If you read a lot of the sports material generated by the Denver media, or if you follow many of them on twitter, you’ve undoubtedly noticed some high praise for Nikola Jokic, but just as there are those ready to crown him as a superstar, there are others who are equally, and rightfully, reserved with their expectations of the Denver Nuggets young center. It’s easy to see where both sides come from. On one hand Jokic is an tantalizing prospect, who has responded with every increase in minutes with a correlating increase in production. Every night people are tuning in to see what will the Joker do tonight. Will he finally get his first triple double? Is he going to tee up another no look over the shoulder alley oop pass to Kenneth Faried, or maybe he might punish teams for defending his passing lines by piling up the points with his superior mid range game. It’s not the flashy dunks and high flying athleticism were used to when it comes to NBA entertainment value, but it is undoubtedly entertaining and also statistically incredibly impressive.
On the other hand, Nikola is just in his second season in the NBA. While he certainly showed all the promise in his rookie season, which was good enough to finish third in Rookie of the Year balloting despite the fact Jokic was firmly planted on the bench to begin his rookie campaign, he struggled to adapt to the power forward position this season and the coaching staff, for whatever reason, didn’t feel Nikola should start over Jusuf Nurkic for a good portion of November and December. Comparing him to some of the Nuggets greats who have filled up the box score and the win column for the team year after year is premature to say the least. His brief time in the NBA has shone brightly, it is still nonetheless very brief. There is reason to believe that he could develop into one of the Nugget greats, reason to consider the possibility that someday a #15 Jokic jersey will hang in the rafters. That’s because, in many ways, the production Nikola is putting up this season has been unmatched in Denver Nuggets history. He’s on pace to do something that ranks with the likes of Alex English, David Thompson, Dan Issel and yes, even Carmelo Anthony.
His advanced stats this season are nearly incomparable
When it comes to trying to evaluate the total effect, whether it be negative or positive, that a player has on a team there have been several measures developed to quantify this as best as possible. Some popular advanced statistics for this are win shares per 48 minutes (WS/48), box score plus minus (BPM) and player efficiency rating (PER). How does Jokic stand up to some of those greats mentioned earlier in their best season wearing a Nuggets uniform? The table below breaks it down.
Jokic vs the greats
By every measure, the Joker’s season is superior. Now, there’s some holes that can be poked in this argument. These stats are weighted against the league, and some will make the argument that the heyday of the Nuggets 80s greats such as English and Vandeweghe were played during a time when the talent in the league was richer and therefore Jokic’s stats are inflated in comparison. Jokic is only halfway through his sophomore campaign, whereas every other player in the table put in a full seasons body of work. There’s also arguments to be made that these quantitative measures are imperfect and don’t necessarily tell the same story as the eye test.
Brief eye test intermission
Jokic will show out in the Rising Stars game, it'll be alot of fans' introduction to him pic.twitter.com/yeoeO5kKgF— Lebron James Harden (@lbjamesharden) January 27, 2017
Yet as great as his season has been, when it comes to annointing him an all time great there is still the longevity argument which is the rightful and correct counter argument. Indeed, a far more reasonable statement to make is that Nikola Jokic is on pace to have arguably the greatest season by a Nugget ever...and yet, there’s a counter argument to that statement too. Enter Spencer Haywood. Haywood played just one season with the Nuggets, his rookie year (and no you’re not going to argue a technicality that the team was actually called the Rockets so Haywood was never a Nugget) and statistically there has never been a better performance. There is no BPM statistic for that season as the ABA did not track steals or blocks which are figured into the BPM equation, but Haywood’s PER was 28.0, which is the only recorded PER in Denver history to be higher than Nikola’s current 26.3. However, his WS/48 was .216 which is slightly below Jokic’s pace this year. Stepping outside the advance stats though it’s hard to argue the Joker’s season is superior to the 30 point, 19.5 rebounds per game that Haywood produced his rookie season. Granted Haywood played an absurd 45 minutes per game, but the fact of the matter is he won the MVP award as a rookie, a feat only shared with Wes Unseld and Wilt Chamberlain.
Unfortunately for Jokic though, two seasons of impressive play and growth do not yet put him in the same conversation as the likes of English, Thompson, Issel or even Melo in terms of greatness. There are countless examples of players who looked like sure stars that ended up not becoming an all time great due to one reason or another (almost always because of injury). We’re not talking guys like Greg Oden, who were highly touted out of college and never amounted to anything in the NBA because they were never healthy to begin with. We’re talking about Derrick Rose, a former MVP who seemed destined for greatness until knee injuries made him far less effective. We’re talking about Grant Hill who was touted as the next Michael Jordan and put up some incredibly impressive numbers before an ankle injury hampered him for many years to come. We’re talking Penny Hardaway who’s star shone so bright that Shaquille O’neal wanted out of Orlando, only to see Hardaway’s athletic ability that made him so special be taken by a devastating knee injury just like Rose.
Those are all examples of guys around the NBA, but there’s a great parallel to be made with a former Nugget as well. LaPhonso Ellis will never be mentioned in the discussion of who is the best Nugget ever but he seemed to be well on his way in the early 90s. Like Jokic, Ellis was a young and exciting player who many viewed as the marquee piece of a youth movement that was turning the corner towards contention. Like Jokic, he had a stellar rookie season despite the team falling short of making the playoffs and hopefully Jokic can follow in Ellis’ footsteps in leading his team to the playoffs in his sophomore season. Maybe it’s just an 8 seed, but Ellis and the Nuggets sure made noise when they gained the final playoff berth in 1994. However, it’s a cautionary tale when anointing a player as one of the greats before he’s put in the time. Ask anyone who watched (or in the case of yours truly, listened to) that 93-94 Nuggets team and they’ll tell you that while Dikembe Mutombo is the most well known from that year due to his iconic photo, it was Ellis who carried the team and had the whole city abuzz about the next great Nuggets star. The following offseason though Ellis would break his knee cap in a pickup basketball game and never would be the same.
I have, and will continue, to maintain that Nikola Jokic is a star player. He has the numbers to back it up, even if he hasn’t gained the national recognition, and guys like Hill, Hardaway and Rose show that someone can be a star player in a certain year and not necessarily be an all time great player, or even a star player later in their career. However, calling him great or comparing him to the best to ever don a Denver uniform is pre-mature. It’s no fault of Nikola’s, its just that time and time again we’ve been shown that things often don’t go as planned in the NBA. In Nikola’s favor, unlike all those others mentioned whose careers were diminished by injury, athleticism is not a large part of his game. Hip flexor strains and banged up wrists can slow him down, but Jokic’s skill is largely based in his basketball IQ, something that is far more difficult to injure. Does this mean he’s a shoo in for the hall of fame? Of course not, but his risk of career derailment due to injury is mitigated by that fact. All in all, Jokic is putting together one of the greatest seasons we’ve seen from a Nugget, but he’ll need to do it for a lot longer before he is one of the greatest Nuggets.