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The Nuggets’ Title Push Is Starting Slower Than Nikola Jokic

In the words of coach Michael Malone, the talk about Denver competing for a championship is “all bullshit” right now

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Denver Nuggets seemed like a good bet to get off to a fast start this season. They had league-leading continuity. They boasted a deep roster of 25-and-under talent. And they had the one thing you need most to win big in this league—a cornerstone franchise superstar—in Nikola Jokic.

Rather than racing out of the gate, though, Denver has opened the new season with something akin to the disinterested yawn of a large cat unhappily roused from a midday nap.

The Nuggets won their first three games, but didn’t exactly inspire hosannas in the process. The free-flowing and potent offense that Jokic orchestrated last season was sputtering in the middle of the NBA pack, and Denver needed overtime to beat Phoenix (who might be pretty good!) and a late-third-quarter push to gain some distance from Sacramento (who might be extremely not!). The worries grew a bit when the Nuggets (who, in fairness, were on the second night of a back-to-back) blew a fourth-quarter lead at home to the Mavericks’ role players; they were unavoidable on Thursday, when Denver got smoked by a previously winless Pelicans team, trailing nearly the entire way and by double figures for just about the entire second half.

Michael Malone watched his team half-step through possession after possession, especially when New Orleans pushed the pace; the Pelicans scored 37 fast-break points on Thursday, far and away their highest mark of the young season, and the most a Denver team has given up in nearly four years. And the Nuggets head coach was pretty pissed off about it.

“I’m embarrassed,” Malone told reporters after the game. “That was an embarrassing effort defensively. Gave up 37 fast-break points. You can give all the transition defense rules that you want. To me, transition defense boils down to one thing—effort.”

Denver holds a winning record but a negative point differential through five games, and Malone hasn’t seen enough of the sort of effort, energy, and intensity that he’d expect from a team with championship aspirations.

“We’re a great ‘talk’ team,” Malone said. “We can talk before the season starts about all the things we want to accomplish, and we want to be a championship contending team. It’s all bullshit. Don’t tell me about it. Show me. And right now, we’ve got a lot of guys that aren’t showing me much.”

Malone then put an even finer point on what he’s looking for: “Just care. I know you’re going to make a mistake. Just show me that you care.”

He specifically called out his starting five—Jokic, Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, Gary Harris, and Torrey Craig, in the lineup for the injured Will Barton—for being “low energy,” and not playing with the same spirit as Denver’s second unit, led by center Mason Plumlee. It’s true that nobody in the starting lineup is covering himself in glory right now. The Nuggets have the NBA’s fourth-worst first-quarter scoring differential, and are barely averaging a point per possession in opening frames. Murray and Harris are both shooting under 42 percent from the floor. Millsap repeatedly got dusted on defense by Brandon Ingram on Thursday.

But while there’s plenty of blame to go around at the moment, it’s hard not to see Malone’s postgame frustration as a finger jabbing squarely in the direction of Jokic. The playmaking center seems a few degrees off so far this season, and he also doesn’t appear to be in shape; Jokic reportedly turned up for training camp at 284 pounds after a summer spent playing for Serbia in the 2019 FIBA World Cup, although he denies experiencing any disruption to his summer routine.

The 24-year-old Serbian is averaging 15 points, 11.2 rebounds, 6.4 assists, and 1.4 steals per game, which would sound really great if we hadn’t spent last season and the playoffs watching him put up even bigger numbers. He’s taking three fewer shots per 36 minutes of floor time—he totaled just six in 27 minutes against New Orleans—than last season and he’s just 3-for-14 from 3-point range, continuing a decline in accuracy from the 40 percent clip at which he drilled long-range shots two seasons ago.

His usage rate is down, his turnover rate is up, and his on-court demeanor … well, let’s just say it’s not exactly suggesting a raging competitive inferno within, and seems more akin to a kid performatively tantruming his way through cleaning up his room after being yelled at a third time:

Six months ago, Jokic was named to the All-NBA first team. On Thursday, he got taken to the woodshed, repeatedly, by Jahlil Okafor, a reclamation project working to re-establish himself on his third team in five NBA seasons. This is the sort of matchup the Nuggets can’t lose on a nightly basis; if they do, their entire team concept begins to flicker and fracture.

Denver hasn’t played fast with Jokic at the wheel, ranking 16th in seconds per offensive possession in 2017-18 and 21st last season, according to Inpredictable. It didn’t really matter, though, because the Nuggets moved the ball so much (12th in passes per game in ‘17-18, fifth last season) and so well (fifth in assists and fourth in points created by assist in ‘17-18, second in both categories last season) that they still fielded a top-seven offense even without prioritizing pace. Things have puttered along at a noticeably glacial tempo this season, though—dead last in the league—and Denver hasn’t been nearly as active, sharp, or potent.

The Nuggets are throwing 36 fewer passes per game than they did last season, ranking just 19th in assists and a dismal 28th in potential assists (passes that would’ve turned into dimes if the shooter had made the bucket). As much as the Nuggets defense improved last season, this team is built to revolve around its capacity to bury opponents in an avalanche of points; a below-average offense that generates what tabs as the sixth-worst quality of shots in the NBA (defined as expected effective field goal percentage based on the location of the shot attempt and play context) just won’t cut it.

“We are not making shots, not passing the ball on time, on target,” Jokic told reporters after the loss in New Orleans. “They are putting us away from our system. They are pushing screens up, chasing us. They are aggressive. We just didn’t get into our stuff.”

Some responsibility falls to Malone to scheme up ways to leverage opponents’ defensive aggression and create cleaner passing lanes and shooting windows. A lot of it, though, falls to the Nuggets themselves to meet aggression with aggression—to sprint to their spots, to seal defenders off to create passing lanes, to throw feeds with purpose, to cut hard and keep moving when the initial action gets blown up. Having flour, sugar, eggs, milk, butter, and baking powder is great, but you have to, like, do stuff to all of that for it to become a cake. Right now, the Nuggets are just kind of throwing the ingredients in a bowl. That shit ain’t dessert.

The good news: All of the stuff that made Denver seem like a good bet to start hot and win a lot of games remains in place. Murray, Harris, and other young players like Malik Beasley and Monte Morris have all played better before, and deserve the chance to bounce back. Michael Porter Jr. made his NBA debut on Thursday and looked like an immediate offensive mismatch on the wing, scoring a team-high 15 points in 21 minutes off the bench. Jokic will play his way into shape, and did look more assertive, calling for the ball and doing something with it, in the first half against the Pelicans before Denver stumbled after intermission. The Nuggets’ depth makes them one of the more intriguing candidates to swing a deal for a star talent should one hit the market. A few lethargic performances in the season’s first week isn’t cause to hit the panic button.

It is cause, though, to keep a closer eye on things. The Nuggets paid handsomely to lock in Jokic and Murray as the linchpins of their future, and need them to step forward into leadership roles. Porter needs minutes on the wing, but Barton’s the incumbent veteran starter and Beasley, Craig, and Juancho Hernangomez are all playing for contracts in restricted free agency next summer. Millsap is the highest-paid player and most respected veteran; Jerami Grant, though, could often be the better option against quicker power forwards, as he was on Thursday against Ingram. Malone’s got a lot of mouths to feed, a lot of people to keep happy, and a lot of work to do to get a would-be Finals contender back on track. The time for talk is over. Jokic and Co. need to get to work, and fast.