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Nikola Jokić’s MVP case isn’t just about being the most available

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Availability and health are far from Nikola Jokić’s only reasons for being the Most Valuable Player

Philadelphia 76ers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

2,017.

That’s the number of minutes Nikola Jokić has played through the first 57 games of his 2020-21 season leading the Denver Nuggets. Jokić ranks second in the NBA in minutes and is the second player to pass 2,000 minutes on the season with only Julius Randle of the Tom Thibodeau led New York Knicks ahead of him. 2,000 minutes is a fairly standard number during a normal season, but during a condensed 72-game season, Jokić is one of the only players to reach that threshold.

Among MVP candidates, Jokić is the only one near 2,000 minutes at this current point. Damian Lillard is at 1,867 minutes—11th in the NBA—having just suffered an injury. Luka Doncić is at 1,790 minutes which ranks 22nd in the NBA. Giannis Antetokounmpo ranks 55th at 1,618 minutes. LeBron James is down at 107th with 1,388 minutes, and Joel Embiid is all the way down at 133rd with 1,257 minutes to his name this year.

In some ways, this has been a season from hell. Jamal Murray just went down for the season, and many players have had their fair share of injuries, bumps, bruises, and reasons to rest along the way. There’s no shame in taking care of one’s body to stay at peak physical performance and be ready for a deep playoff run.

And yet, the Most Valuable Player discussion has centered around injuries and availability this year. At various points, LeBron James, Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and many others were considered at the center of the MVP debate. All four of the above players have missed significant time, leaving many to wonder how to award the honor this season. In reality, all legitimate contenders for the MVP outside of Jokić have missed significant time.

For many, Jokić is the last man standing among a barren MVP field. What was once shaping up to be an exciting MVP race has become muted for so many. Jokić continued to play at the required performance level while the rest of the field was forced to bow out at some point or another. For many, the race felt empty, and now that we’re approaching the finish line, crediting Jokić probably feels like a chore for many media members around the national landscape. Maybe somebody else can jump back into the race? Maybe Joel Embiid can make a run at it now that he’s healthy?

After his latest performance on Monday, Nikola Jokić’s MVP case need not feel like a token admission. It will be an honor he has earned to the fullest extent.

Memphis Grizzlies v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Things started off slowly for Jokić and the Nuggets offense against the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday night. Though Memphis was starting rookie Xavier Tillman at center for the injured Jonas Valanciunas, they fed Jokić a steady diet of double teams early and often while playing the passing lanes really well. Indecisiveness and an unwillingness to take over early led to four turnovers for Jokić, and he exited late in the first quarter with just six points, a low number. for the Serbian center.

When he returned to the court, it became clear that the Nuggets needed Jokić to be a scorer. So, he became just that, scoring 10 of the 14 points the starters scored as a group in the second quarter. In the third quarter, he scored 12 of the 21 points from the starting unit, quickly exceeding his season average with 28 points through three quarters. In the fourth quarter, when Jokić began to see more double teams again, he added four assists to the six points he scored, helping dictate where and how the Nuggets were going to score their points in the closing minutes of the game.

Denver tied things up and sent the game to multiple overtimes through sheer force of will from Jokić. He scored or assisted on 32 of Denver’s 43 points from the moment he returned to the floor with 8:05 remaining in the fourth quarter. There was also a three in there that he had a hockey assist on, as well as the final two intentional foul free throws for PJ Dozier, who Jokić inbounded the ball to. He had his hand in almost every possession down the stretch, at least every successful possession, and he also hit the dagger three-pointer that sunk Memphis’ chances late in the second overtime.

Every MVP winner needs a moment. Voters want something tangible and meaningful to latch onto before voting for just anyone. Jokić was suspiciously lacking in the “moments” department that folks could circle as part of his MVP case. With Denver in a low number of nationally televised games compared to other candidates and Jokić underperforming in those select few moments, many viewers have gone without seeing a significant Jokić moment all season. Back on January 31st, he gave Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz the business to snap Utah’s 11-game winning streak, dropping 47 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists on one of the best defensive players in the world; however, that game was on a Sunday afternoon, not in primetime for the entire world to enjoy.

