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2021-22 Denver Nuggets Media Day Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Can Nikola Jokić defend his MVP crown?

We wrap up our player preview series with reigning MVP Nikola Jokić.

Nikola Jokić 2020-21 per game statistics

2020-21/ Games Minutes Points Rebounds Assists Field Goal % Three-Point % Box Plus-Minus
Regular Season 72 34.6 26.4 10.8 8.3 56.6 38.8 +11.7
Playoffs 10 34.5 29.8 11.6 5.0 50.9 37.7 +9.0

Overview

It was clear from the beginning of the 2020-21 season that Nikola Jokić was primed to do something special.

Jokić scored 29 points, grabbed 15 boards, and dished out 14 assists in the Denver Nuggets season opening loss to the Sacramento Kings. In the first six games of the season, Jokić accumulated four triple-doubles, missing out on six straight by just one rebound apiece. Rather than slow down after that, Jokić simply maintained incredible productivity, efficiency, and impact throughout the regular season. He played in all 72 games, outlasted other top players, and ultimately collected on the first (and hopefully not last) MVP award of his career at just 26 years old.

The Nuggets nearly caught up to Jokić’s individual greatness throughout the year. Jamal Murray started slow but quickly rounded into form. Michael Porter Jr. brushed aside the high expectations and ultimately became a borderline star running mate for Jokić and Murray in just his second season. Will Barton was playing a solid brand of basketball. The Nuggets had a solid mix on the bench unit. They acquired Aaron Gordon and looked to be the team to beat for a brief time. Then, injuries happened.

Jokić never slowed down his pace, his ability to carry the team, until the final moments of the postseason. The Nuggets were clearly outmatched by the Phoenix Suns without Murray (or Will Barton or P.J. Dozier at full health) and were swept in the second round of the playoffs as a result. It didn’t take away from Jokić’s greatness, but it did show that the superstar center needed more help than he received. The same could be said of every superstar on the way to a championship though.

Now, the stakes for the 2021-22 season are quite different. Jokić pushed hard for the MVP award when he knew it was within reach, playing in every game, helping Denver acquire a top 3 seed in the West even after Murray went down. The Nuggets went 14-4 in those games, and though Porter’s progression helped, Jokić was still the straw that stirred the drink at all times.

There’s a strong possibility that the Nuggets (and Jokić) play with the bigger picture in mind this time around. They want Jokić to be rested and healthy for a playoff run. Jokić wants that too. Pushing hard in the regular season with Murray already out many not be the best way to maximize championship odds anyway.

But one thing’s for certain: when Jokić is on the floor, he will dominate. Nobody can stop him but him.

Best Case

Perhaps different than any other player on the roster, the best case scenario for Jokić is one where he isn’t on the floor all of the time. The numbers and statistics that he accumulates would certainly push him closer to individual accolades, but that shouldn’t be what drives him this season.

Jokić’s best case scenario involves the development and excellence of his teammates around him. Rather than playing 35, 38, or even 40 minutes on a consistent basis, if the Nuggets can consistently win while Jokić’s minutes stay in check, Jokić will achieve the best of all worlds. He will be credited for Denver’s success as their best player in the regular season and perhaps win more individual awards in the process. In addition, Jokić would be far more rested for a playoff run if he played 2,450 minutes this season (roughly 34 minutes per game across 72 games) rather than nearly 3,000 (36 minutes per game across all 82 games). It may be difficult for Denver to accomplish without having a traditional backup center to rely upon, but between JaMychal Green and Jeff Green (along with the staggering of Porter with the bench unit) Denver can get it done.

Beyond improvements around him and additional rest, Jokić’s best case scenario also involves improving as a drop coverage defender, something he has struggled with since entering the league. He isn’t the most mobile or imposing big man, but being in better shape and entering the prime of his career means the possibility of improvement and consistency on the defensive end too. His ability to play drop coverage could have a massive benefit for the rest of Denver’s defense.

Beyond those things, just Jokić simply being Jokić would do just fine. It’s hard to improve on 26-11-8 on elite scoring and playmaking efficiency. Maybe 28-12-9? I don’t know. That’s unheard of, frankly.

Worst Case

The worst case scenario involves Denver failing to improve on the margins around Jokić to such a degree that he exhausts himself throughout the regular season. The Joker averaging close to 36 minutes per game due to the solution behind him being poor isn’t exactly a stretch of the imagination either. Without Murray, the Nuggets are already shorthanded on solutions to survive while Jokić rests. The bench unit at the moment inspires little confidence, and the idea that Porter staggering with the second unit, while good in theory, hasn’t manifested in the preseason thus far. The harder Jokić has to play during the regular season will likely have a direct correlation to his effectiveness in high leverage playoff situations.

There’s also the possibility of small regressions on the fringes of his player profile. He’s not going to become a significantly worse player or anything, but going from 38.8% from three to 35% from three isn’t an outlandish regression, nor is going from 56.6% from the field to 53% based on his shot profile. Jokić takes ludicrously tough shots to be making at such an efficient clip; if he misses those shots slightly more, the efficiency numbers go down and so does his lead on the rest of the superstars in the NBA.

Finally, there’s always the chance for injury, as bad as that sounds. If Jokić ever goes down, the Nuggets are royally screwed.

Bold Prediction

This might shock you, but I’m pretty high on Jokić this season. He’s very comfortable in his place on the team and in the league, and that will carry over this season. Jokić will average 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists per game while shooting 40% from three-point range, winning a second MVP award in a row while leading to the Nuggets to 50+ wins once again.

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Game Recaps

Recap: Denver dominates in the Garden 113-99 behind 32 from Jokic