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Starting Five: Nikola Jokić is ripping opposing defenses apart at the seams

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New Orleans Pelicans v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

It never ceases to amaze how good Nikola Jokić is.

The most surprising play of the Denver Nuggets loss against the New Orleans on Sunday wasn’t Jamal Murray’s alley-oop, or the two free throw lane violations called on the Nuggets in clutch time. It was the missed Jokić three with the Nuggets down four points with roughly 30 seconds remaining in the game. After making clutch shots time after time to keep the Nuggets in games throughout the season, including some impressive shots on Sunday, Jokić NOT cutting into the lead was sort of a shocking moment. Nuggets fans have been spoiled by Jokić’s dominance in the clutch for the last few years. It didn’t work out on Sunday. C’est la vie.

For some, it can be easy to gloss over what Nikola Jokić is doing on a nightly basis as the current frontrunner of the race for the Most Valuable Player award. The Serbian center is in his sixth year of being one of the most consistent players in the NBA. The difference between those years and this one? He’s consistently ripping defenses apart at the seams on every possession.

27.1 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 8.6 assists per game on elite efficiency just isn’t normal. It’s one thing for a player maintaining Jokić’s volume of scoring and playmaking to be inefficient. That isn’t the case though, as Jokić makes the most of so many possessions by rarely growing overburdened with missed shots and turnovers from game to game.

All of that has led to the Denver Nuggets amassing a 119.9 offensive rating when Nikola Jokić is on the floor. That’s ranks fourth in the NBA among players averaging at least 20 minutes per contest behind Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard.

The difference between those players and Jokić? When the Serbian center sits, Denver plummets to a 103.5 offensive rating, a massive difference of 16.4 points per 100 possessions. The differences when Irving, Durant, and Leonard sit? 8.2, 5.4, and 10.8 points per 100 possessions respectively.

Very few players in the NBA have ever had that amount of impact on the offensive end of the floor. Let’s talk about how and why:


Scoring efficiently on inefficient shots

According to PBP Stats, Jokić is averaging a 0.49 expected eFG%. That means that on the shots Jokić attempts, based on the shot difficulty, location, and league average efficiency, a player that attempts those shots is supposed to average a 49.0 eFG%.

Jokić is at a 61.0 eFG%, which ranks 13th in the entire NBA and is 12 percentage points higher than average. That is absurd. Nobody else with Jokić’s scoring volume is averaging that high of a percentage outside of Zion Williamson and Zach LaVine, who’s having a historic shooting season in his own right. The difference between Jokić and those guys is the shot quality metric. Zion’s average shot quality is 0.57, taking mostly dunks and layups around the rim. LaVine’s average shot quality is 0.54, so his actual eFG% is incredibly impressive, but not the outlandish number Jokić is producing.

The above shot just isn’t easy at all, yet Jokić uses his feathery touch to hit shots like it with consistency. Using his gravity as a three-point shooter and his threat as a passer, he navigates around Josh Hart to a point just inside the elbow, hitting an un-block-able jumper that Steven Adams had no chance of bothering.

Jokić’s ability to hit shots like the one above consistently have allowed the Nuggets to go to him on post ups and isolations with consistency. In 6.0 post ups per game, Jokić averages 1.05 points per possession, which ranks in the 73rd percentile for post up scoring but third among high volume post players behind Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid. In 1.6 isolations per game, Jokić averages 1.18 points per possession, in the 90th percentile for scoring efficiency and highest among all big men. He and Embiid are basically tied in that regard.

Having a consistent 1-on-1 option can be debilitating for opposing defenses. Jokić often demands double teams in these situations, and he makes defenses pay more often than not. Forcing teams to double team on post ups and isolations helps Denver turn an inefficient play type into one of their biggest strengths. It tasks Jokić with making the right decision consistently, but he rarely has trouble finding the open man.

Assisting for dunks and threes

There may be nobody in the NBA better at creating efficient shots for teammates from the low and high post. When Jokić is a threat to score on every possession, it forces defenses to all be in concert and help out whoever is guarding the big man consistently.

Often, that leaves open passing lanes, and the Nuggets know that if they cut and move to open space, Jokić will find them for the open shot every single time.

The Pelicans guard the initial action perfectly, a 5-1 pick and roll between Jokić and Murray (another way Jokić flambés opposing defenses) with Bledsoe staying on the low side of Murray; however, Murray relocates to the left wing and replaces a cutting Michael Porter Jr., who takes advantage of Brandon Ingram overplaying on the perimeter. Jokić sees this and finesses a pass around Steven Adams for a Porter dunk.

Jokić also consistently creates open threes by drawing defenders away from his desired target. Whether it be with his own scoring presence or faking a pass to a different player, Jokić is one of the best at manufacturing open threes and delivering consistently.

Jokić dictating every action the defense makes while directing traffic so teammates will receive open shot opportunities is just incredible to watch. Other players can do this, to be clear, but Jokić does so with such efficiency and effectiveness that it can be extremely defeating for the opposition. How does one guard such an action?

