Nikola Jokic only played 26 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night. The streaking Denver Nuggets, now winners of six straight games, didn’t need him in the fourth quarter of their 124-92 victory. But if some late-game heroics were required from the reigning MVP, it’s safe to say Chauncey Billups believes his depleted team would have had a tough time preventing them.
Billups, a Denver native who played collegiately at Colorado and enjoyed two stints with his hometown Nuggets as a player, first got to know Jokic while commentating games after his career on the court was finished. A lot has changed for the Serbian superstar since Denver took him with the 41st pick of the 2015 NBA Draft.
The difference that sticks out most to Billups, though, is Jokic’s conditioning, which he believes has reached a “remarkable” level literally no one would have anticipated.
“I say this all the time and people, like, think I’m kinda crazy, but I think he’s in the top four or five guys of being in the best shape in the league,” Portland’s coach said of Jokic. “It’s funny because he doesn’t look the part. But the way that he plays, he kinda has to hold the team and carry the team, and also every team goes at him every play in pick-and-rolls. He’s guarding every pick-and-roll all game and then he has to carry the load on offense. You gotta be in unbelievable condition to do that, and he never misses basketball games. It’s remarkable. It’s remarkable to me.”
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Jokic had eight points, 18 rebounds and 11 assists in his limited playing time on Sunday, tormenting the Blazers as a playmaker when they sent double-teams at him on the block. It was another performance befitting his well-earned status as an MVP frontrunner, but Jokic got far more help from his short-handed supporting cast than he has for most of 2021-22.
Denver’s bench was its biggest strength against Portland, combining for a whopping 76 points. Each of the Nuggets’ primary reserves — Facundo Campazzo, Bryn Forbes, Austin Rivers, JaMychal Green and Demarcus Cousins — registered a plus-minus north of 20.
Playing without Jamal Murray all season and Michael Porter Jr. since the first week of November, Denver has been forced to rely on Jokic this season far more than the team would have otherwise. It’s not like that strategy has resulted in diminishing returns, though. Instead, Jokic — all 6-foot-11 and the listed 284 pounds of him — has driven perhaps as much statistical team-wide success as any player in modern history.
Jokic’s +23.7 net on-off rating, per Cleaning the Glass, ranks first in the NBA by a laughable 6.4 points per 100 possessions. His league-leading 32.37 PER would be the highest single-season mark of all time, and Jokic’s top-ranked Real Plus-Minus, according to ESPN, is accounted for most by his peerless statistical impact on the defensive end.
Everything Denver does offensively revolves around Jokic. The numbers overstate his overall quality as a defender, but still speak to the major strides he has taken in that regard this season — not to mention how lost the Nuggets look without him corralling pick-and-rolls and manning the middle defensively.
Jokic’s body type will prevent him from ever looking the part. The more you dig into Billups’ assertion about him being one of basketball’s most fit players, though, the more obvious it becomes he’s right.