It’s finally happening! Nikola Jokić has elevated his game to a whole new level this season, averaging a career high in almost all statistical numbers this season. He has already posted 9 triple doubles this year and has dug out his Denver Nuggets after a bad start to the 2020-2021 season, joining Wilt Chamberlain as the only centers to have 50 or more career triple doubles. Denver is currently 5th in a very loaded Western Conference and are trending upward with Jamal Murray slowly playing himself into his bubble form. However, the Joker is the centerpiece of this team and his brilliant way of conducting the Nuggets’ offense is deservingly putting him in the MVP conversation alongside Joel Embiid and LeBron James. Because of Embiid’s recent knee injury and the Lakers’ struggle as of late, I think Jokić is the frontrunner to be the most valuable player this season. I swear, I’m not biased! He is posting crazy numbers while being the most efficient player in the league, and has also made improvements on the defensive end thanks to his active hands.
What do I mean when I say he is the most efficient player in the league? Well, most of the advanced stats are screaming that the Joker is the best player in the league. He is leading the league in player efficiency rating that does a good job of describing a player’s offensive impact on the court and how efficiently he is producing. In fact, Jokić is currently posting the 8th best PER season in NBA history! There are doubts over whether or not PER incorporates enough defense into the equation, so a metric of player impact estimate was introduced. The Serbian Joker is doing great in that column as well, trailing only to Embiid in PIE this season. One would think that a stat that incorporates defense would favor Philadelphia’s center heavily over Jokić, but he isn’t far behind in PIE as one might think. His advanced percentages are also very good. Out of 23 players this season who are attempting at least 18 field goals per game, Nikola is ranked 2nd in efficient field goal percentage (Lavine is 1st). This can be credited to his outstanding outside shooting: he is shooting 41,4% from the three point line! As far as true shooting percentage goes, the Serbian center ranks 4th out of the afore mentioned 23 players, and it is very close at the top. Even the traditional stats are impressive for the Joker: 27.3 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 8.5 assists per game.
Jokić has a trait that all the greatest players have: he is able to understand basketball on a different level, creating opportunities for himself and his teammates. With his combination of elite touch and size, the Joker is a problem for any player in the low post as he can overpower almost everyone. He also possesses such a feel for the game that doubling is almost as hurtful as letting him play one on one. Jokić will always find an open man if there is one, which is why Denver’s offenses have been top 6 in the league since Nikola’s rookie year. This sequence perfectly describes the dilemma that opposing defenses face when playing against the Joker:
First, Richardson doubles in order to prevent Jokić to have an easy post up, but Barton is left open to attack the recovering defense which leads to an easy pull up. In the very next possession, the Mavericks decide not to double and defend the Joker one on one with Porzingis, but the Serbian abuses him and finishes with an easy lefty hook shot. No wonder he is shooting more than ever in his career-the guy is unstoppable! With enough repetition, Jokić has developed his basketball IQ to make reads ahead and recognize opportunities before anyone else does. Just look at how he recognizes that Kleber will help in on a Barton back cut, finding Milsap for a wide open three:
I have only seen a handful of players able to make reads like that, especially at such a slow speed like the Joker does. The Nuggets are second to last in pace, which measures the number of possessions compared to 48 minutes. Even though they are ranked among the slowest teams, they are the 3rd best offense in the NBA, showing maximum efficiency. Most of that is thanks to Jokić who takes his time to read what the defense is trying to do, but almost always makes the right decision. Nikola does that on defense as well. He has become a solid help defender this year and he is better on defense than it looks. Jokić doesn’t have the verticality to be an effective shot blocker, but he has a feel for positioning and can be intimidating with his big frame. The Joker also has very active hands. He is 4th best player in the league when it comes to steals per game, averaging 1.6 of those. This is a huge improvement, as the Serbian was always knocked for his lack of defensive impact. He finally rounded up his game on both sides of the floor.
Will Jokić win the MVP? Maybe not. This award has been followed with controversy surrounding how popularity earns the MVP over the actual performances. However, the Joker definitely deserves to win it if the Nuggets keep winning, and keep on the modern trend of international players winning the award. Knowing Jokić, he definitely has some cards in his sleeve for the second half of the season.