Here is as satisfying a highlight as this NBA season will produce:
That’s reigning MVP Nikola JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡ of the Denver Nuggets giving the business to Sacramento’s Damian Jones earlier this month. Like most of the Serbian center’s best plays, it begs for metaphor — a boulder running a slalom course, maybe — but the bare-bones breakdown is plenty fun on its own. The behind-the-back dribble, the giving-ground hesitation, the acceleration into one pivot, another, another. The shot slung up underhanded with his sneakers some 6 inches off the floor. Like JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡’s macro approach, the sequence was technically pristine and goofily inspired, equal parts textbook and slapstick. (“I did like seven spins,” he guessed postgame.) Only one player could have authored it.
JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡’s passing is, of course, The Thing: the hub of an offense that has landed back in the top third of the NBA during a Jamal Murray-less season, the source of his hold on basketball fans’ imaginations. But the spectacle of rim-to-rim outlets and table-clearing no-looks — or maybe the natural assumption that somebody who has created a new way to play can’t also have mastered an old one — leaves an aspect of his game still underrated. Among everything else, JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡ has become the best frontcourt bucket-getter alive, and one of the best ever.
JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡ leads the league in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR rating by a wide margin. He has averaged 26.3 points a game this season, right in line with his MVP campaign, and his player efficiency rating of 32.7 would set a single-season record.1 His career-high true shooting percentage, 65.9, is better than what Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo have ever maintained over a full year.2 Only two big men in NBA history3 have finished a season averaging more than 20 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 65 or higher; JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡ is in the process of becoming the third.
Swap out true shooting percentage for 2-point percentage, a more helpful marker of across-era brutishness, and the company gets even more exclusive.
Even to his acolytes, seeing “the Joker” trailing only “the Stilt” in a bully-ball metric might come as something of a shock. Appraising JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡ as a scorer presents the same challenge as watching, say, an early career Steph Curry or Dirk Nowitzki. The bulk of his points come in ways that still seem like they shouldn’t consistently work. Curry fired off threes in closer quarters and from farther distances than any MVP type had ever done before; Nowitzki hoisted fadeaways that felt, the first few thousand times, like forfeitures of a 7-footer’s advantage. JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡ doesn’t have as obvious a calling card as those two — he gets it done via water-fountain hooks, half-speed drives and the one-legged Sombor Shuffle — but gives off the same dissonance. Set next to Joel Embiid’s jumpers-and-jams tool kit, a play like the one JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡ pulled against Sacramento, with its nested fakes and loopy lay-in, looks convoluted to the point of unsustainability.
Only he has sustained it, and then some, from all sectors of the floor. Though Embiid has doubled up JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡ in dunks this season, 61 to 29, JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡’s 72 percent shooting at the rim matches the Sixers center, per Cleaning the Glass. His 59 percent midrange mark is better than anything Dirk ever managed. There has always lingered, in the discussion around JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡, a tendency to qualify his accomplishments. Nuggets coach Mike Malone has suggested that calling him the best passing big man in the game is too-faint praise; something similar might be said of his scoring. JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡ isn’t just a leveled-up Arvydas Sabonis, good enough to draw the double-teams that lead to all those pretty drop-offs. In effect if not in style, he’s Jason Kidd stapled to Shaquille O’Neal.
Even JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡ has trouble seeing himself in these terms. “I know there are better players than me,” he told Sports Illustrated earlier this month, “and there will be better players than me in the future.” If basketball amounted to the unlocking of ever-more-extreme athletic maneuvers, he would be unquestionably right; he’ll never run the floor like Giannis or lift off like Embiid. But offensive basketball especially is more accurately about avoiding or counteracting a fast-shifting set of obstacles, about having answers to as many questions as a defense can throw at you. “He’s too damn good. It’s not fair all the things he can do,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, no stranger to well-schooled big men, said earlier this season. “Talk about skills, anticipation and decisions, he’s fantastic. Great hands, scores in every which way, involves all his teammates.”
In a mid-January outburst against the Clippers, in which he put up a season-high 49 points to go along with 14 rebounds and 10 assists in an overtime win, JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡’s shot chart was all optimization. Strip away the three triples and the 14-of-16 free-throw shooting, and the dense clump of paint baskets might have belonged to Shaq. Where you could pretty much guess at the particulars of a Lakers-era Diesel game from the box score, though — drop-step, dunk, jump hook, in whichever sequence — you have to roll the tape to see how JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡ got his. Every category of finish comes from every combination of buildup: a backdown into a push-floater, a James Harden-style downshift into a layup. Look at the way Ivica Zubac’s arms hang down after JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡ hits him with a relatively conventional spin-and-banker at the 1:45 mark. That’s the exhaustion of someone who can’t know what’s coming next.
If JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡’s passing chops began and ended with by-the-book kickouts, of course, he wouldn’t hold quite the same perch. His ability to plant himself at the elbow and parcel out dishes to all manner of cutters gives the whole Nuggets offense, JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡ included, the space it needs to operate. Every variable affects every other; there’s no telling how much more aggressive teams would get sending extra defenders if all they had to worry about was a toss back out to the 3-point line.
On some level, though, that’s the old impulse to explain away what JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡ does, to frame his dominance as some kind of ruse. It surely feels that way at times, too, to the back-line behemoths who can wall off dunk attempts but are helpless against his catalog of oversharp angles and above-the-backboard arcs. It might feel that way to JokiÐÐââÐÐ¡ himself, in those moments where he wonders what it would be like to add a foot or two to his vertical. But what’s the difference between a ruse and a true advantage, other than being able to go to the latter again and again?
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