Nikola Jokić has a tendency to make the spectacular look mundane. Take this play during the third quarter of a recent game against the Boston Celtics, just one of the 40,904 passes he’s slung as a member of the Denver Nuggets. With a running start near the top of the key, Jokić took one brisk dribble into the paint, left his feet, twirled and fired a short overhead feed to a cutting Michael Porter Jr., who scored through contact to extend the Denver lead to 13.
It also epitomized the unorthodox brilliance of Jokić: A 6-foot-11, lumbering giant of basketball who dominates the game as a generational scorer and passer without needing the ball in his hands for more than a split second. And with his Nuggets finally sporting a clean bill of health and built to contend for the Western Conference crown, Jokić has a strong claim to going only where Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird have gone, by bringing home a third consecutive MVP — voter fatigue be damned.
Let’s start with the topline numbers, which might not immediately scream “MVP.” The Joker is averaging 25.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game, of which only his assists are a marked improvement over his lofty MVP standards, while shooting 62 percent from the field, 35 percent from 3-point range and 81 percent from the free-throw line. But the advanced stats, as they have been wont to do with Jokić, paint a rosier picture: According to FiveThirtyEight’s NBA player ratings, Jokić is second in offensive RAPTOR, third in defensive RAPTOR and leads the league in both total RAPTOR and RAPTOR wins above replacement. He’s also third in the league in true shooting percentage, thanks in large part to a career-best 66 percent mark from 2-point range.
But perhaps more impressive and groundbreaking than Jokić’s numbers is just how he’s coming about them — and that’s at the heart of his post-postscript MVP case. The Joker is having one of the best “invisible” all-around seasons ever, as he’s just one of three players to average at least 25 points and eight assists per game with a usage rate of less than 30 percent. Throw in a true-shooting mark of 68.7 percent, good for third-best in the NBA, and you have arguably the most quietly lethal offensive season of the modern era:
Jokić’s case for basketball immortality also flies in the face of the NBA’s turn toward “heliocentrism,” wherein one player has come to dominate more and more of his team’s possessions. Compare Jokić’s usage rate of 28.5 percent to that of the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Dončić, who sports an absurdly high usage rate of 38.4 percent and is one of the front-runners for this season’s MVP. And somehow, that’s not even the league-leading figure, as two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo boasts a usage rate of 38.6 percent. In fact, Jokić ranks 24th in usage this season, behind a bevy of MVP contenders and even second fiddles such as Boston forward Jaylen Brown.
As it stands, despite his otherworldly impact on the basketball court, Jokić would become the least heliocentric MVP (according to usage rate) since Tim Duncan in 2002-03:
Now, “invisible” might seem like an odd adjective to describe one of the most immovable and impactful figures in the NBA — and when you watch the Nuggets play, Jokić is very much the proverbial sun around which the Nuggets offense revolves. With the Joker on the floor, Denver has an offensive rating of 122.7, equivalent not only to the best NBA offense this season, but the greatest offense in recorded history. With Jokić off the court, however, Denver’s offensive rating falls to a ghastly 101.6, which would be dead last in the NBA this season and the worst figure since the 2015-16 season. The impact is felt on defense, too, where the Nuggets are 3.2 points per 100 possessions worse with Jokić off the court vs. on. So though the Nuggets may not appear heliocentric, their sun is as important to his team’s ecosystem as any celestial body in the NBA universe, even as he emits seemingly duller rays than Dončić, Antetokounmpo or vintage James Harden.
But how does Jokić exactly manage to command an all-time great squad when his workload doesn’t appear to be as great as those stars? One illustration lies in how long he holds the ball — and what he does when he has it. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Jokić averages 100 touches per game, the most in the league this season, but his average time per touch ranks just 69th out of 103 players who average at least 30 minutes per game. Moreover, unlike assist rivals like Trae Young and Dončić, who average 5.70 and 5.64 dribbles per touch, Jokić doesn’t pound the air out of the ball, averaging just 1.41 dribbles per touch. That number is right next to those of players like Buddy Hield and De’Andre Hunter, both of whom are below-average passers for their position — not the company we would expect arguably the greatest passer of all time to keep.
In other words, Jokić sees and processes the game so quickly that he doesn’t need to take much time deciding what to do. Which might be why, among the 117 players with 1,500 or more touches this season, Jokić has generated the most points per chance (1.143). And as Ben Taylor of Thinking Basketball argued in a recent breakdown, what makes Jokić such a great passer isn’t just his preternatural vision, but the subtle elements of his throws that squeeze every last bit of offensive potential out of their receiver. Jokić will twist the ball into angles you didn’t know existed, through windows that you didn’t know were open and along alleyways that seem like graveyards for possessions. And, of course, even if you shut down those thoroughfares, you have to account for his capacity to make the most maddening shot in NBA history: the “Sombor Shuffle.”
None of the two-time MVP’s nonconformist skills, of course, are new to NBA fans. But what is a welcome development in the Mile High City this season is the growth of Jokić’s supporting cast. After more than a season of missing action after a torn ACL, Jamal Murray is ramping back into the form he displayed during multiple playoff runs as Jokić’s right-hand man. Upgrades at the wing position and the growth of young players like Bones Hyland offer room for optimism as well — though the aforementioned non-Jokić minutes continue to plague Denver. All of that has led to perhaps the feather in the cap of Jokić’s MVP case: the Nuggets’ current perch atop the West. (As of now, FiveThirtyEight’s model projects Denver to wind up with the second-best record in the West, behind the Memphis Grizzlies.)
There’s a good reason why Jokić might not climb the MVP mountain for the third straight season, even if he keeps up his torrid pace through April. Voter fatigue is a real thing, and heading into the 2022-23 NBA season, few prognosticators thought Jokić could be even better than he was in his first two award-winning seasons — thought to be a prerequisite for three-peating. And yet, there’s the Joker, back in the thick of the race for the Greatest Player on Earth, shuffling and barely dribbling at the high post as he slow-cooks another defense. No, you’re not “lazy,” as Nuggets coach Michael Malone put it recently, if you want new blood for the award. You just might not see the most invisible superstar in the NBA.
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