Imagine you're the New Orleans Pelicans in the middle of a heated contest against the Denver Nuggets. It's the beginning of the fourth quarter in a game you once led 61-41. That lead is long gone. You've been Jokic'd. The best player in the world has led a 27-point swing in around 17 minutes of game time to give his Nuggets a 99-92 lead.
But it's okay. Nikola Jokic has to rest eventually, right? He doesn't even have his sidekick tonight! Jamal Murray is out with a hamstring injury. The Nuggets lost their top two reserves in the offseason. You can do this! You can whack Denver's bench around for four or five minutes and reclaim control of this game!
Four minutes and 58 seconds later, Denver's seven-point lead has expanded to 11. Now you have to beat a refreshed Jokic by double digits. That's not going to happen. In the end, the Pelicans missed their chance and lost the game, 134-116 on Monday night.
This scenario is becoming increasingly common. While Denver's bench isn't exactly lighting the league on fire, it has more than held its own through eight games. Jokic has spent 112 minutes on the bench this season, and Denver has lost those minutes by 15 total points. Not exactly ideal, but that comes out to a net rating of minus-3.7. Well, last season that figure was minus-10.4.
That gave opponents a formula. Simply survive the Jokic minutes and dominate the rest. Denver was so vulnerable without its best player last season that the Nuggets lost multiple games in which they won the minutes Jokic did play by at least 13 points. The Suns were the only team to beat the Nuggets more than once last postseason. They won the non-Jokic minutes by 19 combined points in those games. But it's looking more and more like opponent's won't be able to rely on beating Denver's depth. If anything, this might be the best bench the Nuggets have had during the Jokic era.
Monday belonged to rookie Julian Strawther, who scored 21 points in 19 minutes, including 12 points in the fourth quarter alone. Minutes have been hard to come by for Strawther early on, but with Murray set to miss a chunk of games, that almost has to change. Besides, second-year pro Peyton Watson more than covered for him defensively. He is currently averaging 2.6 blocks and 1.3 steals per 36 minutes. The Nuggets don't even view him as a Bruce Brown replacement, because, in their eyes, he's an upgrade. "Peyton's bigger," general manager Calvin Booth told The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor in the offseason. "He's longer. He's more athletic. He guards better. He passes better."
The new faces are already supplementing some of the older ones. Reggie Jackson struggled to stick in the rotation last season and was ultimately barely used in the playoffs. So far this season, with more shot-creation responsibilities, he's looking more and more like he did with the Clippers. In fact, his 52.8% effective field goal percentage is the third-best mark of his career, trailing only his two best Clippers seasons.
Strawther may be able to contribute supplementary points with Murray sidelined, and Watson can take on a bit of playmaking, but there's no substitute for a veteran point guard. Jackson looks like the player the Nuggets thought they were getting last February. Toss in an even heavier dose of the standard high-IQ, even higher-effort reserve play Denver got out of Christian Braun last season and, right now, the Nuggets are getting plenty out of a bench that was among the NBA's worst.
And that's going to pose real problems for the rest of the Western Conference, because the Nuggets are somehow even better during the Jokic minutes than they were last season. Denver is posting a preposterous plus-17.6 net rating with its best player on the floor this season. It's still early, but to put that number into perspective, the 2017 Warriors were plus-17.4 with Stephen Curry on the floor. Jokic is a one-man death lineup, and his backups are no longer the antidote. As the Pelicans found out on Monday, you can't depend on sidestepping the reigning Finals MVP by beating up his bench anymore. With that option off of the table, there might not be any solution to slowing down Jokic's Nuggets whatsoever.