A conversation about the MVP award is a conversation about dependency, about who carries the largest burden.
So it would be easy to fixate on the fact that Nikola Jokic leads the NBA in touches, elbow touches, that he’s second in assists, third in post-ups, fifth in screens set, and that the greatest passing big man of all time is also a dribbling triple-double with touch that just leaves him a stone's throw from the 50-40-90 shooting mark.
What I’d rather talk to you about, though, is how little he does, how quickly he gives the ball up after touching out, how he leads the NBA in passes made without coming close in assist opportunities, that he keeps the ball in his hands for less than half the time as the other players in the top-five in assists, while turning it over less.
As Thinking Basketball’s Ben Taylor puts it, Jokic generates similar offense to Trae Young and Luka Doncic while holding the ball half as much in a possession, giving everyone else time to touch the ball. His teammates have obliged, whipping the ball back and forth like they’re playing volleyball. As a result, despite — no, because — of the fact that Jokic relinquishes the ball so readily, the Nuggets are built in his image.
I could tell you about how Jokic has kicked his game into overdrive ever since his favorite dribble hand-off partner, Jamal Murray, tore his ACL, but the truth is, the statistics don’t bear that out. Jokic’s counting stats are essentially the same, because while losing Murray has been Denver’s greatest setback this season, it’s hardly been their only one.
Michael Porter Jr. has missed 10 games this season. Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green have missed 13. PJ Dozier has missed 15 games. Monte Morris has missed 17, and now Will Barton is out. Every major rotation piece has missed time this season except Jokic, and on top of that, the Nuggets exchanged Gary Harris and R.J. Hampton to acquire Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline.
Jokic’s MVP case is a catalog of what hasn’t happened. Denver has teetered here and there, especially in the beginning of the season, but it has not undergone the mini-collapse that can befall teams that make mid-season trades. For example, the Chicago Bulls went 3-9 after trading for Nikola Vucevic.
Succeeding in the COVID-altered 2020-21 NBA season has been about surviving attrition and bad fortune. Postponed games. Jammed schedules. Injuries piling up. The Nuggets, who went deeper in the NBA bubble than all but three teams, have dealt with their share, but they’ve thrived in Jokic’s orbit.
In the face of this constant change, it’s not Jokic’s stats that have changed but his attention. These days, his favorite dribble hand-off partner has been Facundo Campazzo. In Murray’s absence, Jokic has found quick communion with Porter Jr., who is averaging a scorching hot 26.1 points on 52% from beyond the arc in the eight games since Murray’s been out. To boot, he’s still figuring out where Gordon, Denver’s best cutting threat, likes the ball.
Jokic has played every game this season, a near-Herculean feat given the circumstances. Only the New York Knicks’ duo of Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, courtesy of hard-driving coach Tom Thibodeau, have played more total minutes than Jokic this season. Of all reasonable MVP candidates, only Damian Lillard comes close to meeting Jokic’s availability, but he’s still five games behind.
It feels odd to reward a player for being healthy when so much luck is involved in the body staying intact through the rigors of a season, but it’s that very consistency that has allowed the Nuggets to stay in the top four of the Western Conference despite the ground constantly shifting underneath them.
In a season in which no one has been themselves, the Nuggets have remained the Nuggets, which is why Nikola Jokic is the MVP.
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