Photo Credit: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Now that he has the 2023 NBA Finals MVP in his bag, everybody say it with me: "Nikola Jokić is the best basketball player in the world." Excellent. He’s actually been the best player in the world for at least the last three seasons, but we can forgive everyone for being a little out of the loop. It’s not like Denver is a basketball Mecca or anything (though, if we’re being honest, it’s not like the New York Knicks really deserve that title either).
In last night's hard-fought 94 - 89 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the Denver Nuggets have officially moved into the rarified ranks of championship-winning franchises. After 47 years of existence, the Nuggets were in the promised land, and it was all thanks to their 6’11, 284 lbs. Serbian center from the teeny-tiny town of Sombor.
Though it was a night of celebration for the Nuggets, it wasn’t exactly the kind of game Hollywood makes movies about. There were several stretches where there seemed to be discernible lids on the rims. Poor Michael Porter Jr. couldn’t buy a jump-shot to save his life. In the end, though, it didn’t matter. The chemistry of the Nuggets and the wizardry of their enigmatic big man won the day.
Wizardry is an apt term to describe Jokić’s play, because everything he does appears magical. Every time he posts-up, I’m convinced the ball is going in the hoop, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable or bizarre the shot may look. He can not only make passes most other players can’t, he conceives of passes almost the entire NBA cannot even imagine. He creates scoring opportunities out of thin air. He’s the most singularly dominant offensive player in the sport, and 99% of the time, he looks like he’s barely breaking a sweat. I’ve never seen another player “saunter” on the court, but for Jokić, it’s his default style.
But Jokić’s greatness goes far beyond just the eye-test. The guy did win back-to-back MVPs in 2021 and 2022, after all. And really, he should have probably won this year too, although the NBA media appeared hell-bent on disqualifying him. “Three straight MVPs is too much,” they cried, “He’s never even been to the Finals! He barely plays defense!” Whelp, cross Finals off the list.
The biggest issue with those strange mid-season criticisms of his candidacy, though, was they weren’t all that accurate. Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers center who was named 2023 MVP over second-place Jokić, had a fine season – probably the best of his career – but it wasn’t like his stats blew Jokis out of the water. And while yes, it’s certainly hard to argue that Embiid, who’s one of the best rim-protectors in the NBA, isn’t a more impactful defender on a possession by possession basis, Jokić is also becoming criminally underrated in that department.
Let’s get something straight: Jokić is not, and will never be, known for his defense. That’s not his game. He’s an offensive dynamo, capable of breaking defenses in an infinite variety of ways due to his infinitely limitless offensive toolkit. But defense? That will always be secondary.
But here’s the bigger point: Jokić is actually pretty good on defense! Even in comparison to players like Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo (another highly regarded defender), Jokić compares pretty favorably. Defensive rating is an advanced NBA statistic that attempts to measure the efficiency of a player’s ability to prevent the opposing team from scoring. The lower the number, the better the defender. Here’s how Jokić defensive efficiency stacks up against Embiid and Giannis:
If this is confusing, don’t worry – the traditional stats back up Jokić’s defensive aptitude too. Jokić averaged 1.4 steals per game over the last three years, nearly half a steal more than Embiid over that same span. And while Jokić’s lack of top-tier athleticism will perpetually prevent him from being the kind of shot-blocker that makes highlight reels, he more than makes up for it with his intensity, intelligence and high-motor. If you want a far more in-depth description of Jokic’s defensive contributions, check out this excellent article from The Ringer’s Michael Pina.
And here’s another thing: the Sixers didn’t have a significantly better team defense than the Nuggets. Embiid’s Sixers finished with a team defensive rating of 114.51 on the season, good for 10th in the NBA. Meanwhile, the Nuggets finished with a 115.05 defensive rating. Frankly, that’s a margin so small, most statisticians would write that off as margin of error (probably).
So, if Embiid’s defense wasn’t all that much better than Jokić’s, individually and on a team-basis, why was there so much attention paid to Jokić’s perceived deficiency on that end of the court? That’s a great question. For years, offensive superstars like Steph Curry and Kevin Durant were lauded for their game-breaking scoring abilities, while any potential flaws in their defense was ignored completely or diluted to the point of being completely meaningless. And this is not to say that Curry or Durant are bad defenders! But Curry’s defensive rating over the last three years is a 111, while Durant’s is a 112. Jokić? It’s a 108.
Also, since when did defense become a disqualifying factor for the MVP anyway? Outside of Bill Russell, can anyone point me to an MVP candidate that won solely because of their defense prowess? You can’t, because it hasn’t happened. Offense rules the NBA, and it pretty much always has.
And of course, offense will always be where Jokić’s bread is buttered, and in this area, nobody can touch him. Over the last three years, Jokić is averaging 26.0 points per game and 8.9 rebounds per game – and that’s as a center! Actually, he’s not a center, he’s a basketball centaur that combines the sheer force of will of a big man with the technical skill of a little guy. He’s also shooting nearly 60% from the field during that span along with a superb 36% from the three-point line and a sterling 83% from the free-throw line – and ask Shaq how hard free-throws can be for a big man.
There’s literally nothing that Jokić cannot do on a basketball court (okay, okay, except for maybe blocking shots into the stands, jeez). There is not a more enjoyable basketball-watching experience right now than The Joker. So congratulations to the Nuggets and to Nikola Jokić. It’s been a long-time coming. Nobody wanted to give you your due, but now nobody has a choice.