clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Nikola Jokic Has Serious, All-Time-Great Potential to Repeat As MVP

There have been only 12 back-to-back MVP winners in a league flush with transcendent talent. But the Denver big man is making a historic case to be the next.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Despite winning Most Valuable Player in a landslide vote last season, Nikola Jokic didn’t enter the new campaign as the favorite to repeat. At many sportsbooks, the MVP pick was Luka Doncic, another young European star, whose Mavericks will host Jokic’s Nuggets in Dallas on Monday. But Doncic’s career-low shooting efficiency, dips in points and assists per game, and a rocky overall offensive start under new head coach Jason Kidd—the Mavs rank just 19th in points scored per possession—have dimmed his shine a bit. Other brilliant superstars like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo have nudged past him in oddsmakers’ eyes.

Not Jokic, though. Entering Monday’s game, Doncic still sits just ahead of the reigning MVP among betting favorites to take this year’s crown, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. There are probably several reasons for that, including the idea that, in a league replete with transcendent talent, the people who vote on year-end awards (which, for the past two years, has included me) would be more likely to cast their ballots for someone else than to make Jokic just the 13th player ever to go back-to-back, even if he had a truly compelling case.

That may well be how it shakes out; an awful lot can happen between now and the “pencils down” call for voters at the end of the regular season. At the moment, though, Jokic is doing more than presenting “a truly compelling case.” The Nuggets head to Dallas riding a five-game winning streak, sitting third in the Western Conference at 9-4, in large part because Jokic’s encore to turning in one of the greatest offensive seasons in NBA history appears to be producing an even better one. I mean, just look at this shit:

Nikola Jokic’s MVP Encore

Season G MP PTS REB AST STL BLK TOV TS% USG% PER Win Shares per 48 Offensive Box Plus-Minus
Season G MP PTS REB AST STL BLK TOV TS% USG% PER Win Shares per 48 Offensive Box Plus-Minus
2020-21 72 34.6 26.4 10.8 8.3 1.3 0.7 3.1 0.647 29.6 31.3 0.301 9.16
2021-22 12 31.8 25.3 13.7 6.3 1.4 0.8 3.4 0.671 31.1 35.1 0.363 9.34

Fresh off a 22-19-10 triple-double to beat the Hawks and then hanging 28-9-9 on Portland in a breezy 28 minutes of floor time, Jokic is now just the second player in NBA history to score more than 300 points, pull down more than 150 rebounds, and dish more than 75 assists in the first 12 games of a season. The other, as luck would have it? Giannis, in the rampaging start to what would become his second straight MVP.

Jokic’s basic counting stats are impressive enough; he’s on pace to become only the fifth player ever to average 25-10-5 more than once, joining Giannis, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, and peak unleashed Russell Westbrook post-KD in OKC. The advanced numbers, though, are downright jaw-dropping: He leads the NBA in [deep breath] value over replacement player, box plus-minus, win shares per 48 minutes, player efficiency rating, estimated plus-minus, and FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR and wins above replacement metrics.

We often lapse into hyperbole when we use words like “iconic” or “historic” to describe things; such is the curse of writing on and for the internet. In this case, though, accuracy demands sounding hyperbolic: Jokic currently has the highest single-season PER and WS/48 marks ever. Like, “higher than young Kareem and Wilt, three-peat MJ, Big Three LeBron, or anybody.” Ever.

Jokic has been automatic from damn near everywhere on the floor—73 percent in the restricted area, 58 percent from floater range, 63 percent from midrange, 39 percent from deep. His shot chart is a grassy green plain in which wildebeests with supernatural court vision and pristine touch can graze and frolic peacefully. He’s averaging a career-best 1.363 points per shot attempt, good for 21st in the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s a remarkable level of scoring efficiency for a high-volume top option; the only player above him who’s not primarily a spoon-fed dunker or catch-and-shoot marksman is Durant.

He’s been clutch when the chips are down, too, shooting 54.1 percent on attempts taken late in the shot clock and a ludicrous 64.5 percent against “tight” or “very tight” defensive coverage, according to NBA.com’s shot tracking data. And in a season that’s seen the lowest number of free throw attempts per game of all time, Jokic has continued his steady stream of earned whistles, attempting the same number of free throws per minute as last season while drawing shooting fouls on nearly 14 percent of his field goal attempts. (He’s finishing stronger than ever through contact, too, turning more than 43 percent of those in-the-act hacks into and-1 opportunities.)

