In mid-June, when the NBA's suspension was approaching the three-month mark and the collective need for basketball topics to talk about was reaching its peak, a gift arrived from Serbia. It was a video showing Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets' crafty center, standing tall in a bomber jacket, chatting with some local players. The last time we'd seen Jokic, he was carrying a heavier load, listed at 7'0" and 284 pounds. His size was central to his style of play and to his aura, that of the bruising center befitting a bygone era. In the photo, however, Jokic had clearly slimmed down substantially.
The sight was a little shocking, but it was the continuation of a trend for Jokic. Back in February, he mentioned how his weight had affected his performance earlier in the season, when he was posting uncharacteristically standard numbers. "I was a little bit overweight, and then now I lost a lot of weight," he told ESPN at the time, saying it was in the range of 20 to 25 pounds. "Now I'm feeling good out there." And, paced by Jokic, the Nuggets were on a roll, too.
By the time we saw Jokic again, on that court in Serbia, the big man had dropped another 40 pounds during the NBA's hiatus, according to Adrian Wojnarowski and Brian Windhorst. His return to the United States has been delayed after he tested positive for COVID-19—he was asymptomatic and has since tested negative—but presumably, when play returns, Jokic will introduce a bit of a new style to the floor: a little less brute force, a little more lift, a little more mobility and, hopefully, a lot more endurance.
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Is this a good trade-off, though? One that could even push Denver further in the playoffs than ever?
One NBA scout isn't so sure.
"I think his size is actually an advantage; his width allows him to create separation. Now if he's smaller—we're talking about along the margins, but with things like post position, offensively, it might be a slight disadvantage," he tells B/R. "I think defensively it could help, though. Because he's [in the past been] slow, and if he can move a tad quicker, it would help him hedging on pick-and-rolls. On defense, quickness is an asset. But I've always thought he used his size really well."
It just hasn't always translated in the playoffs.
The Nuggets have been a beloved underdog for years now, going back to the 2016-2017 season, when Jokic first erupted. They are not built like the superpowers of the day, which typically pair two perennial All-Stars to play with a cadre of interchangeable role players. Much of the Denver roster is home-grown. Along with Jokic, Jamal Murray, Monte Morris, Gary Harris (acquired in a draft-night trade) and Michael Porter Jr. were Denver draft picks. And when the team has dipped into the trade market or free agency, it's been to acquire a player who fits in long-term: Will Barton, Jerami Grant, Paul Millsap or Mason Plumlee. There's something endearing about this method of roster construction. And of course there's something endearing about Jokic, too, the clumsy floor general that he is.
When the NBA went on pause, Jokic was up to his old tricks, outpacing just about every player at his position (or any other position). He is the league's only player averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists per game. His Nuggets trailed only the Clippers and Lakers in the Western Conference standings.
Oddly, though, the team was performing at just a decent level in the fourth quarter of games, when it ranked 18th in scoring. The offense stalled, and the Nuggets' field-goal percentage dipped. Their fourth-quarter plus-minus (+0.5) was considerably behind that of the NBA's elite teams—Milwaukee (+2.2) and the Lakers (+2.0).
Denver's late-game output hardly strikes it from title contention, but the numbers seem to take on new relevance considering Jokic's transformation—and the team's late-game issues last season, when it also ranked 18th in fourth-quarter scoring during the regular season and often fell flat during decisive moments in the playoffs.
The 2018-19 Nuggets won 54 games, good for second place in the West. In the first round, they defeated San Antonio in seven games. One of Denver's losses—Game 1—was decided by five points or fewer. In that one, Jokic made his last bucket with 6:57 remaining. The Nuggets tried to lean on Murray and Harris. The Spurs edged them out.
During the second round, against Portland, two losses were decided by five or fewer, and the other two were still competitive late. In Game 2, Jokic shot 1-of-5 with four points in the final six minutes, and Denver lost by seven at home. In Game 3, Jokic shot 0-of-2 in the final six, leading to an epic quadruple-overtime set. (In all, he logged an astounding 65 minutes, by the end of which he was fried, though nobody could blame him for that.) In Game 6, Jokic connected on just one field goal in the fourth quarter as Portland tied the series. In Game 7, Denver led by nine at halftime before Portland stormed back. Jokic had a few strong moments early in the fourth but did little to stop the bleeding in the final six minutes, shooting 1-of-4, turning the ball over once (leading to a Portland three-ball) and missing a crucial free throw.
It's hard to pin down the source of Jokic's late-game failings. Perhaps they were a product of Portland's locking in against Denver's star or of inexperience. Or maybe it was fatigue. And if that's the case, then maybe improved endurance will produce an extra late-game bucket or two this time around, enough to change Denver's postseason fate.
"Momentum can shift so rapidly during a series in normal conditions, so with all the uncertainties in the bubble, every small thing matters even more," one league executive says. "Jokic in top shape means not only that he moves better ... but also that he's super engaged and focused, and that's a huge plus in the uncharted land of the playoffs bubble."
We'll find out come August and September, when Jokic returns to the postseason floor, lighter on his feet than we've ever seen him.
Leo Sepkowitz joined B/R Mag in 2018. Previously, he was a senior writer at SLAM magazine. You can follow him on Twitter: @LeoSepkowitz.
Yaron Weitzman contributed to this story.