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Nikola Jokić is illustrating why he's the best player in basketball
There isn't a guy more dominant right now than Big Honey, who is three wins from an NBA Finals appearance
If there was any shred of doubt about who’s the most impactful player in the world, everyone can now rest at night knowing we’ve landed on the correct answer. That uncertainty is gone. It has been eradicated, and the imaginary honor should no longer be up for debate — for at least the next calendar year.
Of course, it’s silly to care about such a thing.
In June 2019, I surrendered to the notion that “Best Player in Sport X” is something that can shift pretty frequently. That 2018-19 season was, to me, the most interesting we’ve had in the context of this argument. LeBron James entered that year with the individual crown despite being swept in the Finals. He had just hauled a disgusting Cavaliers supporting cast to 12 playoff wins, dragging a group of defensively inept role players through the Eastern Conference only to run into a Bay Area buzzsaw.
When he joined the Lakers and started dealing with injuries, James had to give up the baton to others who were thriving. In my view, Stephen Curry had the most impactful per-minute production in 2019 and took that recognition from LeBron. But in the midst of that April-June 2019 playoff run, Kawhi Leonard elevated to the top and stole the show.
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From there, we’ve seen Giannis Antetokounmpo earn that distinction from the 2021 postseason to now. His physical nature and two-way dominance was — and still is — difficult to argue against. He makes teams feel his wrath on every possession, with the only way to limit him being to sell out your defense, throw extra bodies his way, and pray that he turns it over or his teammates miss open jumpers.
For the last two or three years, Giannis was widely considered the top dog.
Now, with the state of the Milwaukee Bucks up in the air and the Denver Nuggets sitting three wins shy of an NBA Finals berth, the offensive brilliance from Nikola Jokić has lifted him to the King’s chair.
I can already hear it now. “He was already there if you paid attention the last two years! He’s always been HIM in the playoffs, clown!”
Nobody that attentively watches basketball — and certainly not me, who’s been praising the Joker since the early days — would ever suggest he’s been a subpar playoff performer.
But to earn the crown and become the unassailable best player in the sport … you need to have THE run.
That’s all we were waiting on. THE magical run.
Jokić has planted his feet and made it clear. This is it.
Through 12 playoff games, the Nuggets are 9-3 while Jokić is averaging 31.0 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 10.1 assists per game. He’s shooting 57% from two, 51% on threes (43 total attempts), and nearly 80% at the foul line. Denver is +102 with him on the floor, and they are a 50-40-80 efficiency team when he’s in the game.
You might need to read that paragraph again to fully digest what this phenom is doing.
More than any other superstar in the league, Jokić has the ability to create environments in which there’s no path to shutting him down, or stalling his team’s offense. There might be clunky moments for a span of five minutes (see: Denver in the fourth quarter of Game 1), but as I’ve mentioned a few times before, the great ones always find timely counters. The legendary talents are never cornered or rattled for long.
About 90% of the time, the historical greats will always solve the equation when it matters. And in the 10% of instances they don’t, they will come back the following year with such ferocity and preparation that it won’t even be a problem they’re worried about.
Jokić, in this playoff run, is proving he has the answers to every test. You can’t stump him. He’s solved every riddle thrown his way after 12 games, and it’s the prime reason Denver looks unbeatable at home.
Jokic’s Game 1 performance versus the Lakers was one for the ages. At halftime, his line of 19 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, and two blocks had only been achieved by 20 other players in playoff history — in a full game. It was Jokic’s fourth time hitting those marks in a playoff game, tying him with Shaquille O’Neal for the second-most in history. AND THERE WAS STILL ANOTHER HALF TO PLAY.
When he finished the night with 34 points, 21 rebounds, and 14 assists, it felt like you just got done playing a quick game of NBA 2K on rookie difficulty (or, when you play against a little brother or cousin that hasn’t figured out which buttons to press). Considering it also came on 82.8% true shooting, you would never guess he was matched against the most dominant defender in the league in Anthony Davis. It actually gave Jokić the same number of playoff games as Kobe Bryant with at least 30 points on 70% or better. With one more, he’ll break into the top 10 of that career list.
It doesn’t matter what the stakes are — he’s going to show up. The way he enters a playoff game and casually puts up a 30-point triple double like it’s some random Tuesday in January against the Hornets is the funniest part.
He makes it look normal. But his normal is already such a ridiculously high bar.
The separator in most ‘legacy’ or ‘all-time’ discussions is how a player performs in the postseason.
