The Denver Nuggets are too dependent on the reigning MVP. After their 108-106 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday, coach Michael Malone lamented how they've played without Nikola Jokic on the court.
"Every time he comes out, everything just falls apart," Malone said. "It's every night."
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In the first half against the Grizzlies, it looked like the story would be different -- Denver's starters fell down 17-5 less than five minutes into the game, and Jokic was on the bench for most of the 25-7 run that followed. With Jokic on the bench late in the third quarter, though, Memphis got off to an 18-3 run that stretched into the fourth. It all happened in less than four minutes, and it prompted Malone to put Jokic back in the game sooner than he'd planned.
"I went to him in the fourth quarter and I called his name and he looked at me kind of like, 'Already?'" Malone said. "And I feel for him."
Jokic scored 13 points on 5-for-7 shooting in the fourth quarter, but missed a contested shot that could have forced overtime.
"Nikola's going to be worn down by Christmas at this rate," Malone said. "And that's unfortunate. So I have to do my job to try to figure it out. Try to help that unit. mix and match, try different guys, whatever it is, but we just have to be better when Nikola Jokic is not on the floor."
The Nuggets are 4-4, but when Jokic has been on the court, they've outscored opponents by 14.2 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass, which filters out heaves and garbage time. This is largely thanks to much stingier defense.
Nikola Jokic's pick-and-roll defense vs. Ja Morant and the Grizzlies last night. Nuggets have the NBA's 4th-best defense and are allowing only 91 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor. It's the 4th-best individual DRtg in the league behind Gobert, Adebayo and Butler. pic.twitter.com/gIewi0dzbX— Harrison Wind (@HarrisonWind) November 2, 2021
With Jokic off the court, though, Denver has been a mess on both ends. The early-season numbers are gross:
|Nuggets||Offensive rating||Defensive rating||Net rating|
The Nuggets are dead-last in aggregate net bench rating, per NBA.com. Free-agent addition Jeff Green has not found his footing yet, and lineups featuring him and JaMychal Green together have been outscored by 36.8 points per 100 possessions, per CTG. Generally speaking, small-sample-size lineup data (136 possessions, in this case) shouldn't be trusted, but when the trend is this extreme, it is alarming.
Malone split up the Greens on Wednesday, and he had already tweaked his rotation. Austin Rivers hasn't played in the last two games, and rookie Bones Hyland logged 21 minutes on Wednesday after receiving DNP-CDs at the beginning of the season. If Denver's second unit can't get its act together soon, perhaps something more drastic will have to be done. Everybody knows Jokic is one of those special players who makes his teammates better, but his powers are limited to the minutes in which he's on the floor.