This moment may not fully qualify as THE statement game, but it felt significant. Joel Embiid had been building momentum with some excellent performances in wins for the Philadelphia 76ers, the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Though he had missed 18 games, there’s a very vocal minority of MVP voters that would still rather give Embiid the award over Jokić because of Embiid’s perceived dominance for a top contender.

Jokić dropping 47 points on the same night Embiid and the Sixers lost to Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors definitely stifled the momentum of that movement.


More than recent performance though, it certainly seems like the general masses are bored with Jokić. His game isn’t excessively flashy and dominant. The beauty in Jokić’s game is its subtlety, not the brute force nature of an unstoppable train like Embiid. Jokić finesses floaters, slings waterpolo passes, and flips in shots from below the rim. For some, that isn’t enough to captivate the attention.

And frankly, who could get excited about roughly 26 points, 11 rebounds, and eight or nine assists eeeevery night?! It’s boring if Jokić does the same thing every time by beating an opponent into submission in the quietest way he can.

Game 57 includes a 47-point, 15-rebound, 8-assist performance that was pretty, pretty good.

The Nuggets are probably going to need more than Jokić’s standard averages to finish out the season if they want to maintain their hold on a top four seed. The loss of Jamal Murray (and now the extended absence of Monte Morris) are sure to give Denver some troubles offensively. They will need their MVP to excel more than ever if they’re going to survive the end of this season.

But that has been Jokić’s calling card. He rises to the occasion every time the Nuggets need a big performance from him. Whether it’s in the regular season or the playoffs, Jokić answers the call. He’s willing to deal with the pressure and the consequences, and few players excel more than he has in those big moments.

In what NBA.com deems are “clutch” situations, Jokić has scored the third most points, assisted on the fourth most baskets, and grabbed the second most rebounds. He’s shooting 52.4% in those situations. He’s even tied for the second most steals in clutch moments, upping his defense in significant stretches.

Very few teams, if any, have asked any of their players to do more than what Jokić has done consistently this season. He anchors Denver’s defense, now tied for 13th in defensive rating on the year. He carries Denver’s offense, ranked third in the NBA in offensive rating currently behind two other historical scoring units in the Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn Nets.

Advanced metrics (mostly) have Jokić as far and away the most valuable player this season. Per minute, he has been incredible. Expand on that to account for the amount of minutes he has played, and the numbers are patently absurd to the point of lunacy. If he maintains the pace he’s currently on, he will be posting one of the most dominant single season campaigns in NBA history, buoyed by his consistency and ability to impact the game at a high level across many, many minutes.


So, while his MVP case is currently being dissected for holes, this year by Nikola Jokić will ultimately go down as an all-time great season. Just a few months after a Western Conference Finals run in The Bubble in September, Jokić started up his MVP campaign just before Christmas roughly three months later and hasn’t let off the gas pedal once.

Jokić is one of the NBA’s last remaining iron men, a modicum of consistency. He hasn’t missed a game due to injury since December 13th, 2017 (knock on ALL of the available wood) and hasn’t been forced to load manage any injuries at this stage of his career. That will always make for a valuable player because his teammates and coaches know they can count on him every single night.

Even in a condensed season marred by injuries to some of the league’s best, with injury issues plaguing the teams that made deep runs in The Bubble, Jokić hasn’t missed any time. He is reason 1, 2, and 3 of why the Nuggets have weathered the storm this year, from Jerami Grant surprising everyone with his departure, to Gary Harris shooting 7% from three-point range to start the year, to Michael Porter Jr. missing significant time due to COVID, to Jamal Murray going down with a season-ending injury. Jokić is the constant, the sun around which Denver’s heliocentric system continues to orbit.

In a Western Conference laden with talented teams, including two with the Jazz and Phoenix Suns that are built for regular season success, Jokić has helped Denver remain within striking distance. He carried Denver through a tough start early in the year, and his resilience has rubbed off on the rest of the organization. The Nuggets believe in who they are because they have Jokić.

Because they have the MVP.