Tuesday was just another day at the office for Nikola Jokic, who helped the Nuggets dismantle the New York Knicks with a masterful 19-14-15 performance for the team’s first win in 2019 and 24th overall on the season. Jokic’s third triple-double of the year was a beautiful display of passing, shot selection and orchestration of the Nuggets offense - and earned the center “MVP” chants from the sold-out Pepsi Center crowd in the process.
“You can’t not hear that,” Jokic said following the game when asked about the chants. “I like it. I like them loud. I really appreciate it. But let’s just go step-by-step.”
Step-by-step might be the right trajectory for the guy who didn’t pick up a basketball until his teenage years, was drafted 41st overall and largely flew under the radar in the NBA until halfway through his sophomore season, especially when compared to other superstar talents around the league. But there’s no denying it: Nikola Jokic is having an MVP caliber season.
That’s not to say Jokic will win the award. In fact, doing so will be very difficult. The last center to win the award was Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-2000, and since then the award has been dominated by guards and forwards. This season, it’s looking no different as the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Paul George are all pouring in high level performances. Even other centers like Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns are making a name for themselves with big-time stats and plays. The 2018-19 MVP race is deep, and in this era of the NBA where outside shooting trumps all other styles of play, a center like Jokic will have to have a truly exceptional season in order to garner the attention of MVP voters.
Regardless of how others’ might be playing, Jokic is having such a year averaging 18 points, 9.9 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game. According to Basketball Reference, the only other center to finish a season with such production was Wilt Chamberlain, who did so twice in the 1960’s while winning the MVP award in those years. Jokic is literally having a historic year.
More important than the stats is the impact he’s had on the Denver Nuggets. 35 games into the season and the Nuggets are first place in the supremely loaded Western Conference with a 24-11. They are two games ahead of the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder in the loss column, and four ahead of the surging Houston Rockets. And this has been largely done without key roster components due to injury. Will Barton has missed 33 games this season and is yet to return, and Gary Harris and Paul Millsap both went down in early December. Though both have since returned, the Nuggets went 5-3 in the stretch without both players, including convincing wins against Toronto and the Thunder. Jokic was the backbone of the team in that period and with the help of a deep roster kept the Nuggets afloat. His stats during those eight games? 22.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 6.5 assists.
With the return of Millsap, Harris and Barton on the horizon it’s likely Jokic won’t necessarily need to shoulder the load as much as he has during this run. But even then, this also means the Joker will have more tools at his disposal, more members of his basketball orchestra to conduct.
It also means Denver’s early season success likely isn’t going away. As long as the team continues to win basketball games, especially against good teams, Jokic’s stock as an MVP candidate will rise. If the Nuggets finish a top seed in the West (they are on pact to win 56 games – 10 more than last year) and Jokic maintains this level of performance, his spot in the MVP race should all but be solidified. He should be making his first All-Star appearance and could garner All-NBA votes as well. Nikola Jokic has been that good this season.
Jokic signed a five-year max contract this offseason for $148 million. He’s rightfully being paid like an MVP-caliber player. It’s time he’s recognized for it as well.
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