What a night.
On Wednesday night, Nikola Jokić put up one of the most absurd statistical lines in NBA history. He helped the Denver Nuggets win an overtime thriller against the Los Angeles Clippers with the following line: 49 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals, and one block. Only two other players in NBA history have put up equivalent numbers in a single game: Larry Bird and Russell Westbrook.
It was honestly one of the most impressive games I have ever seen Jokić play.
The Nuggets have needed major performances before, but this one involved Jokić reaching a new level. After scoring just 12 points on 11 field goal attempts in the first half, Jokić turned the aggressiveness up several notches, accumulating 37 points in the second half and overtime, utilizing the three-point line, free throw line, offensive glass, and everything at his disposal to get to 49 points. The Nuggets needed every single point, but they also needed the elite rebounding and passing to boot. 14 rebounds, including seven on the offensive end, helped clean up several messy possessions. Nine assists may not have been good enough either, so Jokić collected his 10th on an absolute DIME to Aaron Gordon, hitting the target perfectly in the left corner while being doubled by very large humans Ivica Zubac and Amir Coffey at the right slot.
With that performance, Jokić raised his season averages in all of the major stats, and the numbers he’s putting up strongly resemble his MVP season last year.
|Points||Rebounds||Assists||Steals||Blocks||2-point %||3-point %||Win Shares/48||Box Plus-Minus|
Jokić now ranks seventh in the NBA in points per game, second in rebounds per game, and 10th in assists per game. Obviously, no one else is in the top 10 in all three categories. Giannis Antetokounmpo is closest, but his 6.1 assists per game rank a mere 23rd. Quite simply, there are very few players that impact all phases of the game as thoroughly as Jokić does. He scores at a level comparable to Stephen Curry while doing so with more shooting efficiency. He rebounds at a level paralleled only by Rudy Gobert this season. He averages just about the same assists per game as LaMelo Ball and Draymond Green, but there may not be another more impactful passer in the NBA, as evidenced by last night’s incredible dime to Gordon.
This is the different version of Jokić than the one that won MVP last year. Though the numbers are comparable this season, Jokić is having to navigate new and even perilous situations without his longtime running mate in Jamal Murray. Gone is the dynamic two-man game that helped the Nuggets advance to the Western Conference Finals in the bubble, and also gone is one of the best floor spacing forwards in the NBA in Michael Porter Jr. to boot. Though the Nuggets have found competent replacements in Monte Morris and Jeff Green to stabilize the rotation, the dynamic scoring ability is gone. So much responsibility is being placed at the feet of Jokić to carry Denver through the tough moments.
Jokić this season is running through brick walls. Rather than avoid the danger, skirt around something solid that could be potentially hurtful or difficult, Jokić is plowing full bore into the brick wall that is Denver’s spacing problem. Teams are cheating further and further away from their assignments in crunch time to help put a body on Jokić, and it has resulted in the slowing of the well-oiled machine the Nuggets so often utilize entitled Jokić ball. Teams don’t respect Monte Morris and Jeff Green the same way they respect Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., and though those two players have been good, Jokić was starting to get used to great in preparation for Denver’s championship run last year.
Now, when Jokić sits, the Nuggets would settle for bad rather than the nightmare that has played out in real time on several occasions. Wednesday night is a good example. The Nuggets won Jokić’s first quarter stint by three points, and he checked out the game with 1:11 on the clock in the first quarter. When he returned with 7:12 left in the second quarter, the Nuggets were down nine points, having been outscored by 12 points in roughly five minutes of game time. Jokić went back in, but the momentum was firmly with Los Angeles, and they took that momentum all the way into the half, sporting a 12-point lead.
This has been the story of the 2021-22 Denver Nuggets. Jokić often does great work when he’s on the floor only to see those positive minutes disintegrate into nothing when the bench loses a lead.
On the season, the Nuggets have outscored opponents by 45 points. When Nikola Jokić is on the court, the Nuggets have outscored opponents by 262 points. When he sits, they give back a ridiculously high 212 points in just 823 minutes. Spoken another way, the Nuggets post a +10.0 Net Rating in the 1,251 minutes Jokić has played. In the 823 minutes Jokić has sat, the Nuggets have a -12.3 Net Rating. That’s a patently absurd swing of good play versus bad play, a +22.3 Net Rating On-Off differential.
Here’s how other MVP candidates compare:
|MVP candidate||Team||Team Net Rating||Minutes with player||Net Rating with player||Minutes without player||Net Rating without player||On-Off Net Rating|
There are a ton of talented players on that list, but based strictly on the plus-minus data, only Stephen Curry is close to having a legitimate case that they are more valuable to their team’s success than Jokić. Steph’s On-Off Net Rating of +18.8 is also extremely impactful but a little bit surprising, given the strong push to have not just Draymond Green but also Andrew Wiggins represent the Warriors in the All-Star game along with Curry. There are no such players next to Jokić right now to help him guide the ship. Morris, Gordon, and Will Barton have each had their moments, just not consistently enough to warrant serious All-Star talk. And let’s face it, if they were All-Stars, then the Nuggets wouldn’t be such a disaster when Jokić sits.
The Nuggets are barely breaking even this season. Three games above .500 at just past the midpoint and a +0.8 Net Rating that perfectly reflects that. They have been two different teams so far: the excellent team that Jokić champions while he’s out there, and the drowning bench unit mixed in with various starters that has yet to find a true rhythm. It’s honestly a perfect Yin and Yang situation where as great as Jokić has been, it feels like the units that come together with him on the bench are often equally as bad.
Help is on the horizon though. The Nuggets just acquired Bryn Forbes from the San Antonio Spurs, a lethal outside shooter with the capability to make Jokić’s life easier while he’s on the court and make enough shots while Jokić sits to keep the Nuggets above water. Forbes isn’t Stephen Curry, but he often has to be checked by the opposing team’s best perimeter defender when he gets hot from distance. That spacing will help the Nuggets a lot, as well as the consistency of the second unit.
In addition to Forbes, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. seem to be making tangible progress in their respective recoveries from surgery. Murray’s journey back from ACL surgery has been long and arduous, but he has hit every checkmark necessary to start ramping up his basketball activity. He’s on track to play this season. Porter’s surgery was earlier this season, but he appears to have experienced plenty of relief from the procedure, and after some strength and conditioning, he might be ready to play later this season. Both would be welcome additions to the Nuggets rotation.
It all comes back to Jokić though. With him playing at historic levels, the Nuggets know they can’t waste an opportunity to compete for a championship. If there’s a possibility to get better, the Nuggets are exploring it. They’ve already gone down several steps toward being a better team, and they’re hoping Jokić can continue his incredible performances into the playoffs when Denver hopes to have a full rotation.
Until then, let’s appreciate what’s happening here. Jokić is doing things nobody has ever seen before, and he’s raising his game to places many among the NBA’s pantheon have never achieved. The combination of scoring, rebounding, and playmaking we are seeing from Joker is simply unfathomable, and it may lead to serious MVP consideration despite a lower than average record for a normal MVP season. He deserves all of the praise possible, playing with an arm tied behind his back without Murray and Porter. In the face of adversity, Jokić has changed his game. He still has the skill, finesse, and flare, but he’s also the bull in the china shop because he has to be. That change in play style has kept the Nuggets afloat, and it’s opened up new possibilities for the Nuggets going forward.