Nikola Jokic week is off in full swing! The Denver Nuggets star center is the topic of almost everything on Stiffs this week and today we have an extra special piece. Without a doubt, Jokic is the best player on the Nuggets and already vaulting himself into the upper echelon of Nuggets all time. Just where he ends up is a matter of debate with varying opinions but one particular rank is already a matter of fierce debate: where will Jokic rank all time among Nuggets to wear #15? This is of course a two player debate as only Carmelo Anthony, arguably the greatest Denver Nugget ever, has worn #15 and can compare to Jokic’s skill and accolades. What better way to do a two player debate than with two Denver Stiffs writers?! Zach Mikash and Gordon Gross dive in.

Zach Mikash (@ZachMikash): Alright Gordon, let’s take on the heaviest of heavyweights when it comes to “who wore it better?” Nikola Jokic vs Carmelo Anthony in who is the greatest #15 in Nuggets history. I think it’s important to establish the groundwork of this debate with one simple statement that I believe to be fact. If Jokic were to not play another game, he wouldn’t come close to being the greatest #15 in Nuggets history.

Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): Absolutely right. Carmelo Anthony was a terrific player and lead offensive option who was a four-time All-Star in Denver (ten overall) and led the Nuggets to the playoffs in all seven of his years in Denver – and the West was pretty tough back then too. Melo put up 53.5 winshares and almost 14,000 points in a Denver uniform and is still the leader in the clubhouse when it comes to the best to ever wear #15 for the Nuggets – but Jokic has a long, long time left to play. Melo had 7 years and change in a Denver uniform – how many years do you think Jokic will need to play to surpass Melo’s accomplishments and leave no doubt?

Mikash: It’s hard to put it into years because Joker can get the trump card by leading this team to the NBA Finals. If you’re being realistic though that’s probably something you don’t expect for at least 5 years given the current landscape in the Western Conference and where the Nuggets are on their development curve. I’d say at the bare minimum that’s what you’re looking at, and that’s going to take a lot of things going right. I think people get caught up in the first round exits but fact of the matter is Melo maintained a high level of play and success that makes his resume stand up against any Nugget. He also did it from day one. Jokic is now in year four and still trying to crack the postseason. Granted Melo had some great teammates but its not exactly like he was playing with world beaters his rookie year. When considering whether or not Jokic will pass Melo as the best #15 don’t we have to consider that he’s been unable to rival Melo’s success at the start of his career?

Gross: I do wonder if Jokic had been a lottery pick if he would have been able to come out of the gate as strong. The methodical start to his career probably helped him. Melo was adapted to the spotlight in ways that Jokic is not and probably never will be – but then his desire to be both anonymous and great is one of the things that will lead to him overtaking Melo at some point. I don’t think he needs to take the Nuggets to the Finals to catch Melo – no other Nugget has gone to the NBA Finals in Denver and there are several still ahead of Anthony on the team rankings. He’ll need to lead a contender, and that’s no small feat with the Nuggets still being this young.

Jokic can’t do anything about the start to his career, though – Carmelo had several healthy vets at the height of their careers to help him, while Jokic’s veterans just couldn’t stay healthy and Jokic was coming off the bench at 25 minutes a game. Melo had 43 and 44 wins in 2 of his first 3 years – Jokic had 46 last year. The real concern for me is whether Jokic can produce in Melo-like minutes. One of Anthony’s greatest gifts was his ability to stay on the court both in games and over the season. He had 2600+ minutes in 5 of his 7 seasons in Denver. Jokic hasn’t done it once. Do you think Jokic’s ability to play deep, consistent, effective minutes is a major thing holding him back on his timetable for overtaking Melo?

Mikash: I wouldn’t say its the most important thing holding him back from reaching Melo’s level, though it certainly will effect just how far Jokic can pass Anthony if/when that time comes. I think in order to take that next step and reach to point of being the leader of a perennial playoff team its more about the mental aspects of the game for Nikola. We can talk until we are blue in the face about how Jokic is actually more skilled than Melo and just needs to be in better condition to pass him but I’m withholding judgement until we see Joker overcome the mental aspect of a game. Melo never once took himself out of a game because he was tentative to shoot the ball or worried about getting someone else going. It’s not exactly the most endearing trait but having 100% confidence in yourself to the point you can tune everyone else out is a vital part of succeeding at the highest levels. Jokic could be a Greek Adonis physically, if he’s not willing to step into the spotlight then he’ll never get to the level that Melo did in Denver. Is that even something you can realistically expect Jokic to change? Turning on the “I’m ready for the spotlight” switch ain’t exactly easy.

