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The Nuggets Look Mediocre, But Nikola Jokić Is Setting The World On Fire

The list of NBA MVPs over the past five years is a mishmash of guys with superhero-level talents.

Stephen Curry, the greatest shooter on the planet and someone who’s comfortable gunning from nearby ZIP codes. Russell Westbrook, the terrifyingly athletic stat-stuffer who seems to hurt innocent rims for no apparent reason. James Harden, the efficiency expert whose stepback footwork puts Victor Cruz to shame. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who often teleports from halfcourt to the rim with a single dribble and somehow produces in the paint like Shaq despite having a Stretch Armstrong-like elasticity.

It’s not clear yet who is set to join that group this season, or what superpower that player will possess. But with almost 20 percent of the season in the books, Nikola Jokić is playing like one of those MVP mutants.

Through 14 games, the Denver star is averaging 25.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 10 assists, numbers that would make him just the third player,1 and first big man, in history to average a triple-double. (He’s also ranked first in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR WAR metric by a wide margin.) But perhaps the scariest thing about those numbers? Jokić is usually a bit of a slow starter from season to season. The second month of the season — November most years — has historically been his worst, by far.

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Nuggets coach Michael Malone has praised Jokić for performing so well in light of the quick turnaround from last season to this one. And maybe that shorter-than-usual period between the campaigns has been helpful, allowing him to stay in shape as he vies to become the first center to win MVP in more than two decades.2

Whatever the reason, though, the dominance has been clear. Heading into Friday night’s games, he had a career-best true-shooting percentage of almost 66, one of the NBA’s top-five marks among players who have taken at least 15 shots per game. And he’s managed this while posting a career-high usage rate of 28 percent, a burden he’s had to take on with Jamal Murray banged up and Michael Porter Jr. out of the lineup. “I locked him in my office one day and I beat him with a pillowcase full of soda cans and said, ‘You gotta score more.’ You know how he is,” said Malone, speaking to his center’s unselfish nature.

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But the added scoring responsibility Jokić has taken on — going from 20 points last year to 25 now — hasn’t made him any less of a distributor. He throws the kinds of passes that make you wish Vine still existed, whether it’s a ridiculous rebound and full-court outlet pass that he throws with one motion, or a water polo-esque dime that he throws after standing stationary for five or six seconds. We’ve reached a point now where it doesn’t make sense to debate whether he’s the best passing center anymore. He clearly is.3

For all the superlatives Jokić deserves, there are shortfalls that could end up denting his MVP case. While Denver has had its moments of improvement on defense by having Jokić play farther up in the Nuggets’ pick-and-roll scheme, the club’s defense has been pretty brutal — something we likely could have expected after the team lost versatile defenders like Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig during the offseason. Jokić has been disruptive, ranking near the top of the league in steals — rare for a center — but Denver’s porous D has managed to be 6.4 points per 100 possessions worse with Jokić than it’s been without him. (Over the past 20 years, only one player, Steve Nash, won MVP with a below-average defense.)

And while Jokić has shot well in the clutch this season (12-for-24 overall, 2-of-5 from deep), his best attribute hasn’t shined in those moments. He’s logged just three assists to go with five turnovers in 35 clutch minutes, a far cry from the almost 3-to-1 assist-turnover ratio he enjoyed in the clutch last season. In turn, the Nuggets have gone just 1-6 in games within 5 points over the last five minutes of action.

It’s early, and the team hasn’t been at full strength. But Jokić’s chances of winning MVP would obviously get a boost if Denver finishes with a far better record than the pedestrian 7-7 record it owns now. Since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, just two players — Westbrook in 2017 and Moses Malone in 1982 and 1979 — have won the award while playing for teams that won less than 60 percent of their regular-season games.

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Beyond those things, it’s a safe bet that at some point Jokić and his teammates will come back down to earth some with their shooting. As of Friday, the big man was hitting 62.5 percent of his midrange jumpers, the NBA’s best mark among players who had taken at least 25 such shots. For context, the only player to hit 60 percent or better from midrange in the 24 years shot-location data has been recorded is Stephen Curry, in 2017-18.4 (Most elite players never touch even 55 percent on such looks in a given season.)

And the Nuggets have somehow logged a sterling 72.7 percent effective field-goal rate — the equivalent of a wide-open, 3-point look from Chris Paul last season — when taking uncontested jumpers off Jokić passes, according to Second Spectrum data. Put another way, that figure is a whopping 18 percentage points higher than an average player would be expected to make on those same attempts.5

So, yes, there’s evidence to suggest that Jokić may slow down a bit as the season wears on. But even if that turns out to be true, between his numbers and passing highlights that prompt us to hit rewind, Jokić — part tortoise, part sharpshooting wizard — is making a case that he’s simply not of this planet.

Chris Herring contributed to this report.

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  1. Westbrook and Oscar Robertson being the first two.

  2. Shaquille O’Neal won it during the 1999-2000 season.

  3. While he’s within range of setting an NBA record for the highest assist average for a non-guard (LeBron James dished out 10.2 assists last year), Jokić’s miscues are at career-high levels, too, at four turnovers per game. But Malone has said that’s natural, given how much the center has been asked to do for the offense.

  4. On at least 50 attempts over the course of a season.

  5. This is known as qSQ, Second Spectrum’s quantified Shot Quality metric.

T.J. McBride is a Denver-based writer and reporter covering the Denver Nuggets.