Monday night’s game was just another ho hum performance for the best player in the NBA.
When the buzzer sounded, Nikola Jokić had accumulated 35 points, 16 rebounds, and six assists in a 111-101 loss to the Dallas Mavericks. The Denver Nuggets were on the second night of a back-to-back, and it’s fair to cut the team some slack for this particular L. Following a five game winning streak at home, the Nuggets traveled to Dallas on Monday and suited just 11 players. Among the absences were big men Vlatko Čančar, Zeke Nnaji and Petr Cornelie. Oh, and Jamal Murray, Will Barton, and Michael Porter Jr., Denver’s starting perimeter trio, were all absent as well.
No matter. Jokić went to work with the guys he had, and the Nuggets were winning 58-49 at halftime despite facing a fully healthy Mavericks team on two days rest. Unfortunately, rookie Bones Hyland rolled his ankle and was forced out at various points, and his lack of production was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Denver lost the second half 62-43 and ultimately lose the game. It wasn’t for a lack of effort from Jokić though, who scored or assisted on 50 of Denver’s 101 points. He just didn’t have enough help, and a bench lineup featuring Denver’s deep reserves didn’t make matters easier either.
Still, Jokić continues to dominate in ways the league has never seen before.
I tweeted this out a couple nights ago, and let’s just say the reaction from the national audience was polarizing at best.
Jokić is so far clear of the best player argument. He scores like KD, passes like LeBron, rebounds like Gobert, and defends like...slightly buzzed prime Marc Gasol? That’s good enough.— Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn) November 15, 2021
For whatever reason, Jokić was notably absent from the highest tier of superstars in various best player lists produced by major outlets this offseason. He often ranked around fifth or sixth behind Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and sometimes even Luka Doncić. Denver’s quick exit in the second round of the playoffs at the hands of the Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns left a large mark on Jokić’s standing around the league. Larger than Golden State and Curry’s absence from the playoff field entirely. Larger than Dallas and Doncić’s second straight first round exit. Jokić, despite winning the MVP award last year, was set up to fail by several injury absences, and it seemingly had a large effect on his standing as a possible best player candidate.
Now, in the early part of the season, it looks like Jokić has taken his game to a new level in the face of additional absences from his star teammates in Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., and the league is beginning to take notice.
Going line by line, here are Jokić’s 2021-22 ranks comparing Jokić’s per 100 possession stats to the rest of the NBA (minimum 250 minutes):
- 40.5 points per 100, 2nd in the NBA behind Kevin Durant
- 21.5 rebounds per 100, 4th in the NBA behind Jusuf Nurkic
- 9.8 assists per 100, 17th in the NBA behind Darius Garland
- 2.0 steals per 100, 50th in the NBA behind Tyrese Haliburton
- 1.4 blocks per 100, 38th in the NBA behind John Collins
- 66.3 two-point %, 13th in the NBA behind Larry Nance Jr.
- 38.6 three-point %, 61st in the NBA behind LaMelo Ball
- 66.5 true shooting %, 14th in the NBA behind Myles Turner
The most notable changes for Jokić are improved scoring and rebounding. Though he was very strong in each of those categories in previous years, he has taken his game to another level in both. Among all players since the 1999-20 season, the only other center to exceed 40 points per 100 possessions was Joel Embiid last season. Only 21 other players have done it since the turn of the century, and Jokić’s true shooting mark is the third highest behind Kevin Durant this season and Stephen Curry during 2015-16. On the rebounding front during that same time period, Jokić ranks 24th in rebounds per 100 possessions as well. Among players to average at least 30 minutes per game, Jokić ranks 13th, right between Ben Wallace and Rudy Gobert.
Jokić isn’t thought of as a physically dominant player, but he’s become one of the most unstoppable forces in and around the paint. By blending his shooting touch and elite footwork with a raw dose of power every now and then, Jokić keeps defenses guessing. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter whether they guess right.
But Jokić isn’t known for being physically dominant for a reason. He has racked up years of threading the needle with precise and downright absurd passing. The numbers on the assists may be down, but the quality of the passes thrown remain in the upper echelon of all players.
