Nikola Jokic is ambling his way through another All-NBA campaign, pacing the Denver Nuggets to the second-best record in the West - again - and putting the “who is the best center in the NBA?” question to rest.
Unless you’re a pundit, of course, in which case you tweet foolish notions like “Gobert is making Jokic look extra slow tonight” at the exact moment Jokic is becoming the ninth player in NBA history to post a 30 point, 20 rebound, 10 assist night. Or perhaps, “Jokic is gassed. Don’t think he’s in great shape” as he goes for 37 minutes in an overtime loss to the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, putting up 22 / 11 / 6 in the short-handed defeat.
Casuals and experts alike remain baffled by Jokic, a man whose body fat and athletic prowess feel more in line with a spectator than most of the greatest basketball players to ever live. No one will ever confuse his build with that of Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon or LeBron James. Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid both look far more like top-flight centers in the prime of their physical capabilities.
Yet it’s Jokic who is the best center in the NBA, Jokic who never misses a game, and Jokic who has a hand in everything Denver’s offense creates and yes, anchors their defensive approach as well. Joel Embiid is out declaring he is the best player in the world. Jokic is clowning at the All Star Game like he was denied the MVP trophy after the festivities.
And maybe that’s the issue: it’s just too hard to see the competitor underneath the softer exterior. So forget what he looks like and examine these numbers:
Top 3 in NBA history in career box plus/minus...— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) February 6, 2020
1. LeBron James (9.1)
2. Michael Jordan (8.1)
3. Nikola Jokic (7.7)
Players with career averages exceeding 17.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 5.0 assists:— Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn) February 24, 2020
end of list
Adam Fromal has had to update his graphics because Jokic stans were bombarding him about putting LeBron’s face over the top of Jokic’s (it’s done alphabetically) without looking at the more flattering issue: LeBron and Jokic are essentially the same person this year in terms of impact. You can see Jokic’s ear and shoulder behind King James’s face.
Let’s show that another way - tell me which one of these lines is Jokic and which is LeBron:
Those advanced stat lines are basically identical. LeBron still looks like a freight train of basketball greatness while Jokic plods around the court whipping passes and tossing up one-footed casual game winners, but they affect their teams the same way. Jokic is in his 5th season while the King is somehow in his 17th doing this, but it’s still an incredibly impressive mirroring act for someone who doesn’t look the part.
Looking the part - and acting the part - matters in an age of selling brands. Kobe Bryant coined himself the moniker of the Black Mamba: deadly killer. A common phrase for guys who compete hard is that they “eat raw meat,” that they are wild dogs out there. Jordan implanted the idea that it wasn’t enough to win without a certain viciousness. Even LeBron had to deal with this notion that he somehow didn’t have a killer instinct as he was dragging teams back and forth to championship series after championship series.
Back in 2013, LeBron gave an interview to ESPN and added this thought on the idea of killer instinct:
When people think about the killer instinct, they always think of MJ and Kobe. Do people underestimate your killer instinct? People say you have it but not like those two. Do you think you have it like they do? Ahh. I’ll just put it this way, man. There are different ways to hunt. I watch the Discovery Channel all the time, and you look at all these animals in the wild. And they all hunt a different way to feed their families. They all kill a different way. Lions do it strategically — two females will lead, and then everybody else will come in. Hyenas will just go for it. There are different ways to kill, and I don’t think people understand that. Everybody wants everybody to kill the same way. Everybody wants everybody to kill like MJ or kill like Kobe. Magic didn’t kill the way they killed. Does that mean he didn’t have a killer instinct? Kareem didn’t either. But does that mean Kareem didn’t have a killer instinct? The same with Bird. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a killer instinct. Tim Duncan don’t kill like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, but I’ve played against Tim Duncan twice in the Finals and I know for sure he’s got a killer instinct. So there are different ways to kill.
There are different ways to kill, and selling a brand has very little to do with winning basketball games. Jokic only cares about the latter and does it with a smile, or a shrug, or cussing in Serbian at the ref. But if anyone watching him thinks he’s not a competitor because he doesn’t look like the rest of the other animals in the league, that’s a problem with their perception, not his production.
A hippopotamus looks silly in the water, or running on land. They smash melons and dance with crocodiles - and happen to be one of the deadliest animals on earth. Jokic is silly, and he wrestles with his extremely large brothers, one of whom is a mixed martial artist. He makes funny faces, and then outperforms all his low-body-fat peers on the court. What he looks like does not define what he is.
Jokic is a goofy killer, but he’s still a killer. Some players are products of a system, some would thrive in any system as a weapon, and a few special players are the system. Jokic is the system, just as LeBron James is for any team he plays for. For as long as he plays, he will be extraordinarily impactful, driving proponents of the athletic part of the game of basketball up a wall while delighting those who appreciate his particular kind of magic.
But whether you appreciate it or not, do yourself a favor and acknowledge its impact - otherwise you’ll just look silly.