In the middle of the MVP debate between Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, an important point about both players got lost — but most especially about Jokic and likely why he ended up winning the debate and the MVP trophy.
Jokic was doing a lot on his own. Like a lot.
The Denver Nuggets knew they would be short-handed this season. Jamal Murray was still nursing a torn ACL and while there were some hopes he could return by the end of the season, that was always going to be a hope.
Then Michael Porter Jr. got hurt, playing only nine games this season before a back injury ended his season.
That left Aaron Gordon, freshly signed to a new extension, as the team’s second-leading scorer. He no longer was playing the fourth-guy, defender/slasher role that gave him a lot of success when he arrived in Denver. Instead, Gordon was back to playing the way the Orlando Magic asked him to.
The Nuggets were already being stretched thin. Asking them to be deep in the face of all this is a tall order. Few teams would be able to survive that kind of hardship — even really good ones like the Nuggets.
Nikola Jokic turned in an MVP season carrying the Denver Nuggets to the postseason. But the Nuggets had a depth problem all season, an important reminder for the Orlando Magic as they build.
But all that burden to carry the Nuggets fell on Jokic. And he won the MVP because he thrived in the situation.
Jokic averaged an incredible 27.1 points per game, 13.8 rebounds per game and 7.9 assists per game. He has helped redefine the center position as the pivot for an entire offense and a regular triple-double threat.
His run through the league this year was incredible. There is no getting around or denying that.
It gets more amazing when you look at his on/off splits.
The Nuggets were +8.4 points per 100 possessions (117.3/108.9 offensive/defensive rating split) with Jokic on the floor. They were a team-worst -7.9 points per 100 possessions (105.0/113.0 offensive/defensive rating split) with Jokic off the floor.
When the Magic beat the Nuggets on Dec. 1, the Nuggets were +2 with Jokic on the floor. Nobody else on the team had a positive plus/minus for that game. In the first half, when the Nuggets built a 16-point halftime lead, the Nuggets were +17 with Jokic on the floor. Every starter in that first half was at least +10. Every bench player was under +5.
That is an incredible swing and it is a testament to just how good Jokic was that Denver still had a positive net rating and finished sixth in the Western Conference even with that big of a split. This was one of the key arguments in Jokic winning MVP.
This was a regular occurrence for the Nuggets throughout the season. That storyline of the Nuggets finding nothing when Jokic was out was the story of the season for the team. It is an issue they know gets resolved as they get healthier.
And that health is surely coming. They just needed to survive this season. Making the Playoffs as a 6-seed was certainly survival and something of a success, even if it wastes an MVP season from Jokic.
That survival was at least partially too because they did find some depth, as stretched thin as it was.
Gordon had his moments. So too did Monte Morris. Bones Hyland was a fantastic late-first-round find, a necessary addition for a playoff team before they get capped out.
But in the playoffs, Denver’s scoring quickly dried up — only five players scored in double figures with Nikola Jokic leading the way at 31.0 points per game.
Indeed, the Golden State Warriors dominated the Denver Nuggets all series, squeezing the team when Jokic did not have the ball. It was a master class in picking apart a clearly flawed team.
That is always what happens in the playoffs. A team’s flaws are exposed. And they either figure out how to cover them, overcome them with some individual’s brilliance or get killed by them.
The Nuggets eventually got killed by their lack of depth. While returning players will help rebuild some of that depth. They cannot rely on Will Barton, DeMarcus Cousins and Jeff Green forever.
Eventually, this lack of depth can rip a team apart. The “others” matter.
That is, of course, a concern for a team that is already near completion. Figuring out how to add depth to a roster with an established core — remember: the Denver Nuggets were missing two very core players — is a challenge. Especially as the price tag for said players goes up.
The Magic seemingly have the opposite problem as they rebuild right now.
They do not have their star or core set and have an abundance of depth. Almost too much, at least among young players the team is trying to develop. The Magic seem to be at a stage where they need to start consolidating some players to make their roster make sense.
But if their young players develop, that depth can be a power.
Having a player like Cole Anthony who can not only step in and be a full-time starter but also be a sparkplug off the bench will have value. Using Jonathan Isaac likely off the bench to start when he works his way back as a defensive terror for short bursts is going to make this team better. There are still good chances R.J. Hampton starts to slow down and continues his 3-point improvement.
Orlando has a lot of players the team believes in and wants to develop. Few of them are guaranteed to be anything and finding playing time for all of them will remain a challenge for this growing team. Carefully selecting players to join this team and keeping it balanced between its starting group and its reserves will be a key to its success and its building.
The teams that are still playing in the conference finals may not be the most balanced teams. Every team deep in the playoffs lean on their stars. But where they have found success and the Nuggets failed is how they have found players to step up to the plate.
The Celtics have had Al Horford and Grant Williams step up in big games. The Golden State Warriors wrung out big games from Andrew Wiggins and moments from players deep on their bench like Moses Moody to win key games.
The Miami Heat are a veritable treasure trove of found money in guys like Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and Victor Oladipo. The Dallas Mavericks acquired Davis Bertans and Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith to spread the floor.
All these teams needed their depth at one point or another to advance. It is still a vital piece of the puzzle. As important as the top of the roster in many ways.
The Magic are working on that top of the roster first. That is always where a rebuild begins. That is still the most important thing.
But as the team builds and begins considering how to consolidate and combine their roster, they will still need to maintain depth and reserves to cover for injuries and provide key support.
It is clear how much it can help even an MVP candidate.