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No One Can Solve Nikola Jokic

LeBron James and Joel Embiid are worthy MVP front-runners, but Denver’s 7-footer putting up prime Russell Westbrook numbers—with staggering efficiency—deserves a seat the table

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Suns had fought long and hard, leading most of the way and coming several times within a hair’s breadth of victory despite playing without star Devin Booker. But it was getting late, and Nikola Jokic—having just played 40 minutes the night before to beat this same opponent—was getting kind of sleepy. So, as double overtime opened last Saturday, the Nuggets center decided the best thing for everyone was to just put Phoenix to bed. Y’know, so everyone could get a little rest.

Four possessions, four buckets, and an awfully tidy encapsulation of the figure-four that Jokic locks on defenses every night. Show him help in the post, and watch him drop the ball off to a cutter for a layup. Bring a double from the baseline, and watch as he slings a crosscourt dart for a wide-open 3. Play him straight up and a step off, and he dots your eye with the jumper. Play him one-on-one and press him tightly, and he backs you into the charge circle before softly dropping a hook in over your head. As you call timeout, he quietly rumbles back to his bench, and you quietly curse whichever god you pray to, searching for the answer that continues to elude you.

Nobody has solved Jokic yet this season. The Nuggets as a team got out of the blocks slowly, dropping four of their first five games in a disappointing start after making the Western Conference finals last season. (Maybe we should’ve expected some stumbling out of the gate for a team that lost rotation players Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee, and Torrey Craig in free agency.) But in contrast to past seasons when Jokic has sputtered in the early going, the Serbian giant has lived up to his superstar billing from 2020-21’s opening tip.

Jokic’s stat line this season is the stuff of Bill Walton’s most beautiful dark twisted fantasies. (Which, by the way: Can we make that a podcast?) He’s averaging 25.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 8.9 assists, and 1.8 steals in 35.5 minutes per game—all career highs, and numbers only Fully Unleashed Post-KD Russell Westbrook has ever reached. He’s shot 50 percent or higher in 15 of his 18 appearances and dished 10 or more assists in nine of them.

Jokic has been the beating heart and bellwether of a surging Denver side—winners of five in a row and eight of the past 10—that enters Friday’s meeting with the Spurs in fourth place in the West, within shouting distance of the L.A. teams and Utah for conference supremacy. And the closer the Nuggets get to that conversation, the more prominent a candidate their 25-year-old center becomes in a Most Valuable Player race that promises to be fascinating all season long.

There’s a reason that no true center has won MVP honors since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000; in an increasingly perimeter-oriented league dominated by big-wing playmakers, it’s tougher than ever for big men to ascend to stardom. Jokic transcends traditional strictures, though, by marrying a game that fits seamlessly into thoroughly modern offenses with a frame that would’ve fit perfectly into the “you’re going to bang in the post for 40 minutes” days of yore.

Jokic is working out of the post more this season than anybody but noted low-block mainstay/MVP rival Joel Embiid, and while he’s not living at the line like the Sixers star, he is getting there nearly six times per game, a career high. He’s also grabbing nearly 11 percent of Denver’s missed shots, his highest offensive rebounding rate in four years, and averaging a league-high 4.7 second-chance points a night. It rarely scans as dominant, in the same way that Shaq or Embiid might, but at 6-foot-11 and 284 pounds, Jokic is an absolute menace of an interior scorer to deal with, totaling more points in the paint per game than everybody but Zion Williamson, Andre Drummond, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

He’s a Mack truck with a master’s degree in spatial analysis, forever using his massive frame to get deep position, seal off his defender, and create angles for entry passes that he turns into layups. The somewhat slimmed-down Joker is also averaging honest-to-goodness dunks at a career-high degree!

Unlike statistical peer Westbrook, who averaged a triple-double in consecutive seasons largely with his relentlessness and sheer volume (plus a little help from kind and giving teammates willing to just box out and get out of the way), Jokic is burying opponents with an efficiency that borders on inevitability. He’s shooting 69 percent at the rim, 55.6 percent from midrange, and 84.3 percent at the charity stripe, a level of inside-the-arc brilliance brutalizing enough to produce a sparkling .644 true shooting percentage—a top-10 mark among players who have taken at least 150 shots—despite Jokic missing more than two-thirds of his triple tries.

