To the delight of Nuggets fans, it has now become routine for Nikola Jokic to put in dominant performances, and he had yet another in Denver’s 125-117 road win over the Indiana Pacers on Friday, scoring 30 points on 12-18 shooting, along with 17 rebounds, 5 assists, and a steal.
However, as Jokic has emerged as Denver’s best player, teams have started making more concerted efforts to prevent the Nuggets offense from being run through him, using a combination of double teams and clogging the paint to close off lanes to cutters. This was especially evident in the Nuggets’ two recent losses to the Houston Rockets, who clearly had prioritized containing Jokic in their defensive game plan.
Anyone who's watched the Jokic dynamic in recent Nuggets games is at least anecdotally aware that when the offense is being directed through him, it tends to fire on all cylinders, while during stretches in which he isn’t running the show, the team’s offensive production and efficiency seem to sputter and stall out more often than not.
Jokic had 99 touches in his big outing against the Pacers. That is a whole heck of a lot. For a frame of reference, according to NBA.com, the NBA centers averaging the most touches per game are DeMarcus Cousins (79.6), Marc Gasol (74.9), and Anthony Davis (74.7). Jokic is ranked seventh for the entire season with 65.7 touches per game, and third since he took the helm as Denver’s starting center on December 15th at 75.3 per contest.
In fact, his 99 touches in Indiana are in a three-way tie for the third most he's had in a game all season. This high number, along with what at least passes the eye test as evidence that Denver’s offense thrives best when the action is going through Jokic, led me to speculate that there might be a positive correlation between Nikola’s touches per game and winning outcomes for the Nuggets.
As it turns out, player tracking data from NBA.com demonstrates that this is indeed the case – at least in the “Jokic Era” since Dec. 15. In this time frame, in games in which tracking data is available, Jokic has averaged 77.6 touches in Nuggets wins, while in losses, that number drops to 70.5.
We can see a more vividly clear illustration of the positive correlation between Jokic’s touches and Nuggets wins when we break the data down into more granular detail. As can be seen in the charts below, higher numbers of touches for Jokic map directly to increased winning percentages for Denver:
As a general rule, it is important to avoid jumping to the conclusion that correlation necessarily signifies causation. In this case, however, the pattern is so consistent and clear that it seems reasonable to conclude that more touches for Jokic generally has a positive causal effect on winning outcomes for the Nuggets.
Most Nuggets fans and writers have observed that the Nuggets' offense seems to drop off when it's not being run through Jokic. The data here indicates that this is not just an impression or eye test phenomenon.
Indeed, the data suggests that increased touches for Jokic are a critical element of the Nuggets’ success, and one they would do well to prioritize as they make their final playoff push in their last ten games of the season.