There may not be anything more awkward than watching the planet’s greatest basketball player lumbering up and down the court looking like last player on the planet who should be playing in what’s supposed to be the world’s greatest basketball game.
In a nutshell, that’s what it’s like to watch Nikola Jokic – a.k.a. the planet’s best player – playing in the NBA All-Star Game, a basketball “game” that suits him about like skinny jeans on Charles Barkley.
The Joker playing in the NBA All-Star Game? It’s a joke. While an extraordinary collection of the most physically gifted athletes in all of sports perform feats more likely to be seen in the X Games than on a basketball court, Jokic looks like the goofy 8th grader whose finally mastered the bounce pass. He’s dribbling pretty darn good, too, and it’s obvious he’s spent some time working on the ol’ Mikan Drill. Defense doesn’t exist at the All-Star Game, so it’s a good, safe place to work on the fundamentals.
This is not to say that Jokic isn’t the best player on the court. He is. In fact, last spring when it was time to vote for the NBA MVP, 91 out of 101 voters said just that. The Joker ran away with the MVP like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes. He’s still the best player in the world, but you’d never guess it this weekend when he’ll be showcased amongst the best of the best.
But Joker is not the only Denver Nugget who belongs in the NBA All-Star Game. In fact, a player far better suited for this particular game didn’t get the nod; his invite mysteriously lost in the mail. Actually, that’s not true – there’s no mystery. On a team that features the Joker, it would be pretty hard for Aaron Gordon to stand out.
Gordon, however, is the glue behind the Nuggets 33-25 record heading into the All-Star break. If it weren’t for Gordon, the Nuggets might very well be bringing up the rear in the Western Conference.
Ironically, Gordon’s game is tailormade for the NBA All-Star Game. He’s an athlete of epic proportion, incredibly strong and capable of taking flight over the biggest of bigs. Gordon should have won the dunk contest on two occasions, but somehow – some silliness by the subjective judges, actually – he’s never won one. Still, he’s a human highlight reel; he would be in the All-Star Game and is on a nightly basis.
But his game, at least by the numbers, doesn’t fly off the stat sheet. Gordon’s raw numbers are good – 14.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, .7 steals and .5 blocks – but they don’t shine quite like Jokic’s gaudy numbers.
Even Gordon’s advanced numbers, if you can trudge through the geek-ery, don’t suggest he’s among the NBA’s elite, but he is. Really, there’s no number that can adequately demonstrate what Gordon means to the Nuggets, or why he should be an NBA All-Star. Defensively, Gordon is easily the Nuggets best player – probably one of the best defenders in the entire NBA, but his numbers won’t say that either. But Gordon is a luxury any coach in the NBA would love to have.
Gordon can effectively guard 1-5. And he does it all the time.
What other player in the NBA – especially one who is 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds – can be asked to guard Steph Curry one night and Giannis Antetokounmpo on another? Gordon can effectively guard the oppositions best scorer for an entire game, while simultaneously able to switch off to any player on the court on any given possession. The term “position-less basketball” is most often applied to a team’s offensive style, but in Gordon’s case, it’s precisely how he’s utilized as a defender.
Gordon has never made an NBA All-Star Game roster; he might never make one. But for anyone who watches him play on a nightly basis, it’s impossible to miss what he brings to the Denver Nuggets.
Alongside the NBA MVP, Gordon in many ways is equally valuable. You won’t be watching him this weekend in Cleveland, but you should be.