That includes 62.8 percent accuracy on two-point attempts marked as “tightly” or “very tightly” contested, according to NBA.com’s tracking data. As it turns out, when you’re dealing with a 6-foot-11 dude with go-go gadget arms, a high release point, and a gift for improvisation, even the most smothering defense can do only so much:

Move from box score stats to the advanced stuff, and Jokic’s start to this season becomes even more unreal. He leads the league in value over replacement player, total win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, box plus-minus, and player efficiency rating. How rare is Jokic’s combination of heavy workload and scoring efficiency? Heading into this season, only seven players in league history had used more than a quarter of their team’s offensive possessions and posted a true shooting percentage north of .640, as Jokic is now. Five of the seven have MVPs in their trophy cases. Three—2012-13 LeBron, 2015-16 Steph, and 2018-19 Giannis—won the award in the season they pulled it off. (Full disclosure: A handful of other players are also doing it this season … including Embiid, my pick for the top player of the season’s first quarter.)

Only Luka Doncic has created more points this year than Jokic, who’s in the middle of the single greatest passing season ever by a big man. Jokic is delivering more assists per game and dropping dimes on a higher share of his team’s buckets than any other center in league history—even the version of Wilt Chamberlain who just matter-of-factly decided to lead the league in helpers one year, supposedly because he “got tired of being branded selfish.”

You’d never hear Jokic’s game described that way. (Quite the opposite, in fact; Nuggets coach Michael Malone recently joked that his star’s uptick in points and shot attempts this season came about only after “I locked him in my office one day and I beat him with a pillowcase filled with soda cans and said, ‘You gotta score more.’”) Which is kind of wild, considering Jokic has led the league in touches per game for three consecutive seasons.

Jokic’s all-court control has reached a new level in part because Denver has needed him to more firmly grasp the wheel. In addition to losing three rotation players and needing to integrate several new pieces—JaMychal Green, Facundo Campazzo, Isaiah Hartenstein, and a larger role for PJ Dozier—the Nuggets have also had to operate for long stretches without rising wing scorer Michael Porter Jr., who spent three weeks sidelined because of the league’s COVID-19 protocols. Making matters worse: Jamal Murray, Jokic’s partner in the two-man game, has looked less like the transcendent flamethrower he was in the bubble and more like the feast-or-famine performer he’s been for most of his career.

All that shuffling and tinkering has forced Jokic into a more universal role on a possession-by-possession basis. He has orchestrated offense from the elbow more frequently than any other player in the league, sprung teammates with big-bodied screens at a top-10 rate, and thrown more passes per game—90-foot outlets, 2-foot touch passes in traffic, and everything in between—than ever before. He’s worn the heavier burden lightly, boosting his scoring average, usage rate, and overall efficiency—an awfully difficult trick to pull off, the hallmark of only a precious few offensive players in the world. When Jokic is in the game, Denver scores at a rate that would be no. 1 in the league. When he sits, the Nuggets score like the 17th-ranked Bulls—one of the largest offensive efficiency differentials of any big in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Whether he’s bringing the ball up the court to initiate the offense, reversing it to the other side of the court to trigger a secondary action, or ending things with a pivot into a soft-touch finish, nearly every Denver possession flows through Jokic. This is especially true late in tight games; Jokic is second in points and tied for fourth in assists in “clutch” minutes. He’s no longer merely the sun at the center of the Nuggets’ offensive universe; he is the cosmos, somehow both all-encompassing and forever expanding, the team’s entire system of thought and seemingly limitless suite of possibilities expressed as a placid, well-ordered whole.

That might not be enough to win MVP—not when players like Embiid could make a more compelling two-way case (though, for what it’s worth, Jokic ranks near the top of the league in steals and deflections, and Denver has routinely defended better with him on the floor than off it through the years), or when all-time megastars like LeBron James or Kevin Durant might boast both incredible numbers and a more compelling narrative. If the Nuggets can stay locked into a rhythm, roll up some wins, and rise up to the top of the standings, though, it very well might be enough to put Jokic in MVP consideration. Production like this demands consideration; it guarantees you a seat at the table. People have no choice but to take notice when you become undeniable, and that’s exactly what Nikola Jokic is doing—with every moonball jumper, optical-illusion dime, and conscientious decision to put yet another opponent down for the night.