Under the most difficult of circumstances, Nikola Jokic has never been better

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports /

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic has never been better and he’s keeping the Denver Nuggets afloat without two of his most talented teammates.

In a competitive Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets have managed to stay afloat this season without Michael Porter Jr and Jamal Murray, who both averaged 19-plus points per game last season. As of today, Denver is ranked sixth in the Western Conference, sitting at 22-20. Much of this can be attributed to the play of Nikola Jokic, the NBA’s reigning MVP, who is in the midst of one of the best statistical seasons in history.

As improbable as it may seem, Jokic has elevated his performance from last season, keeping the Nuggets’ playoff hopes alive in what many anticipated to be a lost year. Jokic currently leads Denver in points (25.3), rebounds (13.9), assists (7.4), steals (1.3) and blocks per game (0.8). Remarkably, Jokic is also playing just 32.7 minutes per game, about two minutes less than last season.

One of the things that has helped keep Denver afloat this season is the offense they’ve effectively built around their superstar center. Denver epitomizes today’s era of positionless basketball, utilizing Jokic in a myriad of spots on the floor that enable him to fluctuate between a traditional big man, and an extraordinary, playmaking point-center, sometimes within the same possession. It’s as customary to see Jokic at the top of the key, entrusted to make the correct read, as it is to see him receiving an entry pass in the low-post, with an opposing center on his back.

Nikola Jokic’s passing, awareness and court vision have made every one of his teammates more effective

This versatility leverages Jokic’s most important skill – his passing. For the season, Jokic is averaging a career-high in assist percentage, at 42.1, good for fourth in the NBA, and first among all centers. The big man is also first in passes made, with 72.6, beating out second-place Kyle Lowry by a margin of 6.4 per game – a reflection of just how much responsibility he carries as the hub for his team’s offense. There isn’t a pass that Jokic is incapable of making, allowing Jokic to weaponize any teammate he shares the floor with at any given moment.

However, the biggest leap Jokic has taken in a statistical category this season is rebounding. With an average of 13.9 rebounds per game, Jokic is currently second in boards per game, and the league leader in defensive rebounding percentage, at a whopping 37.4 percent, which is nearly 10 percentage points higher than his career average.

By crashing the boards at such a high rate, particularly on the defensive end, Jokic is constantly putting pressure on opposing defenses from the moment a change of possession occurs. Similar to elite rebounding guards, the Joker accelerates the offense by immediately scanning the floor, forcing defenses to hurry back in transition, and throwing a wrench in match-ups with a 7-footer initiating the offense. There are very few players who can turn a defensive rebound into a fastbreak as quickly or effectively as Jokic – this season he’s already recorded 35 assists that came within seven seconds of him securing a defensive rebound.

By building their offense around Jokic, the Nuggets have been able to mask some of their offensive shortcomings this season. Denver’s offense is predicated on Jokic’s playmaking and the pieces that revolve around him. These pieces are constantly probing, cutting, and relocating, giving Jokic time to survey the defense or to attack for himself.

Last season, Porter Jr. and Murray were the two largest beneficiaries of this system, receiving kick-outs, handoffs, and lead passes from the Joker that enabled them to score profusely. While their absences are significant, the players that replaced them are still serviceable due to Jokic’s playmaking brilliance, and the unique system the Nuggets use.

Here is Jokic and Murray playing a two-man game on the perimeter playing off Jokic’s gravity and the threat of a Murray back-cut to create open space.

Monte Morris is not the same tier of shooter or creator that Murray is but you can see here, running a very similar action, it doesn’t really matter when he’s shooting with this much space.

Here, Jokic patiently draws a double-team in the post, waits for the cutters to come through, and then hits Porter Jr. wide open on the wing.

Aaron Gordon isn’t nearly the outside shooter that Porter Jr. is but he can be pretty dangerous when he’s working with like eight feet of space.

36 games into the season, Jokic has had one of the most efficient performances we have ever seen. As of today, the center currently leads the NBA in Box Plus-Minus (BPM), at 13.70. This is the highest BPM in NBA history, ranking above LeBron’s 2008-09 season, and Michael Jordan’s 1987-88 season. Even more impressively, this is the second consecutive year Jokic has had a BPM rating within the top five of all-time, with last year’s rating of 12.09 ranking fourth in history.

What’s remarkable is the context in which Jokic is doing this. Without his two most important offensive assets from last year, Jokic is scoring, shooting, and passing at nearly the same rate, and has taken another leap in his rebounding. More importantly, even with a career-high usage rating of 31.8 percent, Jokic is more efficient than he’s ever been. With each passing game, it becomes clearer that Denver is more reliant than ever on their center, and Jokic is delivering, carrying the Nuggets’ postseason hopes with him.

While he isn’t likely to win the MVP award this year, Jokic’s season shouldn’t be lost amongst the gaudy stat lines of his counterparts. Denver’s postseason aspirations rest firmly upon the shoulders of their reigning MVP, and for now, the Nuggets are in the playoff picture. Whether the Joker can sustain this level of play remains to be seen, but if so, we should be quick to recognize it for what it is – one of the finest offensive performances of all time, and possibly the most efficient season we’ve ever seen from a center in the modern era.

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