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Nikola Jokic Isn’t the Underdog Unicorn Anymore

After agreeing on a five-year max extension, it’s clear that Denver and the big man are looking to make a push in the West

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Around this time four years ago, the Denver Nuggets unknowingly struck gold when they drafted Nikola Jokic with the 2014 draft’s 41st pick. And on Monday, they made him their franchise cornerstone. Jokic and the Nuggets are reportedly nearing agreement on a five-year, $146.5 million max contract extension that will keep the big man from hitting free agency next season.

May the best contract in the league since Steph Curry’s last deal rest in peace. Denver had a $1.6 million team option to exercise for the 2018-19 season on Jokic, who averaged 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 6.1 assists last season. One more year at that price would have been a boon for the Nuggets’ cap space, but a risk for the homeostasis of their franchise; if the team hadn’t extended Jokic, he would have entered free agency next summer. And so, Denver will reportedly decline the option, and push in all its chips on the big Serbian, who the team wants to keep “for a long time.”

Jokic is shouldering much more responsibility now. He’s no longer the lovable underdog unicorn. He’s a max player now, and that means a lot more than just getting a bigger check in the mail, err—direct deposit. Jokic and his young teammates—23-year-old Gary Harris (who signed a four-year, $84 million extension last year) and 21-year-old Jamal Murray (who will be up for his own pricey extension after next season)—will be expected to produce now.

And though his extension was relatively uncontroversial, there are still questions surrounding Jokic’s abilities. On offense, Jokic’s deceptive moves allow him to be an effective near-7-foot scorer and creator. But on defense, the size that allows him to be effective on offense turns him into a plodding liability. Jokic isn’t a rim protector or a shot blocker, and the league knows Jokic is a max player now. That matters. Opposing players will relish targeting him in the half court and Jokic will have to speed up. Commence #musclewatch.

The end to the Nuggets’ 2017-18 season was a disappointment, as the team narrowly missed the playoffs after a late-season push. But a silver lining wasn’t hard to find. They could afford to miss out on the playoffs because of the youth they had at the forefront of the franchise. Now, with a flood of money coming Harris’s and Jokic’s way, there’s no getting around the fact the Nuggets will need to compete in the Mad Max chase that is the West to justify their recent moves. With Paul Millsap healthy after missing 44 games, he can finally fulfill his role as the perfect defensive big next to Jokic. But defense is a problem for Denver as a whole; the Nuggets were 26th in defensive rating this past season.

There was another bright spot in missing the playoffs: a lottery pick that allowed Denver to take a chance on Michael Porter Jr.—a top-5 talent who fell to them at no. 14 only due to his worrisome injury history. Porter could be injury-riddled his whole career; he could also easily become the best player in this draft. Unlike letting Jokic go into free agency next season, drafting Porter was a risk the Nuggets could afford to take. Having Jokic not live up to the expectations after the team chose to make him a max player, though, isn’t a mistake from which the franchise will easily be able to recover.