Let’s talk about Nikola Jokic

Feb 11, 2022; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) brings the ball up court against the Boston Celtics during the first quarter at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

With the NBA All-Star break in full effect, now seems like a good time for some thoughts about the reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and the subsequent narrative surrounding him as the Nuggets prepare for a playoff push. 

This NBA season has been a whirlwind with no shortage of drama and impressive play across the board. The Western Conference is wide-open this season with no true titan standing in the path of a conference title. The Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors are sure to be tough outs in the playoffs, but they are by no means unbeatable. This season, the Memphis Grizzlies, led by Ja Morant and company, are an electric team. Dallas, Utah, and the Los Angeles Clippers have all shown flashes of their potential, as have the hometown Nuggets. And, of course, you cannot forget about the Los Angeles Lakers, despite their overall record and struggles this season. 

Locally, Jokic has been nothing short of masterful.

He has single-handedly kept Denver relevant in the Western Conference while navigating injuries to Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. this season. Of course, the Nuggets knew they would be without Murray for a majority of the regular season, but the loss of Michael Porter Jr. presented Denver with another significant hurdle the team would need to overcome. 

The Nuggets entered the All-Star break with a 33-25 record, which is good for the No. 6 seed in the West. Denver’s current record is nothing to write home about, but when you factor in the absence of Murray and Porter Jr., it’s impressive given the remaining surrounding cast. The Joker averages 26 points, 13.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game, putting him within spitting distance of a triple-double every game. To put it simply: the Nuggets go as far as Jokic goes. 

Jokic is by far the most valuable player to any one team in the NBA. Without Jokic, Denver would be in the cellar of the Western Conference, and even if Murray and MPJ were healthy, I’m not sure how much better the team would be without No. 15. Take Jokic away from the Nuggets, and you are left with a rudderless ship.

Jokic ball has become Denver’s identity, and the playstyle has yielded success despite the injuries to the roster. With Murray and Porter Jr. expected to return at some point this season, the Nuggets have nearly as good a shot as any team when the big dance comes around. 

So let’s talk about the narrative. With his play this season, Jokic has once again catapulted his name into the MVP conversation and is among the favorites to win the award. Right now, the MVP race is a battle between Jokic and fellow bigs Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo, all deserving candidates. The MVP award is a popularity contest as much as anything, and Embiid has plenty of east coast folk pulling for him. Between his stellar play, ability to stay healthy, and the 76ers’ recent acquisition of James Harden, Embiid has plenty of juice behind to win the award.

Embiid is sensational and would be a deserving MVP. Even if Embiid wins the award this season, it might not necessarily mean he was the league’s best or most “valuable” player. Again, it all comes down to how the voters interpret to word “valuable”… sometimes, the line between that word and popularity can be blurred.

Not only is Jokic averaging nearly three more rebounds and four more assists per game than Embiid, but he also owns the highest player efficiency rating in the league without his two best scoring options. To his credit, Embiid has thrived in his role as the face of the 76ers since the Simmons saga began to unfold and has been relatively healthy. All of this feeds into a narrative, especially the Simmons drama. 

The sports media world loves these stories. Between the Simmons madness, Kyrie not wanting to get vaxed, and Harden eventually forcing his way out of Brooklyn, NBA media had a field day with juicy stories leading up to and in the season to discuss. And with Embiid playing so well in light of the drama, it only adds fuel to the fire. 

The Nuggets are typically out of the spotlight on a national basis. While the injuries to Murray and MPJ were covered this season, it did not seem to make waves for the court of public opinion for Jokic like it has for Embiid. It is what it is, but you simply cannot deny the extra juice attached with the Embiid narrative over that of Jokic and Giannis. The constant perceived lack of appreciation for Jokic tends to irk the typical Nuggets fan. While the Nuggets may not boast the most extensive fan base in the NBA, Denver fans are passionate and make their voice known. 

This even sparked a comment from Charles Barkley, who said Nuggets’ fans are whiny when talking about how Jokic is disrespected. I get where Chuck is coming from sometimes the feud can get old, but there are more than enough instances to validate the opinion of Nuggets’ fans. I mean, just look at the latest ESPN NBA MVP straw poll, where Embiid ended with a 35-point lead over Jokic. Keep in mind this is a poll of 100 media members, with at least two members from each NBA market. 

The Philadelphia 76ers center, who had 45 first-place votes and finished with 789 total points, was the only player selected to all 100 ballots submitted. Jokic, meanwhile, finished with 43 first-place votes and had 754 points — while being left off of five ballots completely… Had Jokic simply been in second place on each of those five ballots, the two superstar centers would’ve been in a tie.” 

I can get not voting Jokic No.1 on the poll, but for five media members to altogether leave him off their ballots is a total disgrace. How could you watch the NBA this season and not identify Jokic as a top-three player? That’s an atrocity. If that’s not disrespectful, I don’t know what is, Chuck. 

None of this makes a difference in the long run. Jokic is still one of the best players in the NBA, and the Nuggets are in good hands with him running the show. I just can’t put my finger on why the narrative is this way. What does Jokic do that prevents him from being catapulted into the spotlight like other players of his caliber? What’s the difference between Jokic and say Luka Doncic? Doncic entered the season as the favorite to win MVP and has yet to crack the top-three from an odds perspective. Both are sensational European players, yet Doncic is far more polarizing compared to Jokic. 

The only way I can explain it is that Jokic is NBA’s antistar. He’s the exact opposite of every prototypical NBA superstar. He doesn’t use social media, could care less about looking the “part,” is never seen out on the town, married with a kid, likes to race horses, and is humble as can be. His brothers look more like professional athletes than he does. Does that make him a bad player? Absolutely not. But does it make him easy to overlook? Absolutely. There’s an interesting comparison to make between Jokic and that of Tim Duncan from a narrative perspective. 

It was brought to my attention that many San Antonio Spurs fans felt a similar type of way when Duncan was in his prime. Duncan won two MVP awards and five championships, but he was never heralded in the way Kobe Bryant and other flashy players were. Why? Because that was the narrative of the era that he was marketed in. Duncan was as good as any player during his run, but he was far from the flashiest. 

Until Jokic and the Nuggets reach the pinnacle and win an NBA championship, the narrative around him will remain the same. Denver fans know just how good he is, and that’s not something to take for granted. Sports are an emotional aspect of life for fans, and seeing the hometown hero downplayed at times can be infuriating. Unfortunately, there is not much to do except sit back and enjoy the ride at this point.

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