Nikola Jokić’s frontrunner status for Most Valuable Player started to become a reality on Jan. 31.
The Nuggets were still trying to find themselves at 11-8 and were up against the hottest team in the NBA in the 15-4 Utah Jazz in a Sunday afternoon clash. The Jazz were surging as they rode an 11-game win streak, with impressive wins over playoff teams like the Bucks, Knicks, Warriors, and Mavericks. That run didn’t appear to faze Jokić though.
Denver would go on an 18-8 run midway through the first quarter of that contest, all of which was sparked by its all-world center. Jokić seemingly toyed with a stout Utah defense, which had no answers for the Serbian. He would put up an incredible 22 points in the quarter, shooting 9 of 11. That was with Rudy Gobert, a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, spending the bulk of the possessions guarding Jokić.
In seasons’ past, that would be enough for Jokić on offense. He would play the role of facilitator, dropping dimes, setting screens, or grabbing boards. This time, Jokić wasn’t done yet. He would proceed to barrage the Jazz by tying his career-high with 47 on 17 of 26 shooting. With the Jazz choosing to double in the post, Jokić would connect 4 of 4 from downtown and went to the line 10 times – converting nine attempts. Only Michael Malone could stop the center that night. The Nuggets head coach would sub Jokić out with 90 seconds remaining as the team was cruising with a 18-point lead. Jamal Murray would playfully throw a towel at Malone, signaling his disappointment that his star teammate would not be allowed to go for 50.
That level of assertiveness is what elevated Jokić from being a top 10 player to being this season’s brightest star. The center would raise his aggressiveness in the postseason, but in the regular season, he would opt for the best basketball play as opposed to taking over games himself. Some of that is down to the Nuggets’ system of moving the ball around, but some of it also came down to conditioning. This season, he showcased the best fitness of his young career. That would be key for a Nuggets team that desperately needed Jokić at the peak of his powers.
Injuries, COVID-19, and roster turnover presented unforeseen challenges for a Nuggets team that rose to be a consistent contender due to its growth and stability over the past three seasons. Long stays like Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig left the team in free agency, while Jerami Grant opted against returning to the team. All three players had important roles in Denver’s surprising run to the postseason. The team started the 2020-21 campaign with seven new players, which played a part in the inconsistent first quarter of the season. From the opening tip against the Sacramento Kings to the final whistle against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Nuggets never fielded its entire roster for a game.
The Nuggets used 22 starting lineups this season. That’s a jump from the 15 they used the season before. Fortunately for Michael Malone and Denver, they had Jokić. For the first time in his career, the center played each and every game for the Nuggets. Jokić’s ability to make others better allowed Malone to literally plug and play in each game. It didn’t matter if it was a long-tenured player like Will Barton III or Markus Howard, an undrafted rookie, Jokić found a way to help make his teammates productive and win games. As a result, the Nuggets finished with their third consecutive season in the top three of the Western Conference.
There are countless reasons why Jokić deserves to be recognized as the league’s best player this season. Nuggets.com looks at three reasons why the Serbian deserves to hoist the award when the NBA announces its postseason awards.
Stats don’t lie
Jokić led the Nuggets, tied for the fifth-best winning percentage in the NBA at .653, in almost every major statistical category: Points (26.4), rebounds (10.8), assists (8.3), steals (1.3), field goal percentage (56.7), player efficiency rating (31.34). His points per game and assists per game were new career highs, with the center raising his scoring by almost seven points this season and his dimes by 1.3. He also tied his personal best on boards.
He was also an advanced metrics favorite. He was second by just 0.2 to Joel Embiid in Player Impact Estimate, finishing the season at 20.1. He was also second to Kawhi Leonard in offensive rating at 120.2. He had the fifth-highest assist percentage at 37.7. His PER of 31.3 was the highest in the NBA. According to Basketball-Reference, his value over replacement player was almost three points higher than the second-placed player in Stephen Curry at 8.6 vs. 5.5. Jokić also led the league in box plus/pinus (11.7), offensive box plus/minus at 9.2. Finally, Jokić was the NBA’s top-ranked player in win shares at 15.6. The second-placed player was Rudy Gobert at 11.3.
Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash, a two-time MVP, summed it up before his team faced the Nuggets on May 8.
“Clearly, I think Jokic is the MVP this year,” Nash said. “He’s kind of gone wire-to-wire at this high level. He makes his teammates better and everything go. They lose Jamal Murray and they haven’t really skipped a beat. That shows how good he is.”
Availability is the best ability
Out of all the MVP favorites, Jokić is the only one who didn’t miss any game time this season. Could anyone imagine where this Nuggets team would be if their leading center missed 10 or 20 games?
Curry, Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Dončić all missed at least nine games. Embiid missed almost a quarter of the season with 21 games out. While it would be unfair to rule a clear favorite for missed action, especially due to injury, Jokić was arguably the best player out of the group and didn’t miss any games. That again is a credit to the amount of work he put in during a short offseason and after every game.
“Some guys run from adversity. And some guys thrive. I think (Jokic) embraces it,” Malone said. “I think he’s at his best when his back is against the wall and no one is giving us a chance.”
Being more vocal
In years past, Jokić let his game do the taking for him. With a younger roster this season, Jokić became more active in advising players and helping the team’s new players fit in.
That would be a key factor when Murray went down with a season-ending ACL injury in April. Before the star guard’s absence, it wasn’t uncommon to see Jokić yelling from the sideline – especially in close games. Once Murray, another vocal leader, went down, Jokić almost became another coach on the court. His leadership and ability to instill confidence is the reason why players like P.J. Dozier, Vlatko Čančar, and Howard all notched their career-highs in points in a night while starting next to the center.