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Love in the Time of Analytics - the Nikola Jokic Story

The story of Jokic needs no math - but math tells the same story everything else does

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

It’s that time again. Nikola Jokic is leading the league in nearly every advanced stat, and fans of non-Jokic players get more outraged by this every minute. National muckrakers like Nick Wright spout off about “flawed computers” because he has a different favorite for the MVP award. The entire city of Philadelphia seems destined to burn mathematics at the stake despite their GM basing a large portion of his decisions on analytics and helping to warp the play of the league around what those analytics say is most valuable.

I’d just like to go back to the math for a bit, though. I’m not a math guy. I understand generally how most of the advanced stats are created but why those exact numbers and percentages and formulas were picked is a little more opaque to me. It involves regression and stats work that is above me.

At their most basic, though, all stats come back to trying to quantify what a player is doing on the floor, and we’ve been trying to figure that out since we first hung peach baskets and tossed a ball through them. The NBA did not start accurately tracking rebounds until after 1950, when someone thought, “Hey, grabbing boards is probably a valuable thing to log, it seems to impact games.” Recording blocks and steals took another TWENTY THREE YEARS. We start tracking things that seem valuable so that we can measure the impact of these things on the game we love.

And we build these formulas to reflect that impact. Nikola Jokic warps some of the advanced stats. Most of them, really. Assists for centers are weighted more heavily than they are for guards in some of the metrics, just as rebounds for guards are weighted more than they are for centers. It is generally harder for a 6’2 guard to get a lot of rebounds than it is for a 7 footer, so there is more value placed on a guard who can gobble them up.

For nearly all of the pre-Jokic NBA it has been a given that getting assists from a big man is a rare thing, and should be treated as a valuable thing. There’s a reason that Jokic keeps doing things that only Wilt Chamberlain has done before: they are not things that big men can usually do. Jokic last night started his own club, the Jokic Club: 2000 points, 1000 rebounds and 500 assists in one season. Wilt (naturally) got close a couple of times, but just didn’t line up his production in all the categories.

Is it an arbitrary club made of round numbers because we like base-10 clean figures? Sure.

Is it still impressive as hell? Absolutely. And it’s a demonstration of what the “advanced metrics” are saying in the simple counting stats that box scores have shown for decades.

The concern with advanced stats is that they all depend on weighting the input correctly. Should a center get such a bonus from assists, for instance? Is it REALLY all that important where the passes come from, or does a 7 foot center deserve the same “credit” for passing that a 6’2 guard gets? Jokic’s whole career puts another data point in the column that states yes, it is that valuable. Moving the opposing rim protection out into perimeter duty has a huge effect. Being able to see over and pass around the smaller guards normally tasked with on-ball defense rips standard defensive plans to shreds. Teams have to scrap their entire philosophy to address Nikola Jokic’s impact because what works against other teams does not work against him. That’s valuable, and should be weighted accordingly.

Jokic was plus-37 in on court plus-minus Friday night against the Memphis Grizzlies. It means the Nuggets put up 37 more points in his time on the court than the Grizz put up, and since Denver won by 13 points, that means the rest of the Nuggets were a minus-24 in a little over 12 minutes without him. That’s a single game, and doesn’t give full scope to his season, but most of the season has gone that way. Most of Jokic’s career has gone that way. The impact is there in the box score every night.

But naturally, what you want to value from that box score matters. Joel Embiid scores more points a game, but also on more shots than Jokic. Jokic’s points + assisted points is higher than Embiid’s, but Embiid has more blocks. Of course Jokic is a league leader in deflections and has more steals. Giannis Antetokounmpo is better than both of them in some things, and worse in others. There are great comparisons to be made, because rarely are so many MVP contenders big men rather than guards. Jokic and Embiid and Giannis are all amazing players in an age of extremely tall MVP contenders.

Denver Nuggets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Advanced stats are just comparisons. They are the same comparisons being made with simple stats, only weighted based on what seems to matter around the league and what correlates most to winning. Jokic dominates the advanced stats because no one plays the way that he does - and what he does works. Every metric that the best statisticians in the sport can devise to reflect winning in number form puts Jokic on top, because every metric gives him credit for exactly what he is doing on the court: doing more to help his team win than any player in the league. He bends defenses until they reach their breaking point, carves up opponents by countering their double- and triple-teaming with passes to open shooters, or scoring and dominating on the glass when left to score one-on-one.

The metrics we use to calculate impact show Jokic is far and away the most impactful player, and that is not a flaw in the calculations.

Every time Jokic steps on the court, his team gets markedly better, and it’s been that way since the day he entered the NBA. It was hard for the Denver Nuggets to make Jokic the hub of the offense originally, because it had never been done in the modern NBA. “Point-center” was not a real position, but it has undeniable value in drawing the opposing big man out of the paint and setting teams up to be carved like Thanksgiving turkeys by back cuts and pick-and-rolls, or slaughtered from three point range by open shooters. It took immense faith to believe that not only was Jokic a good passer but that he could hold up over the course of a season with teams gameplanning for him to be the offensive hub. Bench players in the NBA often find their limitations when moving from 18 minutes a game to 32 and being the second guy in the opponent’s film study instead of left on the cutting room floor entirely.

Jokic thrived. Denver thrived. And this year, without the most accurate 19 PPG sniper in the game or his PnR partner in crime capable of dropping 40 on anyone, Jokic has been better than last year - better than when he won the MVP. Every team that Denver played this year knew that stopping Jokic was their first, second, and third priority, and for 81 games he carried them anyway. Denver clinched a top-6 playoff spot while missing two max players and having every other player fill bigger, unfamiliar roles.

The story of Nikola Jokic is not a story of inscrutable numbers and calculations beyond the ken of mortals. The numbers and calculations are telling the same story we are observing in real time, of a second round pick from Sombor, Serbia, who has turned himself into the most impactful and valuable player in the NBA in consecutive years. It’s the story of one man who plays the game he loves as well as anyone has ever played it, and it’s the story of the teammates he plays with and the coach he plays for and the fans he plays in front of. Not to draw from the story of another MVP, but really: we are all witnesses. We live in an age of amazing basketball players. The next generation of stars looks incredibly healthy, and Jokic is in his prime and matches up with all of them.

That’s why we love basketball, and the incredible athletes who play it. To see That Shot, or That Pass, to watch players all striving to win knowing that most of them will eventually lose. The plays that make up the numbers stick with us. We don’t talk about Jokic’s PER or BPM or EPM, we talk about the behind the head pass to Will Barton on the baseline or the double-teamed assist for the game-winner by Aaron Gordon. We talk about Jokic’s 31 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to carry the Denver Nuggets to victory in a Herculean labor. The math just shows that those plays also win games. That playing that way - the way only Jokic can play - is one of the most valuable combinations of skills we have ever seen in the history of the sport.

Whether it wins him another MVP trophy is immaterial. Nikola Jokic IS the most valuable player in the NBA, and his story is the story of basketball - in the analytics age or any age. Denver fans definitely appreciate him while they have him. We know we will never see a player quite like Jokic again.

Regardless of who the voters choose, please: appreciate all these MVP candidates while they are here. Embiid and Giannis and Jokic are all putting up seasons that would win in numerous other years, and they can’t all win - but they are all worthy. Luka Doncic, Devin Booker and Ja Morant are fast on their heels. Math doesn’t define greatness - it just confirms what you are watching and that you are right to appreciate it. The next generation of greatness is ascendant here and now.

So appreciate it, now, in the moment it is being shown to you. Greatness is its own reward. Another trophy never hurts though - just sayin’.