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Will Nikola Jokić crack the NBA’s list of 75 greatest players in 75 years?

Will there be any Nuggets players to represent the NBA’s elite?

2021 NBA Playoffs - Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

To celebrate 75 years of professional basketball as the NBA (and BAA from 1946 to 1949), the league has decided to reintroduce a list that held significant popularity back in 1996.

The NBA 75 at 75.

Back in 1996, the NBA celebrated its 50-year anniversary by pooling together the best basketball minds in media to create a list of the greatest 50 players in league history. From George Mikan and Bill Russell to Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, the best of the best were featured in a list that helped tie the league back to its history, celebrating the pioneers of basketball. It was difficult to whittle the list down to just 50 names, but the NBA did it, making some questionable decisions in the process. Earl Monroe over Dominique Wilkins is questionable on the best of days and insulting on others.

The original list of the NBA’s Top 50 players at the 50 year anniversary can be found here.

Now in 2021, 25 years after the original 50 at 50 list dropped, the NBA is also putting together its list of the top 75 players in NBA history to celebrate its 75-year milestone.

There have been many deserving players to grace the game of basketball in the last 25 years. In just the 1996 draft class alone, the year the list was released, the late Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, and Ray Allen were all selected. All are likely to show up on the next iteration of this list after long, storied careers. Kevin Garnett was drafted the year prior in 1995. Tim Duncan was drafted the year after in 1997. Very few will argue with those names belonging on the list of the NBA’s greatest, and there are many more names to cover.

For the Denver Nuggets, Alex English missed out on his inclusion on the original list in 1996. Despite scoring the 20th most points in NBA history, English may not find his way onto the newest version in 2021. The same goes for David Thompson whose peak, albeit extremely bright, was too short to be placed on such an exclusive list. Perhaps Dikembe Mutumbo will make his way on as one of the most impactful rim protectors in the league’s history. Carmelo Anthony, though he spent nearly 6,000 more minutes as a Nugget, has the greatest chance of finding placement on this list and will more than likely be remembered for his time with the New York Knicks.

That leaves just one candidate to truly represent the Denver Nuggets as one of the greatest players the league has ever seen:

Nikola Jokić.

The current MVP and superstar center has played just six seasons for the Nuggets to date. He has yet to win a championship. He has “only” been award three All-Star and three All-NBA teams. Many fans would argue that he hasn’t been one of the very best players in the league until just this season (I would disagree, he’s been at that level for some time).

In a world where legacy and longevity are celebrated, where the league is doing its best to preserve the history, would the NBA and the voters for this list really kick off one of its historical figures to include a player with just six years under his belt?

They should. And they better.

The Minnesota Timberwolves played the Denver Nuggets Photo by Carlos Gonzalez/Star Tribune via Getty Images

The numbers that Nikola Jokić is averaging for his career are patently absurd. Here are his rankings in a variety of different categories in NBA history through just six seasons, via Stathead:

(Per game number ranks were measured using a qualifier of at least 10,000 total minutes played in the NBA)

Nikola Jokić career ranks

  • Points: 8,360 (487th)
  • Points per game: 18.5 (106th)
  • Rebounds: 4,437 (322nd)
  • Rebounds per game: 9.8 (60th)
  • Assists: 2,697 (267th)
  • Assists per game: 6.0 (64th)

Jokić has proven to be one of the most productive players in NBA history through six years of his NBA career. Here’s what happens to the above numbers and ranks when reducing to just the first six years of an NBA career:

Nikola Jokić career ranks vs other NBA players through six seasons

  • Points: 8,360 (115th)
  • Points per game: 18.5 (141st)
  • Rebounds: 4,437 (62nd)
  • Rebounds per game: 9.8 (75th)
  • Assists: 2,697 (62nd)
  • Assists per game: 6.0 (74th)

Some NBA greats specialize as scorers. Some NBA greats excel on the glass. Some NBA greats are the best passers. Nikola Jokić is one of the best in history at all three. He has learned to impact and control the game to a degree that very few NBA players have ever done before. Players like Michael Jordan and LeBron James have separated themselves in that regard. Nikola Jokić (+7.9) is the player that ranks directly behind the two greatest players in NBA history in career Box Plus-Minus (+9.2 for Jordan, +8.9 for LeBron).

No, Jokić probably won’t go down as the third best player in NBA history, but he’s clearly doing something right in filling up the box score the way he has so far in his NBA career. It has led to him 57 regular season triple-doubles in his NBA career, and that production has also translated to team success. In the last three seasons, the Nuggets have finished as a top three seed in the Western Conference, the only team in either conference to do so during that span. During those seasons, Jokić has made the All-Star game three times, the All-NBA team three times (First team twice, second team once).

