Nikola Jokic is having the best season of his career and allowing Denver to avoid a natural dip in regular-season wins.
During David Griffin’s brief media career between gigs running basketball operations in Cleveland and New Orleans, he popularized a term that explains so much about NBA superstars. Griffin loved to say that the best players (and LeBron James in particular) were that way because their ability and consistency allowed them to “dictate outcomes” more than the others on the court.
To reach that level, a player has to usurp gameplans. They can’t be taken out of rhythm or have their impact on a game limited. What Damian Lillard did in the Bubble was a perfect example. The Steph Curry takeovers we’ve seen this season have to be counted. The expansion of Joel Embiid’s game puts him among this crop as well. Players like this wield ultimate control over the game and can still play winning basketball every single night, even when the opponent is completely keyed into them.
Nikola Jokic has been on our social media feeds and highlight videos all season for his triple-doubles and newly slim physique, but the most important thing has gone under the radar. In a league — and a season — in which the premiere class of superstars decides each year’s championship, Jokic is increasingly proving himself as a part of that elite tier of players. Nothing is particularly new about how Jokic is getting it done, but a few differences make this the best version of Joker ever.
What makes Nikola Jokic different this year?
Jokic is dictating the outcome of every Nuggets game in a way he hasn’t previously and scoring at a career-best rate, but the feat is even more admirable because of the team context around him. After losing Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee in free agency, the idea was Denver was thinner and that their great chemistry might take a hit. The homegrown unit that blossomed in the Bubble was being broken up.
Outside of Denver’s impressive top eight, the end of the bench is filled out with wildcards like P.J. Dozier and Facundo Campazzo. Because Grant and Plumlee had high price tags and the salary cap prevented the Nuggets from replacing them, it was logical this might be a dip year for Denver. This was true because, at the same time as guys were leaving, Michael Porter Jr. remains raw and unproven. The future in Denver revolves around Jokic, Porter and Jamal Murray, but they are all still learning to play together, with Porter as the newest wild card.
So while everything was set up for the Nuggets to take a step back, they haven’t. The reason is Jokic.
The Serbian big man is averaging 26 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists every night on a career-best 56 percent from the field. His free-throw rate is also the best of his career. Though it doesn’t always look effective, most advanced metrics agree the big man is a plus-defender. Jokic, who was already an MVP candidate in 2020, has in his sixth season started off better than anyone could have reasonably expected.
There can be an unfair expectation foisted, on occasion, to incredible young players. When they are highly valuable and win consistently right away, a perception calcifies that they won’t get better. That’s hardly ever true, though.
The Nuggets were plus-1800 to win the NBA title heading into this season despite being one of the final four teams in the Bubble and losing a five-game series to the Lakers by a combined 22 points. This shows that Denver was discounted, and we can presume it is because of their offseason losses.
Oddsmakers were right. Expecting the Nuggets to sink was a safer bet than for Nikola Jokic to become some sort of Kareem-Oscar hybrid. At the same time, it seems short-sighted that we ignored that Jokic is still just 25 and had several more levels to climb to.
Watching Jokic in-person last weekend during a back-to-back in Phoenix, what stuck out most was that he is now truly impacting every facet of the game. In addition to post-ups and pick and roll, at least five percent of Jokic’s offensive possessions have come in transition, off screens, off cuts, and in isolation, per Synergy Sports play type data. He’s been elite in just about every category.
Compare that to someone like Embiid, whose offense comes predominantly from the post and hardly ever scores off the ball. The Nuggets run sideline plays for Jokic to take jumpers off a screen. The two-man game with him and Murray remains dominant. He is a good spot-up shooter. And there is no way to stop him in the post.
In what were effectively back-to-back, 30-point triple-doubles in Phoenix over the weekend, Jokic proved this. All season, the Suns have relied on the size they have on the wing to swarm opponents, overhelp, and recover to prevent threes. Against Jokic, that all fell apart.
With Dario Saric and Damian Jones sidelined, Jokic picked apart the Suns and then on Saturday single-handedly got Deandre Ayton into foul trouble. When the Suns switched or doubled Jokic, the above happened. In the second game, they tried to handle him solo more consistently, so Jokic got to the line 14 times while Ayton and Frank Kaminsky combined for 11 fouls. It starts to feel like another day at the office at a certain point, and that’s the leap Jokic is making in 2021.
Whether he will become MVP or not remains to be seen. The Nuggets only just put some distance between them and a .500 record, and Jokic’s turnovers have been a bit of a problem, as has Denver’s 20th-ranked defense. But Jokic is in control every single night and has put this Nuggets team on his back at a time when he absolutely needed to.
The normal waxing and waning of team-building don’t apply when you have a bona fide superstar in your corner. Jokic has this season officially announced himself as one of the elite few to whom that applies.