Cannot you see? Nikola Jokic is the 2021 NBA MVP due to his imaginative and prescient
Nikola Jokic is out of this world.
Well, let's put it this way: This version of Denver Nuggets Do-All front man Nikola Jokic plays like the best basketball player in the world right now.
The skills, stats, and eyeballs all pass the same test; At 6-11 and 26 years old, Jokic is the most unique player in the association today. Because despite his fun-loving Joker personality and his unannounced path to the NBA via the 41) and perhaps his most unsolvable matchup equation.
If he takes home the MVP crown, he will be the lowest draft player in NBA history to earn the honor and the first in Nuggets team history. But how the Joker rose from the quiet second round selection to one of the most unguarded players in the world and the fearless leader of these nuggets, well, that's another matter.
"It's an algorithm," said Tim Connelly, president of basketball operations at Nuggets. "The game is running at half speed for him … he is impossible to guard."
Jokic's a problem, all right, one that 29 other teams routinely scratch their heads about how exactly you stop this guy.
That's because Nikola was busy analyzing the game at half speed for most of the six seasons, but the rest of the league is still trying to adjust to his pace. Which, as has now been well documented, is not exactly on the expressway. For an era based on extreme athleticism and fast-moving pace, it seems only appropriate that one of their most statistically efficient players should approach the game from a completely different angle. In fact, at the time this magazine went to press, Jokic was operating with the fifth highest total score plus or minus for a season of all time. The only guys before him? Stephen Curry (& # 39; 16), Michael Jordan (& # 39; 88, & # 39; 91) and LeBron James (& # 39; 09); not the easiest group to crack.
"I think just because you're slow will give you more options," said Jokic Dwyane Wade and the NBA of the TNT studio crew after beating Portland in February. “The game is so fast, but when you slow it down, you kind of slow everyone down and that's not their rhythm. If you can just freeze them, they'll play to my rhythm. "
Brilliant. It is also clear how easy the game is for Joker at the moment – and even easier to take for granted how often and successfully he makes the right move with every move. And because he processes the game on an almost molecular level, the opposing defenses have found that there aren't many ways to limit him. Leave it open on the perimeter or uncovered on the roll? He will bury the knight (good for 42 percent from the depth through 57 games). Push up or double up? He can look past the defense and tear you apart if you pass. Let him come down 1-on-1 on the block? It's a wrap.
“I think people overlook how easily he dominates the game from night to night. I just don't think he's getting enough credit for what he does, how he plays, how he sees the game, ”Nuggets Star Guard Jamal Murray told reporters in February. “He never tries to force it, always tries to make the right game and make everyone happy. It makes a lot of fun."
“I just think it looks like that,” laughs Jokic, explaining why he never seems to force game actions. “Sometimes I just maybe know what's going to happen. Maybe you know where (defenders) are from like they're going to double me up. Sometimes I just get aggressive and force it. Maybe it doesn't look like I'm forcing it, but I'm forcing it. For me it's easy to play basketball. "
That's actually a good way to put it, because in a season marked by injuries, infrequent rest periods and strict safety protocols across the league, Jokic hasn't missed a game. He also does this while playing the third highest total minutes in the NBA. Hell, despite a shortened offseason that got even shorter after Denver's postseason run to the Western Conference Finals in the Orlando Bubble last fall – overcoming two deficits in the 3-1 series – that's pretty much all Jokic has done just play basketball.
But to say that Jokic is the likely MVP, largely due to injuries to other Superstar players, is doing his performance a disservice.
He had a 50 ball that season. An 18 assist game. Fifteen triple doubles and career highs across the board with 26.2 points, 10.9 boards, 8.6 assists and 1.4 steal a game – all as both the center of Denver and the main ball handler through which almost everything in the Offense flows. In fact, the Nuggets local TV crew uploaded an in-game graphic showing Nikola Denver topping almost every statistic worth recording. According to Jokic, both he and the Nuggets play best when they're having fun, and that's exactly what they did with him at the helm. When the ball pops, the cutters move, and Jokic trades, everyone in Denver eats on game day.