Gross: Jokic’s idea of taking over a game is not “shooting the lights out of the gym” though, which is an issue more with the observer than with Jokic. It’s easy to see what flipping a switch looks like when your only job is to shoot until your fingers fall off, which was Melo’s most endearing-yet-frustrating trait. Jokic’s best skill is not scoring, it’s orchestrating. You can’t compare him to Jordan, Kobe and somewhat lesser interpretations like Melo in that way. Jokic IS more skilled than Melo, but his model for success (lots of assists, not shooting more than 15 or so times a game, grabbing a bunch of rebounds and orchestrating the attack) is actually most reminiscent of Magic Johnson. If you look at Magic’s playoff stats they’re almost all of that variety.

When there is no one else to do the scoring, Jokic doesn’t mind doing it. He needs to realize faster when he needs to switch from passing to scoring. But in the era of Pace and Space, the Magic Johnson template should work better than ever. Magic still embraced the spotlight, though – and Nikola will need to do the same. Jokic would prefer to let someone else have the glory and shoulder the fame part of the job, but it will be hard for Denver to add a better player than him. Melo’s leadership was never his strong suit, and it was the arrival of Chauncey Billups that helped carry Melo’s Nuggets to new heights. Is Jokic overtaking Melo dependent more on him getting someone who can share the glare of the spotlight with him, or someone who can handle the the locker room and on-court leadership aspects?

Mikash: It’s tough to say. The era Melo played in while in Denver fit his style and he had immediate success. The era Jokic is playing in while in Denver fits his style as well but he hasn’t had quite the same amount of success, so I tend to lean on the idea that he needs more help on the court rather than off. There’s not a ton of leadership/locker room issues with this group, no one is getting called out by the coach and outright benched during a playoff series like George Karl did with Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith. Melo had all the talent in the world on the court, but he needed more structure both on and off the court, Chauncey was the perfect compliment for that. With Jokic he gets a lot more structure from his coach because Michael Malone and George Karl have totally different approaches, he’s also got a locker room that isn’t filled with nearly as many strong personalities. He definitely needs a guy to share the spotlight though and to know how to not back down from the big moments.

As you say, his style is more effective as an orchestrator, not a scorer, but I think we’ve seen time and again over the history of the NBA you still need that big time scorer as a key piece of your team, if not the key piece. A guy like Michael Porter Jr, if healthy, is the perfect fit for a running mate with Jokic. We could spend another 1500 words talking about the difference between Jokic’s and Melo’s style though. Lets get down to brass tacks: will Nikola Jokic be a better and more successful player in a Nuggets uniform when its all said and done than Carmelo Anthony was?

Gross: Yes. I don’t know that Jokic will give Denver more than the 7+ years that Melo did – that’s sort of up to Denver. But by the end of this contract I believe Jokic will surpass Melo’s accomplishments in a Nuggets uniform. Jokic is not there yet – he needs to make the playoffs for a few years as you said, see if he can at least match Melo’s trip to the Western Conference Finals if not surpass it. But the team is talented enough, with enough flexibility around Jokic, to make that kind of run. Jokic requires a certain roster construction and style to achieve his best self – but the same is true of all the greats. Denver has the time to get that style perfected and help him surpass Carmelo to be the best #15 ever. Where do you stand on it?

Mikash: To be honest, I’m not convinced. Jokic has had three years in the league, including last season where it was clearly his team from the get go, and he hasn’t been able to get over the hump and into the playoffs. Now, some of that is the Western Conference was really good last season but the results are what they are. In his 4th season, at age 23, Nikola Jokic is still trying to crack the post season and figure out how to be as effective as possible on the court. In his 4th season, at age 22, Carmelo Anthony was an all-star, the second highest scorer in the league and on his way to his 4th straight postseason. In his final three years with Denver he led the team to fifty or more wins every season, was the best player on a team that made it to the conference finals and generally was considered a top 5 player in the league. That’s a lot to catch up to for Jokic and the catching up needs to start right now. However, at the end of the day Nikola might spend more time in Denver than Melo did (or Alex English or David Thompson for that matter) and that alone could make him surpass Melo’s accomplishments in the blue and gold. He’s also got a low bar to clear in terms of playoff success with Melo’s one trip to the WCF standing as the only two playoff series wins in his time in Denver. It’s certainly possible Jokic becomes the best #15 or just the best Nugget of all time in general, but I don’t think it’s nearly as likely as some do.

Gross: Well I guess we should ask the people then, right?

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