We are 60 games into the regular season, nearly three quarters of the way. What were once numbers given a caveat of small sample size are now starting to fully take form. At 41-19, the Nuggets are clearly a very good team. The question of how good is still up for debate.
What’s no longer up for debate is Nikola Jokic’s stardom. In an era that prioritizes athleticism and three-point shooting, Jokic should not have reached the level at which he currently resides. While he has made major strides in refining his body throughout the season, he will never be confused with LeBron James or Zion Williamson athletically.
But what Jokic can boast about (though he never will) is his high level shotmaking and decision making in nearly every situation of late. He will have the occasional bad turnover, but those gaffes are a necessity to achieve Jokic’s best self. When the Joker is playing freely and having fun, he makes some incredible plays that leave fans and analysts speechless.
Very few players in the NBA can say they have better shooting touch on difficult shots that Jokic. It’s possible that Jokic is the best tough shot maker in the NBA today. From his clutch shooting numbers, to the awkward step backs, to the contested jumpers and floaters and layups alike, nobody does it the way Jokic can.
The floater zone
It’s no secret that Jokic best showcases his touch on floaters when rolling to the rim. It’s very uncommon for players, especially big men, to utilize the floater while attacking the paint. Most of the time, the goal is to roll all the way to the rim and either jump over or through the defenders attempting to protect the hoop. That isn’t Jokic’s game. He’s not going to out jump Rudy Gobert or go through Joel Embiid. So, Jokic shoots over those players with easy floaters.
Jokic also utilizes this zone in many of his post-ups when facing a crowd of defenders. Instead of trying to back a mismatched defender all the way under the rim or work harder for post position against a true center, Jokic is working smarter. He gets to a spot at which he’s comfortable attempting shots, and he’s making them at a high rate.
On shots attempted between five and nine feet away from the basket, Jokic is far and away the most efficient player (minimum 100 shots attempted):
FG% on Field Goals attempted from five to nine feet
- Nikola Jokic - 96/152 (63.2%)
- Jonas Valanciunas - 83/161 (51.6%)
- DeMar DeRozan - 88/172 (51.2%)
- Hassan Whiteside - 51/103 (49.5%)
- Tobias Harris - 68/138 (49.3%)
- Jordan Clarkson - 53/109 (48.6%)
- Kawhi Leonard - 61/129 (47.3%)
- Tristan Thompson - 62/133 (46.6%)
- Derrick Rose - 52/112 (46.4%)
- Nikola Vucevic - 72/156 (46.2%)
The best team in the NBA in terms of FG% from five to nine feet, the San Antonio Spurs, averages 46.2% from that distance. That equals 0.924 points per shot, and as long as a team gets up a shot, 0.924 points per possession (PPP). Most teams in the NBA avoid those shots as much as they can because they are generally considered inefficient. A trip to the free throw line generally yields 1.50 PPP. A shot at the rim generally yields close to a 1.28 PPP. A three-pointer for the Denver Nuggets (35.9% from three, 15th in the NBA and close to average) yields 1.077 points per shot attempt.
All of those distances are better than the average shot from the floater zone, except for when Nikola Jokic is taking them. No other player in the NBA can boast that (on high volume) they are nearly as efficient as most teams that attempt a shot at the rim. Jokic’s points per shot in the floater zone is 1.264, nearly matching the 1.28 mark for the average team at the rim and exceeding Denver’s average three-point numbers.
When the clock is winding down...
A growing part of Nikola Jokic’s game has been his sense of responsibility for the outcome when the clock is winding down, either on an individual possession or at the end of games. It has long been discussed that Nikola Jokic has hit the most game winning shots of any player in the last two seasons.
But there are different ways to be clutch as well. Jokic’s willingness to to take shots in the fourth quarter and overtime has grown as he has become more experienced and comfortable in his role. This season, Jokic has attempted 142 field goals in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, the sixth most behind only Zach LaVine, Trae Young, Donovan Mitchell, Bradley Beal, and James Harden. His efficiency in those situations (53.5 eFG%) exceeds all of them.