"He has to be having fun," says Connelly. “He'll play with intensity but (we tell him to) take risks, do funky things. Don't play in a box. Have poor sales here or there; He's an artist, man. He's like a jazz musician, he doesn't play classical music. (Coach Michael Malone) and his staff did a great job. We want him to be that guy. "
Ahh, but therein lies the mystery of the modern professional athlete and marketer; Joker isn't loud about his skills. He's not on social media or proclaiming that he's the rightful MVP of a media scrum. "I've been an underdog all my life, to be honest," he says after losing 17, 10 and 11 in a Miami win. “I'm kind of used to it; for me this is a normal position. "
“I think he widened his eyes (to Denver); he wasn't a Serbian child prodigy, he wasn't a child prodigy, ”adds Connelly. “So his expectations were pretty modest. I remember the first year we met after the season, yo what do you think? He says I can't believe how well I played, I'm shocked that I can play at this level. So, I think (he has) that kind of humility mixed in with an incredibly tough competitive freak between the lines. "
Jokic is an anomaly; a basketball expert who regularly turns trash into gold. This is where the real genius of his game lies, in the small details that would otherwise pass by most players and fans. His use of leverage, touch, and timing is on another planet and his game is brimming with creativity. Moves that are normally intended for turnover actually become opportunities for him to attack. Take what should be a simple give and go between Jokic and guard PJ Dozier against the Detroit Pistons in early April. When Dozier attempted to throw him on the baseline to Jokic with a blind wrap-around pass, the ball was tipped and went in the opposite direction. Within a nanosecond, Jokic Water Ball turned it to itself and into the basket without having to properly collect the ball with both hands. It was the stuff of the cellar mini-hoop lore and yet just another footnote in Nikola's night.
And before falling victim to old and tired tales of defense and athletics, watch the man this season. Yes, Jokic isn't an elite shot blocker or making a push for the all-defensive team, but he's not exactly roasted on that end either. At this point in time, the Joker was in the top 10 in both rebounds per game and total steals thanks to his long arms and extremely active hands. He also ranks fifth in the NBA's overall defensive plus / minus of the season which fits well with his ranking of the first division in the offensive plus / minus. The Nuggets teamed him up with two hyperathletic big wings in Michael Porter Jr and Aaron Gordon, who fill the forecourt around him with size to allow Joker more freedom outside of color. Malone doesn't have to hide Jokic on defense anymore because he was actually pretty good at defense.
He also has 36 dunks and has 57 games, up from 26 in the previous two seasons combined. I know this because the Nuggets broadcast team keeps a very loud running counter every time it throws you down, followed by prompt yells to put you in the dunk contest! When asked how he could improve his airplay and challenge Gordon, a three-time dunk contest veteran, he gave a very Joker-esque answer.
“I don't know, it just seems like I'm diving in more – well, I'm diving in more, that's a fact. I'm just trying to be aggressive, ”says Jokic. He pauses and laughs sarcastically: "… and yes, I think I'm a much better dunker than Aaron Gordon."
Jokes aside, it's no secret that Denver demands a lot from their point center. You rely on him to control the pace and flow of an entire game from the top to the last shot. That formula is sure to be tested to its limit this postseason, where Denver will now be without the aforementioned Murray, who is recovering from an end-of-season cruciate ligament rupture in early April. And in the Western Conference it won't be an easy task; good teams are sure to ricochet off in the first round. Joker is sure to stay focused.
“To be honest, I don't find my life really creative,” he laughs. "All of my creativity is focused on basketball."
Compared to the majority of the league, this creative process can seem slow. But few can overwhelm an opponent or a statistics sheet as quickly as Nikola.
Tirelessly imaginative, effortlessly composed and absolutely handy, that is the Nikola Jokic experience in 2021. And in the end it is actually very clear what makes this season so special – despite the injuries and the outstanding play of his teammates All-Stars in the whole league, according to this author, Jokic is the deserving MVP.
I think some algorithms are easy to solve.
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Photos via Getty Images.