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Nikola Jokic Has Reshaped the MVP Conversation

Many candidates have had their moments this season, but the Nuggets big man has emerged as the clear-cut choice

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Nikola Jokic doesn’t look like a typical Most Valuable Player. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning two-time MVP, is a physical marvel, the type of one-of-a-kind athlete who can leap defenders in a single bounce. Jokic, meanwhile, can barely jump. But this season, the Nuggets big man has become unstoppable, even as he plays at a glacial pace.

Jokic is averaging 26.2 points on excellent efficiency from all over the court while posting 10.9 rebounds and 8.5 assists per game. He could go down as one of the game’s greatest passers ever, and the Nuggets are rightfully feeding him touches to generate baskets more times per game than any other player in the NBA. This season, Jokic has changed who he is as a scorer and defender, while simultaneously becoming one of the most dependable players in the league: He’s logged the second-most total minutes (behind Julius Randle) and he’s the only 2021 All-Star to appear in every game. Because of Jokic, Denver is still competing for home-court advantage despite dealing with key absences and recently losing Jamal Murray to a torn ACL in his left knee. This season, Jokic has been the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. But he doesn’t care.

“I never play basketball to win individual awards. MVP is something just the people in media are trying to make a story out of,” he told ESPN after the Nuggets beat the Clippers Saturday. “If it happens, it happens. As long as we’re winning, I’m happy.” This sounds like a cliché answer, but Jokic backs up the talk on the floor. Jokic used to routinely shoot under 10 times per game because scoring goes against his nature as a playmaker. But now he routinely attempts over 20 shots because thriving as a scorer is what Denver needs from him.

Jokic is a force near the rim. When he is single-covered in the post, the Nuggets score 1.1 points per chance, according to Second Spectrum. This number ranks sixth of the 39 players to log at least 100 post-ups without being double-teamed. If teams defend Jokic like this, he can score in any way, from any angle.

Jokic does ballet on the basketball court. Teams have only two options to stop him: They can hope he misses, or they can double him. Opponents will try to pressure Jokic with the hopes that he’ll pass. But the Nuggets score an even more efficient 1.4 points per chance when Jokic gets doubled-teamed, per Second Spectrum. Jokic post-ups present defenses with a lose-lose situation:

Jokic is doubled only 16 percent of the time on post-ups, which is significantly less than elite post scorers like Joel Embiid (31 percent), good ones like Karl-Anthony Towns (27 percent), and high-usage threats like Nikola Vucevic (22 percent). From the post and elbow areas, Jokic can score with the best or find the open man better than arguably anyone ever. That’s why teams are hesitant to double.

As the post-up fades across the league, front offices have begun refocusing their roster constructions to deal with quicker shooting threats. But the 26-year-old Serbian creates new challenges. Some executives think Jokic has become so imposing that every team needs a big man on the roster just to match his size in the post. This is why the Lakers were so aggressive in pursuing Andre Drummond. It’s why Ivica Zubac would play an important role in a Clippers-Nuggets series. What’s unique about Jokic is that he has the perimeter skill set to create issues for teams looking to match size with size.

The Nuggets use Jokic everywhere. He brings the ball up the floor, runs pick-and-rolls as a ball handler, and sets picks for others. He can even run off screens and hit jumpers on the move. He can hit 3s off the catch (at a 42.1 percent clip on this season), or drive into pull-ups and turnarounds ( 48.1 percent on all dribble jumpers). Jokic is a 6-foot-11, 284-pound guy who may not look like someone who can do everything on the offensive end of the floor, but he does on a nightly basis.

“It seems that he is able to fight through a lot of bumps and bruises that accumulate in the amount of games and the amount of minutes that he plays for us,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone recently said. “He is tasked with a tremendous responsibility of being the focal point of our offense and the anchor of our defense. He never complains. He goes out there and does his job to the best of his abilities, every single night. I think that’s what I respect most about Nikola: to go out there and do it every single night and not take a day off. Even when I try to talk to him about taking a day off, he wants nothing to do with that. It’s just not in his nature.”

