive end of the floor, he’ll move closer to erasing the deficiency in his game that his biggest skeptics hold close. Even if he doesn’t, his ability to raise his teammates’ level of play to a similar degree that James and the league’s top playmakers do plants him firmly in the league’s upper echelon of offensive stars.

The Nuggets opens training camp with Jokic entrenched as their best player and primary offensive option, a notion that Jokic, Millsap and the entire Nuggets’ organization embraced last season. After his stretch run a year ago, Denver doubled down on its offensive identity and constructed a starting lineup that plays to his strengths.

For Jokic, the best is yet to come.


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