It was looking like a historic night from Nikola Jokić and the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday evening against the Indiana Pacers. After one quarter, the Nuggets led 43-15, a 28-point margin that represented the greatest between two teams after the first quarter in the entire NBA this season. Nikola Jokić was at the center of it all, with 12 points on 6/6 shooting, several rebounds and assists, multiple steals and a block. Jokić absolutely delivered a gem of a quarter, putting the game away before it started.
Two quarters later, the Pacers took the lead.
It was just another representation of Denver’s unparalleled need for direction from their best player. The wheels fell off for the Nuggets while Jokić was sitting, and they remained off as Jokić returned to the floor in the middle of the game while the rest of the starters hoped he’d carry them through on both ends of the floor. Whenever Jokić takes his foot off the gas or his hands off the wheel for an extended period of time, games like this one seem to happen frequently. It’s a good thing that he and Bones Hyland restored order in the fourth quarter last night.
For the entire month of March, Jokić has been forced to keep both hands on the wheel. Though the bench unit has had some strong performances, led by the aforementioned Hyland, the starting unit around Jokić has slowed down drastically on both ends of the floor. There’s less proactive cutting and movement on the offensive end, and there’s less effort and execution night in and night out on the defensive end. All of the pressure has been on Jokić to deliver a strong performance every single night, and throughout the month of March, he has.
In terms of statistical importance to one’s team, Jokić has been unmatched in the month of March.
Nikola Jokic led (or co-led) the Nuggets in points, rebounds and assists in 13 games in March.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 31, 2022
That's the most such games in a calendar month by any player in the shot-clock era. pic.twitter.com/QuAh6X4KIX
Here’s a screenshot of Denver’s schedule in March as well as the resulting leaders in points, rebounds, and assists, because it sure is crazy to look at.
For the full month of March, Jokić just averaged 29.9 points, 12.7 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game, shooting 62.5% from the field and receiving all of the attention a defense can possibly give him. The only times when Jokić didn’t lead (or co-lead) in points, rebounds, and assists in each individual game were: a game he didn’t play, a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder when the starters shot 1-of-25 from three-point range, and against the Phoenix Suns when Will Barton put together a strong passing performance. It’s about as complete an illustration of Jokić’s importance to the team and statistical dominance overall as there possibly could be.
There are very few players in NBA history capable of doing this. It’s rare that one player is tasked with the responsibility of being the leading scorer, leading facilitator, and leading rebounder for the team. It happens occasionally, but there are often slip-ups in production or surprise performances from other teammates. Denver’s reality this season without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. has skewed much of the statistical production Jokić’s way. He’s always been the statistical leader in those three major categories, but it’s been far less likely for Barton or Aaron Gordon or Monte Morris to put up a crooked number than Murray or Porter in general.
Jokić has been willing to pick up the slack, and it may lead to his second straight MVP award. On the season, he’s putting up special numbers, offering up a transcendent level of impact that has pushed the Nuggets toward the 5th seed in the Western Conference and the ninth best record in the NBA.
The only players in NBA history to win back-to-back MVPs are Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. There are a couple of exceptions, but for the most part, winning back-to-back MVPs means joining an inner circle of Hall of Famers that represent that pantheon of basketball throughout the ages. If Jokić were to join that group, it would mean a lot in establishing his individual dominance at this stage of his career, what he means to a team by himself.
Would he trade the MVPs and individual numbers for having Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back for multiple playoff runs? Probably so.