The picture above was taken at the last NBA game I attended in person, back in the halcyon days of 2019. It was against the Washington Wizards in DC, a game the Nuggets would win 113-108. It was the first and only time I have seen Nikola Jokic play in-person. He didn’t exactly light the world on fire statistically that night: 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting, 6 rebounds, and 11 assists. He was a -10 in 36 minutes. [The Nuggets’ bench absolutely torched the lowly Wiz that particular night, but I digress.] From the vantage point of the third row — he is legit no more than 20 feet away from me in the photo — he is the same doughy, plodding, unimpressive-looking physical “specimen” he appears to be on TV. What did stand out in the flesh, however, and what continues to escape the understanding of many basketball casuals when it comes to the NBA’s leader in the clubhouse for the 2020-21 MVP award is this: Nikola Jokic is a goddamn sorcerer.
Most people know about his passing at this point. The 26-year-old Jokic averages 7.1 assists per 36 minutes for his career, and is already on the Mount Rushmore of “best passing centers of all time,” which may be selling him short. The guy can deliver passes which beggar belief, and make them look easy:
The wizardry I noticed up-close was a bit more subtle, more granular. It was his hands. It’s not just that his hands are strong; they are certainly that. What struck me is how often the ball appears to be almost magnetically attracted to them, as if he summons the ball directly into his grip. Some players use their quick-twitch athleticism to go get the ball. Jokic uses basketball clairvoyance — calling it basketball IQ does it a disservice — to know where the basketball is about to be and simply have his hands there, ready to receive the ball when it completes its predestined journey.
I recently saw a stat saying Jokic is currently 11th in the NBA in deflections, per NBA.com. This fits perfectly with my observation of his mythical anticipatory skills, but not so neatly with the mainstream perception of His Groundness as a negative defender. It’s true Jokic is not an elite rim protector and his Nuggets teams have not historically been top-tier defensive outfits. He is far from a liability, however. His current “individual” Defensive Rating — that is to say, the Nuggets’ D-Rating when he is on the floor — is 109 points per 100 possessions this season, which is over 3 points stingier than their overall mark. His MVP candidacy is not built on his defensive acumen, but the national media narrative really needs to stop painting it as some sort of glaring flaw in his game.
The Joker’s candidacy is built on the foundation of an utterly unimpeachable statistical resume. He is rocking scintillating per-game averages of 26.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, 8.7 assists, and 1.5 steals on equally absurd 57/42/86 shooting splits. He leads the NBA in virtually any all-in-one value metric you can think of, and has played in every game this season. His statistical case is as airtight as it gets.
The argument against him for most of the season has been Denver’s lack of team success. The Nugs started out 6-7 through thirteen games, but have gone 27-11 since to bring their current record to 33-18, leaving them only a half-game behind the Clippers for third in the LOADED Western Conference. Even more recently, Denver is 6-0 since its deadline trade for Aaron Gordon, with the starting lineup of Jokic/Gordon/Michael Porter, Jr./Will Barton/Jamal Murray completely cooking everyone they’ve faced (+32.1 points per 100 possessions prior to Wednesday night’s win over San Antonio), and it is not a byproduct of a soft schedule. The new-look rotation has the feel of a genuine championship contender, and if the current torrid stretch of play continues, they’ll no doubt put to bed the idea that the team is not elite enough to house an MVP winner.
The NBA media is going to do its damnedest to stir up a debate pitting Jokic against guys like James Harden, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Damian Lillard. There’s a case for each of those guys, but when viewed holistically, there is no way any of them checks all the MVP “boxes” (statistical resume, availability, team success, individual importance, and narrative/approval rating) in the way Jokic does. He’s not guaranteed to stay healthy or to keep the team playing the way it is right now, of course. But speaking in terms of probabilities, it’s a good bet. His slow, ground-bound style allows him to be put in fewer positions to get injured — he’s missed only 20 games thus far in his career — and on a pure “eye test” level, the trade for Gordon really does seem to have unlocked the best version of the Nuggets on both ends of the floor.
Nikola Jokic may not be the image you see when you picture an NBA MVP in your mind’s eye, but you better start getting used to it, because he’s not going anywhere.