The Nuggets have struggled to score around Jokić due to what has been a team wide shooting slump. It began with Porter but has continued with the majority of the roster. The Nuggets are currently shooting 31.2% from three-point range as a team. That ranks 28th in the league, just ahead of the Detroit Pistons and Oklahoma City Thunder, two of the worst shooting teams of all-time.
Still, Jokić’s passing remains sublime, and he still picks up assists every now and then. He and Aaron Gordon have formed a particularly potent off-ball connection, as Gordon has found ways to make himself available to Jokić on frequent cuts around the basket. Jokić rarely misses those. The paint is often packed though with Denver struggling to shoot that opportunities for easy baskets have been difficult to come by.
Still, Jokić is thriving on the offensive end. As great as he was last season when he averaged more points and assists per game, this season has been his best. He remains in complete control of the game, dictating where the defense goes and how the offense will generate the best possible shot. When the ball runs through him, it’s rare for Denver to fail to get a good look, as Jokić has been one of the most consistent hubs for offense over the last few years. It’s LeBron James, James Harden, Luka Doncic, and Jokić as the best combination of scoring and playmaking over the last two and a half years. Soon, it will be just Jokić and Luka.
And yet, the offense isn’t what has elevated him into the best player conversation. Instead, his improvements on the defensive end has reduced the number of arguments against him down to mostly narrative.
The Nuggets are up to third in defensive rating as a team, and Jokić is doing his part more than ever before. The Nuggets have a 97.4 defensive rating with Jokić on the floor and a 108.6 defensive rating with Jokić on the bench. Part of that margin is having his minutes tied to Aaron Gordon, who’s having a great defensive season, but the majority of it is Jokić finding ways to impact the game defensively on a consistent basis. The Nuggets funnel opposing offensive players into situations where they don’t allow additional opportunities beyond the first shot. When Jokić is on the floor, the Nuggets defense allows a 16.8% free throw rate, one of the lowest marks on the team. They don’t give teams free points at the line while Jokić is out there, instead having opposing players settle for floaters all the time.
Gordon and other on-ball defenders staying attached to their man makes Jokić’s positioning defense a lot more viable, and because most players don’t often plow straight into Jokić on drives, they often settle for tough contested floaters. On top of defending without fouling, Jokić’s rebounding closes the door on second chance points. When Jokić is on the floor, Nuggets opponents rebound just 21.6% of their misses, the lowest mark among Denver’s on/off splits within their rotation.
Jokić grabbing six additional rebounds per 100 possessions to start this season is just absurd improvement year over year.
To be clear, Jokić is a system defender. He does his job. He always has. The difference between this season and in seasons past is the additional responsibility he’s carrying on a consistent basis. Teams are putting him in the pick and roll consistently, and he’s responding by contesting more shots than ever before.
Opposing teams are having middling results against the Nuggets within eight feet of the rim. According to NBA.com, opponents are averaging 23.1 shots per game inside eight feet while Jokić is on the floor. The 57.7% allowed is a lower percentage than players like Bam Adebayo (59.2%), Anthony Davis (59.6%), and Jakob Poeltl (61.5%), three separate players considered to be better rim protectors than Jokić. The truth is, they probably ARE better if left to their own devices, but the Nuggets help out Jokić with their scheme because that’s what good defensive teams do. Whether Jokić is in drop coverage, playing up the floor, or occasionally switching onto the perimeter to defend in isolations (0.86 points per possession allowed, 57th percentile), he has been better than previous years and it has made all of the difference for Denver’s viability defensively.
So to be clear: Jokić is having the best offensive season of his career. He’s having the best defensive season of his career. His current Player Efficiency Rating of 35.4 and Box Plus-Minus of +14.5 would both be the best marks of all-time. He’s shooting a career high percentage on shots at the rim as well as shots in the midrange.
There’s no comparison for what Jokić is doing right now. He’s scoring at a rate similar to Kevin Durant and rebounding at a rate similar to Rudy Gobert. The assist numbers will come around when the Nuggets eventually improve their 28th ranked three-point shooting. The defense is better than it’s eve been before, and he plays similarly to Marc Gasol on that end (though not as refined).
Not a bad encore performance for the reigning MVP.