The Denver Nuggets have a problem when it comes to Nikola Jokic: either they don’t know how good he is, or he doesn’t know. Jokic not knowing wouldn’t be all that surprising; most mythic heroes are the last to know they are the repositories of greatness. Denver’s leadership members, however, are in a precarious role as his mentors and guides. It’s their job to get him to understand that the team will only succeed if he accepts nothing less than his own greatness, to buy in to the shared vision of a championship team built like none before it. And really, can they do that?
Joseph Campbell wrote about the Hero’s Journey, a generic compilation of traits that go into myths from around the world. George Lucas built Star Wars on most of the premises of that monomyth and how certain aspects of it seem to speak to who we are as a species, to the legends we create for ourselves to make sense of the world. He’s neither the first nor the last to do so.
Humans built narratives around events both in their own lives and in those of others. We find those narratives comforting even if they are a lie, because they make sensible order out of what is most times random chaos. It’s harder on those who are the projections of those myths. John F. Kennedy was not King Arthur and his America was not Camelot - that was some myth-making managed by his widow, Jackie Kennedy, just days after his death. Hagiography is much easier once a person is dead - there is no one to counter the projections of self and purpose.
Can myth inspire someone in the immediate moment of their lives, though? Denver has seen a hero’s journey in sports before, and I don’t mean John Elway. Elway was the #1 pick, the golden boy, the unquenchable talent. His climb to the Hall of Fame was practically pre-ordained in the way of LeBron James or Ken Griffey Jr or Sidney Crosby.
A hero’s journey requires humbler beginnings. It takes doubters, both from within and without. It requires obstacles to overcome and myths that make ordinary mortals into something more. This is the journey of Terrell Davis, from overlooked backup at Georgia to Super Bowl MVP who carried the golden boy on his back to their first championship together. It’s the story of Chauncey Billups, who bounced from team to team in humbling fashion before leading a ragtag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest to eventually claim a championship without a recognized superstar.
Those men had self-belief, and they held to it despite the odds. Chauncey wrote a tremendous article to his younger self, providing hindsight and context to a life that would have been much more confusing and frustrating in the moment. The pattern of a life is easier to see (or perhaps to construct) from a distance, when the threads make more sense. Patterns are harder to see up close.
The pattern of Nikola Jokic’s life does not look structured for greatness. He was the fat younger son of a small-town family, far behind a pair of older brothers who fought and drank and conquered their way out of their small corner of the world and yet fell short of their dreams for themselves. Their lessons informed the life of the youngest and most talented basketball player in their house - and perhaps their entire basketball-crazed country. Jokic was a Coca-Cola-chugging Mozart with a basketball, and everyone missed it. Everyone but the Nuggets, who took a flier on a pudgy center who could throw nifty passes and had nice touch on his shots, but would probably pass out if he had to play 20 minutes at an NBA pace. Against all odds, it worked - the Nuggets were blessed with a unique and amazing talent who would need to be shepherded through to greatness.
Denver have had a couple of options with Jokic: put him front-and-center (no pun intended) as the lynchpin of Mile High Basketball, or try to make it more of a team affair where the weight of the team isn’t all on one young man’s shoulders. They’ve consistently chosen to fall back to the second option, and yet every time they do that the team suffers.
Jokic is only 22 and may not be ready, but he is clearly the most talented player on Denver’s roster and one of the most talented in the league. Paul Millsap is a multiple-time All-Star and he is nowhere near the crucial piece to this team that Jokic is. But coach Michael Malone told anyone who would listen last year that Jokic was not going to be able to carry the Nuggets into contention just a few weeks before he made them the #1 offense in the league. The front office keeps adding pieces to say they are not a one-man army. Jamal Murray is a great future talent, they say, or Paul Millsap can run the offense like Jokic, or Mason Plumlee can.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but Jokic’s skills cannot be forged. There is only one. That may be scary for a team that has spent an immense amount of time and effort building a deep roster of equally-talented players, only one of whom exceeds the glass ceiling, but it’s still true. The singular transformative player on the roster right now is the Sombor native who would rather race horses than answer questions about NBA expectations in 2018.
Murray may indeed be a future star, but right now he’s just a guard carving out a niche in the league. Gary Harris is a few years further along that path, but he’s a weapon not the wielder. Millsap can do a lot of everything and will be a great piece for this team, but it is not his team to carry to glory. There is only one player on this team who can will them to the playoffs this year, and the Nuggets have spent two years telling him via their actions that they don’t believe he can do it. Last year he played second-fiddle to Jusuf Nurkic for a couple of months until that construction fell apart. This offseason they spent a lot of time talking about playing through Millsap, and Jokic spent too much of the first game not being the hub of the offense. Passivity comes from uncertainty, which is why expectations and titles are important.
Myth is important. When Gordon Hayward broke his tibia and dislocated his foot just a few minutes into the season, Kobe Bryant immediately took to social media to construct the myth for him that Kobe himself used to overcome that sort of setback. Myth lets mortals shake the pillars of heaven. I worry that the Nuggets think Jokic is some sort of false prophet, that he is not the Chosen One. I fear that Denver will squander a unique talent because he’s not the one they wanted, and they will not commit to maximizing him. And I dread that Jokic may keep that kernel of doubt inside him, that he is not the One. That doubt freed Neo in the Matrix, but it would shackle Nikola in Denver.
The Denver Nuggets have had several opportunities to tell Nikola Jokic that he is the One, full stop. They have not. Whether that’s because they think their champion has clay feet, or because they don’t want to take the necessary actions to follow up on that statement, the problem remains the same: an epic journey awaits the Nuggets and their fans, and Jokic is either not equipped or not empowered yet to do what must be done. Whether he succeeds or fails, he has to make the attempt to slay dragons and the longer Denver brass waits to give him that quest the more they injure their own chances of success.
Last year the Nuggets figured it out a couple of months into the season and missed the playoffs by one game. That cannot happen again. We are the stories we tell ourselves, and someone needs to tell Nikola Jokic that he’s both destined for and capable of the greatness that Denver has been waiting for over its entire 51 year history.
And then they need to get the hell out of his way.