They don’t.

Putback layups

These have to be absolute back breakers for opposing teams.

If there’s one thing opposing defenses want none of, it’s having to defend Jokić multiple times on the same possession. And yet, it happens frequently, with Jokić averaging 1.33 points per possession on 2.1 putback possessions per game. That’s a higher level of efficiency than any of the players averaging as many putbacks per game.

Watching Wendell Carter Jr. here is almost painful. There is a zero percent chance he is boxing out Jokić on this play, who legally tosses him aside like a rag doll to put the Serbian big man in the best rebounding position possible. Jokić’s hand-eye coordination helps him immensely on shots like these, because far more often than not, Jokić is going to use one hand to tip the ball back into the basket. He doesn’t need to jump above the rim on those possessions to be one of the most effective offensive rebounding threats in the entire NBA.

Ultra positive value as a playmaker

Among the 60 NBA players with a usage rate higher than 25%, Nikola Jokić ranks third with a 2.80 assist-to-turnover ratio, behind only CJ McCollum and Jimmy Butler. McCollum is mostly operating as a floor spacer too, rather than an outright playmaker for others on most possessions.

Jokić averages 8.6 assists per game, the sixth highest mark in the NBA and tied for the most assists for a center all-time with Wilt Chamberlain in 1967-68.

Jokić reads the floor well and often puts his teammates in the best position to hit open shots that he can. As Will Barton cuts through to the basket, Jokić finds the open pass to Millsap for a rhythm three-pointer, a simple pass that is incredibly effective.

Jokić also makes the hard passes look simple. Remember the 5-1 pick and roll I referenced earlier? This time, Jokić finds Murray on the backdoor cut for a dunk on the opening possession of the game. The window on this pass is larger than it usually is because Eric Bledsoe goes for a steal, but Jokić almost always finds the passing window with efficiency, even if it isn’t immediately open.

These plays are the ones where defenses feel betrayed by their own principles, schemes, and teammates. It puts defenders in a compromising position when Jokić can survey the floor at the top of the key and know that once Bledsoe is out of position, he can find anyone on the floor for an open dunk or three. If anyone helps too far on Murray, Jokić reads, reacts, and executes to perfection. That’s just how he systematically takes down the opposition.

Clutch performance

The shots speak for themselves, but let’s recap:

Late in the game and late in the clock, the Nuggets know they can give the ball to Jokić anywhere on the floor. He’s a dominant scorer in the clutch. On shots to tie or take the lead in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime over the last three years, Jokić is the most efficient scorer in the NBA.

Whether it be generating easy looks for himself in pressure packed situations or making difficult shots, the only player in the NBA that has a claim as “more clutch” than Jokić is Damian Lillard. This season, Lillard and Jokić are tied for the most field goals in the same situation outlined above, though Lillard has a higher percentage.

It’s can be tough to quantify Jokić’s effectiveness in these situations though. Sometimes, you just have to watch him do it.

And again...

Eh, let’s just find a YouTube highlight reel instead.


Jokić has an excellent argument for best offensive player in the NBA at the moment. The playmaking volume for himself and others is in line with other top players. The efficiency is unparalleled though, with the clutch shotmaking and playmaking rivaled by just one player.

It’s the reason why Denver struggles so much offensively when he leaves the floor. It’s easy to become heavily reliant on a player so good at creating shots efficiently for himself and others. Always hits the shooting pocket whether he’s looking or not. Draws the defense away to set up wide open shooting possessions. If none of that works, he pulls a Thanos and just does it himself.

At 26 years old, only Luka Doncic can compare to what Jokić is doing at such an age right now. Though Luka maintains a higher volume, Jokić has been more efficient. For years, James Harden has been the pinnacle of volume and efficiency from a superstar perspective. This season though, Jokić has reached and perhaps exceeded that point. The last time Harden maintained 65% True Shooting was the year he won Sixth Man of the Year for the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012. Jokić is doing that this year.

The MVP conversation has been convoluted all season long, with LeBron James being the apparent frontrunner, Joel Embiid taking a turn in the limelight, and now players like Harden, Lillard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo leapfrogging Jokić in many discussions. Whatever happens with the MVP, Nuggets fans know what they have in Jokić. They don’t need validation to believe that Jokić has had the best season this year. Almost every advanced metric says it, including some the show the gap between Jokić and whoever’s in second place increasing every single day.

It may take national folks and voters another year before they truly appreciate what Jokić is doing, and that’s too bad. He has been the best player in the NBA, full stop. Whatever questions one may have about his defense (mostly unfounded criticisms) it should definitely be noted that Jokić has been the best offensive player in the NBA by a significant margin. He has no weaknesses in his game. He shoots efficiently from every spot on the floor, and he’s at the very least a top three passer in the sport today.

It shouldn’t be this difficult to accept what he’s doing as legitimately great. Then again, very little makes sense about Nikola Jokić. He is one of one.