Jokić collected his first MVP award in the 2020-21 season, averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists per game across all 72 games the Nuggets played. It was one of the greatest seasons ever produced in NBA history, mixed in with multiple years by Jordan, LeBron, and other dominant years by the game’s best. Jokić accumulated 15.9 win shares (Basketball Reference) in the 2020-21 season in the most possible games he could play. Hypothetically, if he had played a full 82-game season, that 15.9 win share number would have increased to about 18.1 win shares, which would have ranked 35th in NBA history for a single season, just ahead of Stephen Curry’s 2015-16 season in which he became the first unanimous MVP in league history. Jokić was on pace for a truly transcendent year and still reached an incredible threshold despite playing 10 fewer games.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Seven Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

If there’s one criticism of Jokić when it comes to a list of the NBA’s best, it’s limited playoff experience. Jokić and the Nuggets have reached the playoffs in just three seasons together, and though Jokić’s numbers remain excellent, he doesn’t have comparable longevity to most of the NBA greats. The Nuggets have never been to the NBA Finals, and the furthest Denver has reached with Jokić at the helm is a five-game series in the 2020 Western Conference Finals against the champion Los Angeles Lakers. The Nuggets lost in the Conference Semi-Finals in each of the other two years.

However, the short amount of time minimizes the success he Nuggets have had in the playoffs with Jokić. In their first run, Jokić led the Nuggets to the second round, avoiding a first round exist against Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs. In Denver’s second run, they advanced to those Conference Finals, and on the way, they came back from 3-1 twice in a row against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers. Jamal Murray led the way from a scoring perspective and was the soul of the team, but Jokić was the engine. In this last season, the Nuggets suffered so many injuries in the backcourt, including to Murray, that advancing past Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers was a significant accomplishment. The Nuggets got swept in the next round, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort from Jokić, who accumulated 30 points, 20 rebounds, and 10 assists in a Game 3 loss.

Overall in the playoffs, Jokić has maintained averages of 25.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 6.4 assists in 37.1 minutes per game. Those 25.9 points per game rank 10th all-time in playoff history among players to match or exceed Jokić’s 43 playoff games. The 11.3 rebounds per game rank 20th all-time. The 6.4 assists per game rank 27th.

Oh, and there’s this tweet. Remember that regular season box plus-minus? It translates to the playoffs too.

So, to be perfectly clear: Jokić has been one of the best regular season AND playoff performers of all-time to this point in his career. He has an MVP award to his name. He hasn’t won a championship yet, but there’s no reason to think he won’t at least get close during his career going forward. He has played just six years, but his last three (the beginning of his prime) can be compared against most other NBA players and be perceived as better. He’s one of the best players in the NBA today, and the majority of his competition for the top slot will appear on the NBA’s Top 75 at 75 list.

So, why shouldn’t Joker?

A lot about Nikola Jokić and who he is as a player is unique. It took the world a long time to adjust to Jokić’s abnormal skill set, led by his passing prowess in a center’s body. Heck, it took the coaching staff a long time to fully adjust to Nikola Jokić, which is why December 15th is such a celebrated day in Nuggets culture. What Jokić is and represents can be hard to quantify, but it should be relatively easy to qualify: Jokić is changing the future of the center position. His playmaking bends defenses to his will, leading teammates open with deft decision making and flummoxing defenses with his skill, timing, and creativity. There have been very few players in NBA history who pass with the flare of Nikola Jokić, and he combines that level of playmaking with elite scoring too, all in the body of a seven-footer.

It will be interesting to see how voters for the list perceive Jokić’s greatness to this point. Are Jokić’s six years to date enough to warrant consideration? Is the projection forward of Jokić’s prime enough to sway the vote? There’s precedent for a very young player appearing on the list despite not having the credentials of players older than him with additional years to rack up numbers, achievements, and awards. Shaquille O’Neal had played just four years in the NBA when the NBA’s Top 50 at 50 list came out. Shaq made the cut because despite such a brief time in the NBA compared to others, it was clear from the beginning that he would be one of the most dominant players the league had ever seen. Shaq had won the scoring title in 1994-95, but he never won an MVP award the way Jokić just did. Jokić might not have reached four All-Star games at this point like Shaq, but his team went just as far in the playoffs as Shaq’s Orlando Magic did. Their cases, then for the Top 50 at 50 and now for the Top 75 at 75, are very similar. The NBA got that one right given what Shaq accomplished subsequently with the Los Angeles Lakers. Will voters treat Jokić the same way? Unclear.

Whether Jokić makes the list of the NBA’s best or not, Nuggets fans can take solace knowing that in just six seasons, Jokić has put together an incredibly convincing case. Winning an MVP at 26 years old, becoming one of the league’s most impact regular season and playoff contributors, and doing so in a unique way as the game’s greatest passing center all hold merit. Even if Jokić isn’t voted in, he will go down as the greatest, most talented player in Nuggets history.

Hopefully, he receives the level of credit he deserves.