Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
That is the list of all players in NBA history who have won back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards. Of those 12 players, nine are already in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame while the other three — Antetokounmpo, Curry, and James — are on the path to being first-ballot Hall of Fame inductees.
Soon, there will be one more addition to that list when the 2022-23 MVP is officially announced.
Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets superstar center, will be the 2021-22 NBA MVP according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN with an official announcement to come soon. This will be his second consecutive MVP award after earning those honors in the 2020-21 season as well when he averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists per game while playing all 72 games of the shortened season and leading the horribly injured Nuggets roster to the second round of the playoffs.
This season – after the one-of-a-kind season he had last year – Jokic had career-highs in points, rebounds and, miraculously, field goal percentage despite being without the Nuggets second and third best players virtually all season long. Ultimately, Jokic put up another never-been-done season as he averaged a completely absurd 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 7.9 assists while shooting 58.3% from the field; all while the Nuggets were completely decimated by injuries.
Denver won 48 games by the season’s end and, despite losing in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs to the buzzsaw that was the Golden State Warriors, exceeded expectations and the lions share of the credit goes to Jokic. Every single night the opposing team knew that without Jokic, the Nuggets could not win games. That information never actually mattered or created an advantage for Denver’s opposition and Jokic slowly and methodically destroyed every defense that was thrown at him by any team.
On offense, there is no way to stop Jokic anymore. He can hit 3-pointers if left open from anywhere, off the catch, with a live dribble or any other way he deemed necessary. If defenders started closing out to him at the 3-point line, Jokic had the advanced handles to dribble right into the painted area to collapse the defense and create a passing lane to a newly open teammate or score off the bounce at the rim or in the midrange. His post game is elite, he can his floaters with either hand from anywhere, he is untouchable when he gets near the rim, and is he strong enough to move 95% of NBA players out of his way to gain better positioning. He can hurt teams coming off of screens as an off-ball option, he is lethal in transition, can shoot over anyone in the mid-post, and he is an elite offensive rebounder. Oh, and he is the best passing center of all time and arguably the best passer in basketball today.
Even on defense, Jokic showed clear leaps forward throughout the season. For years, he was only effective when playing up at the level of the screen; dedicating two players to the opposing ball handler in the pick and roll to contain on the perimeter. The problem with that style of defensive scheme is it is easily schemed against. Opposing teams are inherently at a 4-on-3 advantage if the ball handler can get a pass off to an open teammate after Denver dedicates two players to the ball handler. Once the Nuggets defense is scrambling because they were caught putting two defenders on the ball, most plays would result in open corner 3-pointers or shots at the rim; two of the most efficient shots in basketball. Even if that scheme works momentarily, nearly every NBA team can counter that look because of the risk involved; especially in the playoffs.
This season, Jokic showed he had improved as a rim defender in a drop defense; when he drops into the paint on a pick and roll to attempt to get teams to take mid-range jump shots. That defensive style is paramount to Denver’s success limiting opponents in the playoffs when the game really slows down and teams begin hunting mismatches more often in order to create advantages.
Jokic was also better against switches as well as disrupting shots around the rim as the help defender. Those improvements combined with his elite rebounding and understanding of positioning allowed Jokic to lead Denver to a 108.9 defensive rating in his nearly 2500 regular season minutes which would be tied for fifth-best in basketball if drawn out over the full season. While not elite on that end of the floor, Jokic is no longer a defensive liability.
Most importantly, he fully accepted his responsibility of carrying the Nuggets from the first game of the season until Game 5 against the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. Jokic did everything he could do to keep Denver in contention. He led the league in both double-doubles and triple-doubles while also being the lone player who was top-10 in points, rebounds and assists across the entire league. Overall, Denver was 16.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor compared to off of it.
Jokic knew he had to play like the best player in basketball to keep the Nuggets winning and that is exactly what he did. No one in the league carried a heavier load and he handled it as well as anyone could; putting up game after game of MVP-caliber play.
Despite how much of a burden he carried individually, he always made sure to pick up his teammates along the way as well. Everyone on the team – with the exception of Facundo Campazzo – who played real minutes with Jokic had a positive net rating. Jokic was truly the tide that raised all boats and that was true even with the absurd amount of production Denver needed from him on both ends of the floor every night.
Even with all of that being said, Jokic is still just 27-years-old and he has accomplished so much with so few games with a fully-healthy rotation around him. If Denver is healthy next season and Jokic gets to operate with an actualized roster around him, it would not even be surprising if Jokic was even more impactful next season.
Who knows, maybe he can become just the fourth player in NBA History win three-straight MVP awards; a feat only ever accomplished by Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and most recently Larry Bird, who won three-straight MVP awards during the 1983-84, 1984-85, and 1985-1986 seasons.
Either way, as Denver gets healthier, Jokic’s scoring will naturally dip, but who is to say that won’t immediately lead to open shots for the likes of Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. as a result of Jokic’s dominance. Could Jokic average a triple-double as a center? Only Russell Westbrook and Oscar Robertson have been able to reach that peak, but Jokic nearly averaged eight assists per game despite being without Murray and Porter. If Denver is healthy and playing around Jokic as a hub to that level, how many games could they win? 55 games? 60 or more games? It is hard to put a cap on just how good Jokic could have the Nuggets playing if healthy.
Jokic is far from done posting never-been-seen stat lines and having never-before-seen seasons. And he is just getting started.