We’ve witnessed history this year. Between James Harden’s historic run in January, in which he averaged nearly 44 points per game, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s breakout season (three of these in a row?), and Paul George’s outburst on both ends of the floor, we’re likely to see a close MVP race as the season draws to an end.
However, I feel as though we’ve forgotten one constant throughout the season. The Denver Nuggets’ success has yet to falter, holding the second seed in the Western Conference despite injuries that have kept Paul Millsap, Will Barton, and Gary Garris out a combined 75 games to this point. The catalyst for the Nuggets’ success is Nikola Jokic, the 7-foot center from Serbia who, despite possessing a frame resembling a pastier Zach Randolph, can finesse his way to the bucket like a crafty forward, and has the court vision that, statistically-speaking, compares to a prime Andre Miller.
If you don’t watch the Nuggets, you would probably assume Nikola Jokic was a remnant of a dying breed — the big white guy who was only there because he was big. These guys were prominent when the NBA was in the midst of an ugly, ISO-heavy era that required big white guys to stand under the rim and rebound the ball while the guards did the heavy lifting offensively and made the highlight reels by dunking on those big white guys. But Nikola Jokic is a prime example of why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover because he can do this and this and this and much more. Watch as Jokic takes the ball from Mason Plumlee, hobbling around Plumlee’s screen like your pops at the YMCA, uncomfortably-yet-perfectly placing a lob pass up to Plumlee as he rolls to the rim for a dunk.
Jokic’s assist percentage, 37.8%, leads all qualifying bigs by nearly 60% above second place (Nikola Vucevic, 22.5%). For perspective, Nikola Jokic’s passing is so efficient that the difference between him and the next-best big in terms of assist percentage is about the same difference between the next-best big and the fourteenth-best big (Willie Cauley-Stein, 12.9%). Jokic’s assist percentage ranks seventh in the NBA, behind five guards and LeBron James. You would need to go all the way to 44th place to find another center. Nikola Jokic creates 17.5 points per game off of his passing, according to Second Spectrum data, which, again, is a few standard deviations from the next-leading big (Marc Gasol, 11.2).
And Jokic’s value doesn’t purely come off of his passing. That’s just the really fun part. He scores efficiently as well, posting nearly 32 points per 100 possessions at a stellar 58.8 TS%. While he doesn’t score at the same rate his competition might, the gravity that he commands due to his versatility as both an outside shooter and post-up presence has a great effect on the rest of his team, whose free-flowing offense is currently the fourth-best in basketball by offensive rating. Defenses who want to keep him from scoring run the risk of leaving a teammate open by helping or doubling him, which is possibly the biggest mistake they can make — Jokic’s incomparable court vision allows him to find an open teammate anywhere. Defenses who want to keep him from finding a teammate must deal with Jokic’s versatility as a scorer. Allowing him to go one-on-one with a defender doesn’t usually go over well — he’s a lethal combination of strong and crafty in the low post, and has a plethora of crafty moves to get his way to the rim in his repertoire.
Where Nikola Jokic’s greatest weakness lies — on the defensive side— we’ve seen astounding improvements from last year. In pick-and-roll situations, the Nuggets use Jokic to hedge onto the ball-handler (credit FiveThirtyEight), allowing a weak-side defender to drop into the paint temporarily while Jokic readjusts his defensive positioning. The Nuggets’ new defensive scheme has placed them from a bottom-ten team to a top-ten team within a year, all while keeping the same core as last year’s (though Millsap’s return from injury doesn’t hurt). Jokic’s rim protection numbers have steadily improved, as well — he allows 61.8% of shots at the rim, up from 66.8% last season. His ability to read the court translates defensively, as well. He ranks fourth among qualifying bigs in steal percentage, using his quick hands and awareness to make deflections and get into passing lanes. In clutch situations, Jokic’s defensive rating ranks the best in the NBA — perhaps due to small sample size, but significant nonetheless.
In the MVP case, Jokic fits right in. The big man ranks third in Total Points Added, third in VORP, and third in BPM, trailing behind Harden and Antetokounmpo each time. And where the MVP conversation largely depends on team success, Jokic fits the bill. He’s led a team in an intensely-competitive Western Conference to a second-seed place so far, trailing behind the star-studded Golden State Warriors, and it’s likely they’ll finish there. Nikola Jokic is the focal point for a young, freewheeling, and exciting Denver team, and his ability to see the game at an incomparably advanced level for his size has taken Denver from a middling team full of uncertainty to a strong contender within a couple of years. Despite Denver’s injury struggles, Jokic and the Nuggets have remained afloat the top of the standings. While I don’t expect Nikola Jokic to win the award, given James Harden’s unparalleled scoring run and Giannis’s dominance with Milwaukee, he absolutely deserves credit where credit is due.