With just a few games remaining in the regular season, the Denver Nuggets are, for the moment, outside of the playoffs. For Denver, this is a familiar place. A season ago they finished ninth in the West, one game out of the postseason. But in a Western Conference playoff race in which the fourth-place and 10th-place teams are separated by only three games, this sort of squeeze can happen. Even if the Nuggets miss the postseason again, though, they can take heart in knowing that this is the season Gary Harris cemented himself as one of the most consistent players in the league. It’s the season Jamal Murray began to realize his potential. It’s the season they convinced someone to take Emmanuel Mudiay off their hands. But above anything else, it’s another year of startling development for Nikola Jokic, the team’s budding superstar.
This season, Jokic added a more consistent 3-point shot to a game that was already blowing up box scores in cities across the country. He now takes just under four threes a game and hits 40 percent of them — up from about two attempts with a 32 percent hit rate a season ago. But because Jokic doesn’t amass buckets at a rate commensurate with his skill ceiling, and because his deficiencies on defense make it easy to write him off as a regular-season curiosity, he doesn’t share the stature of other rising-star big men, such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid or Kristaps Porzingis. Embiid may in fact be the complete package. But through three seasons, Jokic, the 41st overall pick in the same 2014 draft where Embiid went third, has looked every bit as capable.
We’ve known since Jokic’s sophomore season that he is unique. He handles the ball at the top of the key, throws one-handed cross-court passes to shooters who aren’t yet open, lobs entry passes over fronting defenders, and posts up like he’s suiting up for Georgetown in the 1980s. He’s too multifaceted to be subjected to a trite Dirk Nowitzki comparison, and it would be too sacrilegious to compare him to truer points of reference. (Bird? Sabonis? KG?) If you refine the Basketball-Reference.com Play Index to show anything that remotely resembles what he does on the court, it has a tendency to spit out a list of one. There is no precedent for a player like Jokic, who can rebound, pass and shoot at the highest levels. There isn’t even a half-cocked historical precursor, like how when you look at Kevin Love from a certain angle he kind of looks like Troy Murphy. No. There’s only been one Jokic.
But it isn’t just Jokic’s complete package that’s hard to replicate — his game is extraordinary even in pieces. If we remove his shooting from the equation and look only at players who have rebounded and passed at similar levels, the only players who have approached Jokic are Kevin Garnett, Joakim Noah and DeMarcus Cousins. If we look at players who have rebounded like Jokic and shot threes at a similar rate — never mind whether they made those threes — we’re left with Cousins, Charles Barkley, Love, and, yes, Murphy. And if we look at players who have passed and shot as well as Jokic has this season, the index spits out a list of point guards — along with Kevin Durant and LeBron James. The only players 6-foot-8 or taller are those two and Magic Johnson.
Jokic is a little less special when we zoom out and look at his contributions as a whole, but only slightly. He’s in the top 30 all time for win shares in the first three seasons of a frontcourt player’s career, and that list is littered with Hall of Famers — Bill Russell and Hakeem Olajuwon just ahead of him, Dwight Howard and Arvydas Sabonis just behind.
Despite the modern ways Jokic pops off of the stat sheet, his game also features at least one traditional element. He posts up much more than most stretch bigs, coming in fifth in overall posts this season according to data from Second Spectrum — ahead of Towns and Anthony Davis. He creates points out of his post-ups at one of the best rates in the league, in line with Embiid, LeBron and KD.
Jokic has been aflame the past few games, as Denver claws its way toward the postseason. The Nuggets have the seventh-place Minnesota Timberwolves tonight in Denver, and play the 10th-place Clippers on Saturday in Los Angeles. They likely need wins in both games to stay alive, plus at least a split in their final two games, against the Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota again.Maybe Denver limps across the finish line, and maybe it has enough juice left over to thrill us with a competitive game or two against Houston or Golden State on the road to certain doom. Maybe it narrowly misses the postseason yet again and has to deal with those consequences. But in the very worst case, the Nuggets still have Jokic. They still have a true surplus-creating superstar, the most valuable asset a team can possess. And they still traded Mudiay. To the Knicks. So even if things go bad, it ain’t all that bad.