What's wrong with Nikola Jokic? Denver Nuggets need more from the All-Star center

Windhorst: Nuggets' offense has been suffering because of Jokic (1:46)

Brian Windhorst stresses the importance of Nikola Jokic to the Nuggets' offense and believes their subpar performance will continue unless Jokic turns things around. (1:46)

It was a superstar stat line -- the kind that turned Nikola Jokic into a first-team All-NBA center: 30 points, 10 rebounds and four assists, all done in front of a national TV audience Friday in Boston.

Jokic's performance, though, raised a question: Why hasn't he done it more often this season?

Jokic's combination of passive play and indifferent body language has left observers around the league baffled -- and his coach searching for answers. And it has the Denver Nuggets fifth in the Western Conference, at 14-8, after they were the second seed last season.

"I think he's going through a tough stretch, I really do, and I think this is the first time where I've seen him go through this," Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. "I think sometimes I'm a little overly defensive of him, because not a lot of guys can average [16 points], 10 [rebounds] and six [assists] ... and everybody is saying, 'What the hell is wrong with Nikola?'"

When that exact question is posed to Jokic, he merely shrugs.

"I don't know," he said. "I'm averaging 16, 10 and six. I think that's pretty good, to be honest."

It was the kind of line -- delivered in a deadpan that made it tough to tell whether it was serious or a joke -- that made Jokic's postgame news conferences during last season's playoffs, when he would famously fiddle with the microphone in front of him, as entertaining as his play.

In fact, he has a point -- he's the only player in the NBA hitting each of those statistical marks.

But after a beat, Jokic decided he had more to say.

"I showed myself I can play at a completely [higher] level, especially in the playoffs," Jokic said. "But I think I need to get back to that level."

To his point: Jokic's intensity level has always fluctuated during games. But after that eye-popping playoff run -- he averaged 25 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists in 14 games in his first postseason trip, plus even better advanced stats on both sides of the ball -- expectations were raised entering this season. Some touted him as an MVP candidate and the Nuggets as a potential NBA Finals team.

So far, he hasn't delivered.

"He is just so gifted," one executive said, "and the strangest thing is his willingness to shoot, or take over [games], is often in doubt. And, deservedly, is called to attention."

So what's going on? The 7-footer's conditioning has been questioned -- and at 284 pounds, he's listed as the heaviest player who has played in a game this season.

"It's not OK to be included in MVP conversations and not be in shape," said another executive who saw Jokic play recently.

Meanwhile, Jokic's time this offseason with the Serbian national team at the FIBA World Cup -- where the team touted as a co-favorite alongside Team USA finished fifth and saw its coach fired -- cut into his time away from the court.

"I think it might be a little bit of everything," Malone said.

Whatever the reasons, one thing is clear: Jokic is less active and involved this season. His stats are down virtually across the board even though he's averaging almost the same minutes -- his only stat that's on the rise is his 3-point shooting attempts, and he's shooting them at a career-low 22.9% accuracy.

And the advanced statistics, which have in the past painted a positive picture of Jokic's talents, only amplify his drop-off. His usage rate is down significantly, as are his assist, steal, block, offensive rebound, overall rebound and free throw rates.

His player efficiency rating is down more than six points, as well -- dropping him from a tie for third in the league last season to 41st this season -- and he has posted career lows in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage.

"It's clear something is wrong," one scout said.

However, the Nuggets' coach disagreed.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with him," Malone said. "It's him getting that confidence back, and getting the ball to go through the net."

Part of the frustration that comes from watching Jokic's effort level fluctuate is because there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to it. When he was asked about it, he didn't have a simple explanation, either.

"I mean, it depends on the coverage," Jokic said. "It depends on if they are digging, or if they are not digging. It depends on how close they are, or how aggressive the defender is. My measurement is about all this stuff, so I cannot say it's this one thing ... it's a little bit of everything."

Jokic's measured approach might frustrate fans and confuse scouts sometimes, but he is a spectacular playmaker -- often called the greatest passing big man in NBA history. He has been a stickler for playing the game a certain way, with the ball moving around the court. That hasn't changed, even as the expectations for the Nuggets have. And his supporters would point out that, even as he has admittedly not been the player he was in 2018-19, Denver is even better with him on the court this season (plus-6.5 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com) than the plus-5.8 mark it posted last season.

Jokic helped post that number as he made the leap to stardom, ending Denver's five-year playoff drought and leading the Nuggets to the second round for the first time since 2009. And, like his season individually, Denver has gotten off to a bit of a confusing start.

The Nuggets are on pace to win 52 games (after 54 last season, though with a smaller scoring margin) and have the NBA's second-ranked defense -- a significant sign of growth, at least in these early stages. But they have regressed on offense, which is now 22nd in the NBA after being a top-10 unit each of the past three years. It isn't a coincidence that the nosediving of Jokic's numbers has coincided with his team's offensive woes.

Denver guard Jamal Murray, trying to make his own leap into All-Star status, provided his own harsh assessment of the Nuggets' offense, followed by a silver lining.

"We're not playing well at all," Murray said. "We're playing really bad.

"Imagine when we start playing well?"

There certainly is plenty of time left in the season for that to happen, just as there is plenty of time for Jokic to rediscover the form he possessed last season. And Jokic still intends to get there.

"We want to be a great team," he said. "I think [high expectations are] a good thing to have, just because it will push us to go harder and harder."

Of course, that's precisely what so many want to see him do. But while the world continues to worry about both him and the Nuggets, Jokic isn't concerned.

"I think we are great," he said. "I think we are not shooting the ball really good. If we shoot a little bit better, I think we'll make that step we need to."

Something else would help even more, though: Jokic heeding his own words, and returning to the level he displayed on a nightly basis in the playoffs.