This season, Jokic has also been at his best defensively.

The play above is a good example of the impact he now makes on the defensive end. As the Trail Blazers send Norman Powell toward the rim for a possible lob, Jokic shades toward the rim to prevent a pass. But then Jokic needs to step up toward Damian Lillard to defend a potential pull-up 3. As soon as Dame passes, Jokic hustles back to the paint to push through Jusuf Nurkic to be in position to alter the layup. He doesn’t register a block, steal, or even a rebound on this possession. But in less than 10 seconds, he stops multiple attempts to score and tips a contested board to a teammate.

“He is not the fastest, most athletic guy. But he is a master of how to use his brain to be in the right spot to give himself the best chance of getting those steals and deflections,” Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. recently said. In the past, Jokic had some fatigue issues that impacted his play, but even if it doesn’t look like it, he’s in the best condition of his life. And as he’s learned the game, he’s gotten even better at using his mind.

“Is he an athletic shot blocker? Is he going to be blocking shots out of the air? No, he’s not, that’s not his game,” Malone said. “But he has a high IQ. He’s the anchor of our defense. He communicates for our defense, and he does a lot of things that may not show up on stat sheets.”

Murray’s torn left ACL was supposed to spoil Denver’s season. But the Nuggets are winning without him, including nine of 10 since his injury, and three of four games the guard missed earlier this month due to a right knee soreness. During this time, Jokic has continued to post MVP numbers, but Porter has also made a leap from wow, this is a really good 22-year-old to wait a minute, has this 22-year-old just become a star?

Porter is averaging 24.5 points on 43.4 percent from 3 while tacking on 7.6 rebounds and playing competitive defense since April 6, when Murray first missed a game due to his sore knee. In Murray’s absence, Porter has picked up most of the slack. His usage is trending up across play types, especially since the Nuggets’ first game after Murray’s injury on April 14:

A New Path for MPJ

Play Type Per Game Before April 14 Since April 14
Play Type Per Game Before April 14 Since April 14
Off Screens 9.4 17
Handoffs 2.4 5.6
Pick-and-Rolls 1.2 2.9
Isolations 1.2 2.6

Part of Porter’s success is due to how seamlessly he fits with Jokic, cutting and running around screens and handoffs. Jokic has assisted Porter for 33 percent of his makes since April 6, according to Second Spectrum. But Porter is running more pick-and-rolls and isolations, and producing like the type of go-to scoring talent a team could lean on to win a playoff series:

Porter can fling shots from anywhere, with defenders’ arms in his grill, and remain unbothered. He drains in-between shots with pull-ups and floaters, and he’s improving at finishing at the rim. This isn’t just a hot shooting stretch, either; Porter has shot the lights out since he was a toddler. He’s thriving now because of the progress he’s made as a ball handler. In past years, he was relatively stiff off the dribble and lacked advanced moves. These days he’s unleashing complex moves and doing a masterful job of reading defenders before using counters to score.

Porter might be the no. 2 option even after Murray returns from his torn ACL. But having too many dynamic scorers is a good problem to have. The future remains bright in Denver. Jokic is only 26 and about to win his first MVP. Murray is 24. Porter is 22. Aaron Gordon, who has shined since being acquired at the trade deadline, is only 25. With or without Murray, this team is proving to be a handful this season. In the years to come, this young but experienced core led by Jokic could contend for championships.

Together, that’s the word,” Jokic said on ESPN. “Whenever we go to the court, I always say ‘together on three.’ If you put your mind in something that we can do something together, you can really do it. It’s not one guy. Nobody can win a championship or a game by themselves. I just think togetherness is something that keeps us winning games.” Jokic won’t admit it, but he sets that tone for the entire team. He is a dominant force who still epitomizes selflessness. That’s why Jokic is about to win MVP, even if he doesn’t care about the accolades.