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Sports Strength

Don’t Mess with Nikola Jokic (Or Nikola Jokic’s Brothers)

Last year, Nikola Jokic won MVP almost by default. He’s unquestionably great, but his plaudits have always felt like they carried an implied qualifier—he was the MVP (but only because Joel Embiid got injured); he’s a star (but not, like, you know, a star); he’s one of the best passers ever (for a big man). While Lebron James or Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokoumnpo are described in hushed, reverent tones, Jokic is treated as some sort of oddity, seven feet of gelatin and puff whose success is tantamount to his obvious goofiness. He’s the hardwood Velvet Underground, a favorite of hoops hipsters who’s too weird and inaccessible for the mainstream.

He’s also, at the moment, the best basketball player in the world. 

Jokic is dominant in clear and readily apparent ways; he leads the Denver Nuggets in just about every major statistical category. His statistical profile has something for everybody—he placates capital-h Hoopers by getting buckets (25.4 points per game) and arm-chair statisticians by doing so efficiently (68.9 percent True Shooting); for the hardcore nerds, he’s highly rated across the whole alphabet soup of advanced metrics (first in RAPTOR and EPM, fifth in DARKO). 

It’s become passé to call players “unicorns,” but Jokic is truly without any antecedent. Whereas most great passers place a single opponent in conflict over their defensive responsibilities and then exploit that indecision, Jokic somehow reads the entire court at once; he turns basketball into cartography, continually mapping and remapping the placement of every player. 

Beyond just being able to see every pass, Jokic is able to actually make every pass too. Skip passes to the weak-side corner, sly bounce-passes to a cutter, twirling one-handed outlets, over-the-head backwards hurls—Jokic has the goods. In this sense, his highlights unfold like whodunnits as he manipulates the defense until he can rifle a pass through an opening that only he can see. 

Despite averaging the fewest assists since he became a full-time starter in 2017, Jokic is still a top-notch passer; it’s not his fault that all of his good teammates are hurt and that shooting across the league is down because the new ball sucks. Still, defending against Jokic requires total, unwavering focus—he unfailingly converts defenders’ brainfarts into open three-pointers and lay-ups.  

If Jokic’s passing is what makes him so singular, his scoring is what makes him potentially the greatest offensive center of the last 30 years. Having shed the meekness and deference that characterized his first few seasons, Jokic has evolved into a vicious, mean-spirited scorer. Although he’s blossomed into a sharpshooter (he shoots 40 percent from beyond the arc and 60 percent from midrange), on the block, he’s an amorphous blob of muscle, continuing the proud lineage of Zach Randolph and Shaq before him. Averaging 1.04 points per possession on post ups, Jokic unsteadies defenders with feints and body blows until he burrows out enough room to float a hook shot or fade-away over their head. 

Further bolstering Jokic’s Best Player Alive case is his development as a defender. For years, the kindest description of Jokic’s defense has been not that bad—he may never have been as permissive at the rim as his all-around pudginess would suggest, but he possessed limiting weaknesses all the same. But now, he’s a legitimately resolute defender. He’ll never be a one-man, Iron Dome around the paint like Rudy Gobert, but he ventures to the level of the screen to corral ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll, spooking potential drivers with his quick hands and general gigantitude. This kind of prophylactic defense has borne fruit—per Cleaning the Glass, only four other centers are a bigger rim deterrent than Jokic and the Nuggets only surrender 94.8 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the court, the equivalent of the best defense of any team since 2004.

More than anything, Jokic’s greatness is derived from his ability to manifest his own version of reality. He contorts defenses by standing in place, aware of how his any subtle movement can provoke a defensive response. He creates scoring opportunities that didn’t previously exist, tossing passes into open spaces for his teammates to explore. He compensates for his physical deficiencies by eliminating chances for offenses to take advantage of him. On the most basic level, he’s the best player in the world because he plays within a world almost entirely of his own creation. 

And if you disagree, his enormous brothers will beat the shit out of you.

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