Jokic-less Nuggets fight but their biggest issue was exposed in loss to NY
This might sound odd to you, but the Denver Nuggets need a better center.
The back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic is just fine, but his backup has long been a question in Colorado. The inquiry for this year’s team was adjudicated in the 106-103 loss to the New York Knicks.
Yes, there were some positives, even from the bigs, and yes, not only was Jokic sidelined with an illness but so too was starting power forward Aaron Gordon. This represented an excellent opportunity to find out what was in Denver’s coffers. A 36-year-old Jeff Green and 34-year-old DeAndre Jordan, joined by 21-year-old Zeke Nnaji, who has played just over 1,000 minutes in the NBA. Two players that are likely too old, and one maybe too inexperienced.
Green is still a capable player, worthy of a few short spurts per game. Some nights he may not fit the rotation, but if he’s in it, he’ll still be alright. He started 63 games last season for the banged-up Nuggets, getting 10 points and three boards per contest.
Jordan—Jokic’s backup, replacing DeMarcus Cousins—was one of the worst players in the NBA last season in Philly. Coming to Denver on a veteran minimum in the opening minutes of free agency, he’s been decent enough for Denver. But there are signs of his rapid decline from a thrice All-NBA player. In Boston last week, a lack of hustle led to a viral clip of Jordan getting clowned in the paint. On Wednesday, Jordan had his moments and led the team with a plus-10 in his first start. But he was held to 26 minutes, never coming back in the fourth quarter.
“No, he was gassed at one point,” Michael Malone said. “And then they went small, and we stayed small.”
In other words, Jordan didn’t have the energy to play for 30 minutes and then was played off the floor by the other team’s lineup. Nobody claims that Jokic is a superstar defender, but his offense makes up for it. Jordan is supposed to be an anchor, capable of staying on the floor for his defense. Instead, the Knicks had 50 points in the paint and a breakout of 34 points from Julius Randle.
Nnaji, on the other hand, showed very nice flashes, scoring 13 and snagging three boards. He can stretch the floor and defend. This past summer, the Nuggets went from trying to make him a wing to staying more natural at the big spot. Still, he seems like more of a four for now than a five.
“He was physical, active, and worked the glass,” Malone said. “I know it’s been tough not playing as much as I’m sure he would like, but he stays ready.”
Nnaji drips potential but only played over 10 minutes in a game for the first time this season. Nnaji could be the solution to the long had issue: can Denver get a capable backup center who can also slide over to the power forward spot and play alongside Jokic? The thing is, we’ll never know that answer unless Nnaji gets a look. Against the Knicks, it was one awful first shift followed by some really nice play for Zeke. We still have no idea what he is; finding out could save the Nuggets from making a panic backup five buy at the deadline.
But that’s the most likely route still. Even with one of the best records in the west, saving Jokic’s legs with some planned rest nights and surviving without him for a longer stretch come postseason is one thing the Nuggets will need to deal with.
In playing without the starting frontcourt, Denver played some odd lineups. We finally got to see extended minutes of Bones Hyland playing with Jamal Murray; something Nuggets fans clamored for the entire time the Blue Arrow was sidelined. Murray was solid both with and without Bones. The two guards tied for a team-high 21 points, more impressive for Hyland, who had missed a few games with an illness. Meanwhile, the good the two did was undone by the lack of late-game execution and odd decisions from Malone.
One of those was re-entering Michael Porter Jr. to close despite not shooting a basketball in the second half. You know the thing he does best in life. MPJ had an awful game in Boston; he’s followed it up with one of the better games of his career in Chicago over the weekend and then another terrible game against the Knicks. MPJ, like Murray, is coming off a year hiatus and deserves some benefit of the doubt that seems to escape him. But to say MPJ was a disappointment is an understatement. When the Nuggets are down two of their big four, it’s on MPJ to step up, not down.
Two players who played as if their MVP was on the floor were KCP and Bruce Brown, two dudes who would show up to ball no matter the conditions around them. And that’s huge; the Nuggets have had very few of those guys in the Jokic era.
Come Friday in Dallas; we may see a similar story with Malone not expecting either Jokic or Gordon to play.