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Will Nikola Jokic be an MVP candidate again?

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Orlando Magic v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

In the 2018-19 season, Nikola Jokic finished fourth in MVP voting. He averaged a double-double in points and rebounds with a healthy 7.3 assists per game. He was the catalyst for the team en route to their second-best record in the conference. Heading into the 2019-20 season, there were people that had him as a dark-horse candidate to be a contender to win the MVP this year.

The MVP race ended up being a two-horse race between LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. That doesn’t mean Jokic was never in it. In mid-December, he was playing like a true MVP. He was racking up high scores and triple doubles with regularity. While his solo stats rang true throughout the months prior to the shut down, the team was struggling, and he actually had a -1.9 +/- in the month of January.

All of that being said, we’re looking at whether or not he can get back to that MVP level of play now that we’re in the bubble. He’s looked a little deferral throughout the scrimmage games which is fine for games that don’t count, but, at the end of the day, this team is going to go as he goes. He needs to come out and show that he can be aggressive and take over games when that’s needed from him.

Give Him Some Time

Jokic hasn’t played organized basketball since March. He, just like everyone else, is going to come into these games a little rusty. The same thing happens every year at the beginning of the season. Jokic comes out of the gate slow, and everyone immediately panics that he has lost his touch. Then after a couple of weeks, he makes you leave all of those concerns in the past.

In October and November, he shot 47.5 and 45.1 percent respectively. He was averaging less than 16 points per game, and there was some cause for concern. Fast forward two months into January, he averaged 23.4 points, 10.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists while shooting 51.7 percent from the floor and 36.7 percent from 3-point range. He just needs time to get his feet under him.

Looking back at Jokic’s career, this curve at the beginning of the season remains consistent. He’ll struggle for the first few games, and, once he gets rolling, there isn’t a center in the league that can stop him on a consistent basis. If he is slowed down on offense at the start of the bubble, there are plenty of other offensive weapons that this team can deploy. Now, if everyone else is rusty, we might have some problems.

Tough Games Build A Resume

Denver is projected to have one of the most difficult schedules inside the bubble. In their eight games prior to the playoffs, only two teams are not currently in the playoffs. Looking through the rosters, everybody has a really good center. Some are good on offense or defense, and there are a few of them that are good on both ends. There is a debate among pundits about who the best center in the league is, and this is Jokic’s turn to make his case.

In college football, powerhouse programs will get knocked if they play softer competition throughout the year, and you’ll see smaller schools beef up their schedule with big names in a bid to get the spotlight on them a little more. This is basically what the NBA is forcing here with all of these strong teams heading into the restart. You have all of the best teams in one place playing each other. The war of attrition is going to be brutal.

Jokic showed last year in the playoffs that he can bang with the NBA’s best night after night, and he’s going to have to take that to another level for this. He’s going to be playing All-Star centers every other night for two weeks before the playoffs actually start. If he can come out of that with an impressive stat line, he’ll have put the entire NBA on notice entering the playoffs. Tough games like this are the ones where the best stars shine the brightest.

What’s This All Mean

Here’s what we saw from Jokic in three scrimmage games. Outside of the middle game against the New Orleans Pelicans, he took five or less shots in the other two, and he was consistently looking to pass the ball to his teammates. We’ll see from the jump against the Miami Heat if he plans to change that. They have a center in Bam Adebayo that will give him a different look thanks to his length and athleticism.

Jokic can back him up with his size like he does with most centers that he has a size advantage of, but that can’t be exclusively how he wins. He can win in any way necessary, and the team needs to see him do that. In addition to his slowdown, the team is still missing Gary Harris, who may not be ready to go for the restart. While Harris isn’t a huge offensive threat, that’s just more weight that Jokic has to carry.

Jokic is the best center in the NBA. I don’t know that there is another argument that can be made. Because of the way Anthony Davis is deployed, he’s probably going to get the first-team All-NBA nod, even though he’s really a power forward. If they stayed true to positions, Jokic would get it immediately. He’s been the best center in the NBA for the last two seasons, and his game remains constant because of how he wins.

I think we might see an even better version of Jokic once the games start to matter. His reduced weight will give him the ability to move better while maintaining better amounts of stamina throughout the game. MVP Jokic is going to come back in full force, and every center in the league is going to have their hands full when they have Denver on the schedule.