OKLAHOMA CITY — Nikola Jokic’s methodical pace is by design. His gift is turning slow into savvy.
When he caught the ball halfway between the 3-point line and the right block Wednesday night vs. Oklahoma City, any urgency would’ve undermined the process. Instead, as he absorbed attention first from Derrick Favors, and later from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander along the baseline, he was letting his teammates and the defense adjust to his advantage.
It was a full three seconds after Jokic caught the ball that he whipped a left-handed lob across the court and into the 3-point shooting pocket of Monte Morris. Attune to what Jokic was thinking, Aaron Gordon screened Morris’ defender, meaning Morris found himself as open as he’ll ever be on an NBA court. The 3-pointer was easy, a byproduct of Jokic’s gravitational force.
The MVP does it all. pic.twitter.com/IjGcT2zk6b
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) December 23, 2021
“He’s reading the defense way better,” Morris told The Denver Post when asked what makes Jokic better this season over last. “He’s telling guys where our shots really gonna be at before the game.”
Before the game.
Jokic’s encore to winning the MVP in a landslide last season is, somehow, more impressive than the initial act. His scoring (25.9 points per game) is eighth in the NBA, but within that, he’s the most efficient scorer in the top-10. He’s on pace to shatter his career-high at 13.5 rebounds per game, which is second overall in the NBA. And his passing, at 7.2 assists per game, remains unassailable. It wasn’t his fault the Nuggets struggled so much from 3-point range throughout the first month-plus of the season.
Nikola Jokic is posting numbers that have never been seen in NBA history.
No player has averaged even 25/13/6 in a season. pic.twitter.com/KPISL2eEGH
— StatMuse (@statmuse) December 14, 2021
He’s also the darling of the analytics crowd, with a league-leading 33.00 Player Efficiency Rating, according to Basketball Reference. Necessary context: no player in NBA history has ever eclipsed 32 for a full season. When he won the MVP last season, his PER was merely 31.28, only the 11th-best individual season in NBA history.
Among players and coaches, theories abound on Jokic’s improvements. Some think he’s processing the game quicker than before.
“It’s moving even slower for him,” Will Barton said. “He’s just in control of everything.”
Others think, at 26, he’s at his physical peak, a testament to his longstanding commitment to his body.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone has a different theory.
“The thing that jumps out to me, and I’m gonna say this, and people not in Denver, but people around the NBA will scoff at it, he’s a very effective defensive player,” Malone said. “You can’t say he’s not. All the other analytics they use for other players, when you apply those same analytics to Nikola Jokic, he should be an All-Defensive player.”
With Jokic on the court, Denver’s defensive rating is 103.7, according to NBA.com. With him off the court, it’s 114.8. That’s roughly the difference between an elite defense and the worst defense in the NBA.
Internally, the Nuggets have empowered Jokic to decide how to play some of his defensive coverages. In the pick-and-roll, they’ve entrusted him to play his brand of cat and mouse with the ball handler, either blitzing at the level of the screen or dropping back to bait the dribbler. The ploy has worked: Among all centers, Jokic is second with both 1.3 steals per game and 2.5 deflections per game.
“I tell a lot of people (he’s underrated defensively),” Morris said. “His hands are really, really good. He’s got long arms. He helps me in the pick-and-roll most of the time.”
Whatever athleticism he lacks, Jokic makes up for in his coordination and processing. His brain, among his best tools, has become an asset on both ends of the court.
Though his demeanor hasn’t changed — “still the same big, goofy, lovable guy that everyone loves to be around,” according to Malone — at least three players said Jokic has been more vocal. It takes time, Malone said, for foreign-born players to find their voice. Now in his seventh season, Jokic is getting more comfortable with his.
“He’s become more of a leader,” Barton said. “He’s more talkative now. He understands this is his show, this is his team, and we go as he goes.”
At 15-16 on the season as of Friday, winning back-to-back MVPs is a longshot for now. Steph Curry has the Warriors rejuvenated, and both Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo have their respective teams jockeying for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Why isn’t Jokic getting his due attention thus far?
“Same reason we ain’t got no Christmas game,” Morris said. “They just look at Denver, not being like an L.A. market, (crap) like that. They just try to overlook everything we do.”
In reality, Jokic’s case will be wedded to team success. If Jokic can somehow lift the Nuggets to a top-four finish, his historic candidacy will be impossible to ignore.
“Real basketball analysts know,” Morris said. “As far as guys who played in the league, former players, former Hall of Famers, they know it’s hard to go back-to-back and have better numbers the following year. If I was Nikola, I wouldn’t really even be mad about it because the real always come to the top. Once the trophy is passed out, and it’s not given to him, and his numbers are better than all of them, it’s laughable.”