The only players who have ever posted a usage rate and true shooting percentage as high as Jokic’s this season are Steph and KD, two of the greatest scorers of all time. His offensive box plus-minus—an estimate of how many more points per 100 possessions you’re contributing to your offense than a league-average player would—is the fifth highest on record, behind only two MVP seasons (Steph’s unanimous 2015-16 run, LeBron James in 2008-09), James Harden’s boundary-breaking 2018-19, and Tracy McGrady’s sainted and too-often-forgotten 2002-03. That’s the sort of offensive company Jokic is keeping ... which is all the more incredible when you consider the context in which he’s keeping it.

It’s not that Jokic hasn’t had any help; Will Barton has been sensational to start the season, and Aaron Gordon’s slashing with a purpose, shooting 68 percent on drives to the basket. But with Jamal Murray still working his way back from a torn ACL and the newly maxed-out Michael Porter Jr. first struggling and now sidelined with a lower back injury, head coach Michael Malone has had to ask Jokic to carry an even greater workload, knowing that Denver’s offense is likely to crater whenever he’s off the court. (He’s not wrong: The Nuggets are averaging nearly 12 fewer points-per-100 with Jokic on the bench.) Jokic has more than met the challenge, not only producing at literal all-time levels, but doing so while also helping lead a shockingly steady Denver defense.

The Nuggets enter Monday ranked fourth in points allowed per possession outside of garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass; Denver’s been the stingiest defense in the league thus far per DunksAndThrees’ adjusted defensive rating, which accounts “for the strength of opposing offenses faced.” Jokic has been at the center of it, using excellent positioning and quick hands to generate blocks and steals at or near career-high rates, while averaging 2.3 deflections per game, tied for sixth among centers.

The Nuggets have nearly always defended better with Jokic on the floor than off of it, but that’s hit a new stratosphere thus far this season; they’re conceding a microscopic 96.6 points-per-100 in his minutes, and the film suggests he’s been less a beneficiary of good work by others around him than a catalyst helping lighten the load on his teammates. He’s looked a little bit nimbler when sliding his feet with opponents in space, whether hedging high above the 3-point arc in Denver’s preferred pick-and-roll coverage, or working in isolation against a driver from the perimeter:

When Malone has sought to vary the Nuggets’ approach, Jokic has also looked pretty comfortable sagging back in the cat-and-mouse game of drop coverage. It doesn’t always look balletic, but there he is, feet chopping, hands slapping to try to disrupt drivers’ dribbles. He excellently navigates the tricky balance between stepping up to stop the ball handler from firing a rhythm floater and staying back to prevent an easy lob to the roll man:

While he’s never going to be confused with Rudy Gobert or Myles Turner as a menacing shot-blocking threat, Jokic has been more active and effective at protecting the rim this season. Opponents are shooting 62.2 percent against him at the basket—certainly not an elite mark (29th out of 42 players to defend at least 50 at-rim attempts this season, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data), but his best since his rookie season—with opponents both taking fewer up-close tries and converting them less successfully when he’s in the game.

It remains to be seen whether the Nuggets can keep this up defensively. Opponents are generating a lot of corner 3s against Denver, but not converting at a league-average rate, which could mean some regression to the mean is on the way. Then again, even without a ton of shot-blocking in Denver’s rotation, the opposition probably won’t continue to shoot 70.5 percent at the rim against the Nuggets all season, which could even things out; it seems about right that Denver’s roughly a top-eight team in both its defensive shot profile and its effective field goal percentage allowed. If that remains the case—if Jokic has developed into the centerpiece of a near-top-five-caliber defense and has a legitimate argument as the most overwhelming offensive player in the league—then Denver deserves to be considered a true championship contender, if and when MPJ and Murray return to the fold. People then might start wondering just how loudly Jokic’s name should be mentioned in “best player in the world” conversations.

Nobody saw this for Jokic; if they had, he would’ve been the first pick in the 2014 NBA draft, not the 41st. But year after year, he has refined and sharpened his game, in the process advancing and amplifying his standing in the NBA: from backup to starter to All-Star to All-NBA and, finally, MVP. A month into the season, though, what might be the most surprising thing about the Serbian giant’s remarkable rise is something we all probably should have expected—which is that it’s not over. That at just 26 years old, one of the brightest lights and most singular talents in the sport could get even better.