Having a center as the primary offensive option late in games can be difficult, but the Nuggets have found a way to navigate it. Jamal Murray is more than willing to take shots in those situations as well, so putting him and Jokic in the two-man game together generally allows Murray to set up Jokic in his favorite spots. Whether it be the floater zone as discussed above, on a pick-and-pop jumper, or in the post off a quick pass from Murray, Jokic has been able to touch the ball in late game situations.
He’s unique among centers in his ability to catch the ball and either shoot, pass, or drive to the rim late in games. Most coaches would be aghast if their center tried to drive to the rim from the perimeter in a close game. Jokic can do it regularly, even as a seven footer.
But the clutch factor for Jokic isn’t just limited to late game situations. The Nuggets frequently dump the ball into the post with less than seven seconds on the shot clock, hoping the Joker can make some magic happen. Don’t ask him to hit a three late in the clock (4-of-25 from three-point range with 7 to 4 seconds) but if you need a two-pointer, there are very few options better than Jokic. In the last seven seconds of the shot clock, Jokic has shot 102-of-173 from two-point range, good for a 59.0 2P%. That is patently absurd.
On the 91 two-pointers Jokic has attempted with the shot clock between four and seven seconds, Jokic’s 2P% of 59.3% ranks fourth behind only Steven Adams, T.J. Warren, and Hassan Whiteside.
On the 82 two-pointers he has attempted with the shot clock in between zero and four seconds, Jokic’s 2P% of 58.5% ranks second behind only Jayson Tatum.
No player in the NBA has attempted more shots in the last seven seconds of the shot clock than Jokic this season. Sometimes, it’s about being willing to take the shots, to look bad in certain instances for the betterment of the team and players around you. Jokic has grown into that role, and right now, he’s the best in the NBA to do it.
Imposing his will in the post
There are very few players in the NBA who can match up with Jokic’s combination of size and strength, and he’s beginning to expose flaws in the small ball era with his willingness to go to the post and put up an efficient shot.
On post-ups this season, only two players in the NBA have been truly dominant. Among all players to play 40 games and average 4.0 post-up scoring possessions per game, only Jokic (1.06) and Joel Embiid (1.12) exceed 1.00 points per possession. Some players have more post-ups than Jokic. Other players are more efficient. Only one (Embiid) can boast that he is more effective in a comparable volume of possessions. Interestingly, Embiid generally gets a favorable whistle and frequent trips to the free throw line, with 23.6% of his post-ups lead to a shooting foul. Jokic’s shooting foul frequency of 11.3% is less than half of that.
Jokic makes up the difference by being supremely efficient in his touches. His 56.1 FG% on post-ups is second in the NBA to only Giannis Antetokounmpo and his 56.7% mark. The difference there: Giannis turns the ball over on over 20% of his post-up possessions. Jokic is at just 14.3% in that regard.
So, Jokic puts the ball in the basket very effectively from the post, and other teams have begun to realize that simply letting him shoot from the post is a bad defensively strategy. Often, they will bring double teams to get the ball out of his hands. The great thing about Jokic though? He happens to be the best passing big man of all-time.
Maybe only three players in the NBA can make that pass, and Jokic is the only true big. Having a player to go to in difficult situations who can create a shot for others from the post just as easily as he creates a shot for himself is a dangerous weapon the Nuggets can build their offense around.
He makes different kinds of post passes when doubled. Not just the whip pass to the perimeter, but also the dump-off for an easy layup/dunk.
All of these plays are connected. Double Jokic at your own peril because other Nuggets will accumulate opportunities for dunks, layups, and threes. Single cover Jokic, and he has learned to punish all players, not just mismatches.
This is the version of Jokic that can carry the Nuggets to new heights in the playoffs. When he’s at his best, he can destroy opposing defenses in a variety of ways. This has led to his best month as a professional during the month of of February, in which he has accumulated 25.5 points, 10.0 rebounds, 7.2 assists, and 1.9 steals per game on a preposterous 70.2% true shooting. He’s in the best shape of his professional career at 25 years old, and he continues to set the bar higher for himself and the Nuggets, no matter how high.
This version of Jokic is the best player in the NBA.