DENVER (AP) — The immediate plans for reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic center on heading home to Serbia so he can tend to his horses and spend time with the family, which now includes a daughter.
“I just hope that I’m going to have — how do you call it — a non-stressful, stress-free summer,” the Denver Nuggets’ 7-foot do-it-all center said.
Between now and then, some time for reflection: On a season where the Nuggets won 48 games despite missing Jamal Murray (ACL recovery) and Michael Porter Jr. (back). On an upcoming season, too, when the band will once again be back together for a title run.
That will also be a thought of Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who pointed out his itinerary includes a relaxing trip to a private island in the South Pacific as he ponders what just transpired and looks ahead.
This remains a highly regarded team — when healthy. But they missed the playmaking of Murray all season as his recovery went slower than anticipated after tearing a ligament in his left knee last April. They missed the long-range shooting of Porter, who had another back surgery in November and didn’t return to the court. They also missed PJ Dozier (ACL).
It all added up to being eliminated in the first round by Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors in five games, although the Nuggets found a way to make the last three games competitive.
“It’s scary to think about that,” Malone said of a healthy roster. “When they’re back and they’re healthy, I think that’s going to make us a deeper, more talented team. … I think the future is very, very bright for the Denver Nuggets.”
Especially with Jokic leading the way.
The player nicknamed “Joker” became the first NBA player to eclipse 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists in a regular season. He also finished with a league-leading 19 triple-doubles.
“I just don’t understand the people that find a way to criticize Nikola Jokic,” Malone said. “He impacts the game in so many ways. Hell of a season. Hopefully he’ll win the MVP again. I think rightfully he deserves it.”
Jokic brushes off any disrespect that comes his way: “Couldn’t care less, brother.”
This summer, Jokic could be in line for a supermax deal. He’s all for it, too, after a season in which he averaged 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists.
“If the offer is on the table, of course I’m going to accept it because I really like the organization. I really like the people who work here,” Jokic said. “I think we have something that we’re building. It actually feels really good.”
The season saw the emergence of rookie Bones Hyland, who electrified the crowd with his 3-point shooting. He eclipsed Murray’s team rookie record for 3s in a season and hit the second-most 3-pointers among all rookies with 131.
The Nuggets have quite a few pending free agents, including DeMarcus Cousins, Austin Rivers and Bryn Forbes. Jeff Green and JaMychal Green hold player options, according to Spotrac.
Cousins came up big in Game 5 for the Nuggets with 19 points over 15 minutes while filling in for Jokic, who was hampered by fouls and a tight hamstring.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” Cousins said of his return. “The potential is scary (with the Nuggets). Obviously it looks good on paper, but we’ve got to put everything together. We’ll see what happens.”
Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon plans to take a few weeks off to rest and then get to work — on his mind game as well as his hoops game.
“I’m playing with Joke, who is one of the smartest basketball players in the world. Got to raise my level of IQ to help him, to help everyone, to help the coaching staff,” Gordon said. “Just becoming more a student of the game. I’ve relied on my talent for so long, just natural talent, not enough on the cerebral part of the game.”
The Nuggets finished the regular season with 25 wins on the road, the most in their NBA history. They went 23-18 at Ball Arena.
Will Barton became the Nuggets’ all-time leader in 3-pointers this season, surpassing J.R. Smith.
“I always want more, always feel I can do more, play better,” Barton said.
By PAT GRAHAM AP Sports Writer
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