Do they crumble under the bright lights? Although basketball is a team sport and there’s plenty of credit or blame to pass around after a series, does Player X leave more to be desired from an individual perspective? How much did they impact the final outcome? Did they outperform their contemporaries?
Then, perhaps the biggest question: During the most pivotal part of the year, when defenses aren’t giving an inch, how much did their effectiveness change compared to the regular season?
With the nature of playoff defenses being more physical and air-tight on every possession, there’s naturally going to be some dropoff in efficiency from the regular season. With superstars playing more minutes in April-June and absorbing more usage, the per-game counting numbers are supposed to be higher (shhh, nobody tell Joel Embiid).
To account for minutes and pace differences, let’s look at Jokic’s per-75 possession numbers from the regular season to the playoffs. For the sake of this comparison, we’ll start from the 2018-19 campaign since that’s when he appeared in his first playoff series.
Not only does Jokić get more productive on a per-possession basis … his efficiency is still phenomenal:
Despite the dip in free throw frequency, he’s still scoring more points in the playoffs than his regular season figures. You can credit his three-point touch for that, as the huge increase in efficiency from those areas is something that isn’t discussed enough.
Tuesday was Jokic’s 60th career playoff game. After his dominant showing, he joined an illustrious group of players to average at least 25 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists in their first 60 postseason appearances.
“Group” was generous, because it’s only one name.
Nikola Jokić and LeBron James are the only players to hold those averages after 60 playoff games.
In terms of Box Plus-Minus, they are virtually tied (+10.5 for Jokić, +10.4 for LeBron). Jokic’s 61.4% true shooting mark is six percentage points higher than LeBron’s during his first 60 playoff games.
The outlandish takes we’ve had to deal with the last two years, claiming Jokic “can’t get it done” in the postseason, are now locked in a casket and buried. With a capable supporting cast (and actual shooting) around him, there should be no more questioning if he CAN lead the Nuggets to a title.
He absolutely can. Whether or not it happens will require a good bill of health for the next few weeks.
We should probably dive into some of what Jokić did in Game 1 vs. LA.
The beautiful part of Jokic’s attack is that he isn’t afraid to turn into a bruising score-first player when the situation calls for it. He lit up the Suns in the second round when they dared him to score 50, and he’ll do the same to the Lakers if they keep single coverage on him.
With the ball in his hands looking to score, Jokić was eating AD’s lunch. This was particularly evident in the first half, with Jokić making sure he got directly to the mid-post off the cross screen action.
As Jokić catches it and feels AD’s weight against him, look what he does:
This was wicked. The very millisecond he felt AD’s hand touch his back, he spun viciously to the paint and used Davis’ leverage against him.
In the playoffs, Jokić has 1.13 points per post-up opportunity, shooting 57.4% on those looks. For comparison, Davis has scored just 0.74 points per possession on post-ups, shooting 38.2%. Embiid, the league MVP, was producing 1.05 points per post-up, shooting 42.1%.
It was borderline alarming how Jokić was treating the Lakers’ defense, especially with this next sequence.
Three possessions, three different options out of the same play.
He started at the nail, getting the cross-screen from KCP so that he can post-up on his favorite side. When he gets the ball, Schröder has a decision to make. With Murray just one pass away, Schröder can stay at home and leave AD on an island, or dig down and force the ball out of his hands.
They leave Jokić in single coverage, so he just abuses Davis and scores the bucket:
Exactly one minute later, he gets the cross screen and goes into his post-up. This time, KCP’s defender turns his back and anticipates a Jokić scoring opportunity. Instead, the big man throws a dart to the cutting KCP, and there’s no weakside rim protection:
On the next trip down, the Nuggets run it once again! This time, Davis goes under the KCP screen and tries to ‘shoot the gap’ to recover to Jokić on the perimeter. So, what does Jokić do?
He simply takes one dribble, engages the nearest defender (Reaves) and creates this corner jumper for Porter one pass away:
Jokić is always directing his teammates to spots like a traffic officer. He knows the weakest spots to attack and when to spam a certain halfcourt set. Perhaps his greatest trait is understanding the importance of getting his teammates in a comfortable rhythm early in the game.
Here, he starts the possession by making eye contact with Michael Porter Jr. and pointing where to be. With Jamal Murray being a critical ingredient for Denver’s offense, the Joker wants Porter to get to the right elbow — this triggers their “Chicago” action, which is a quick pindown on Murray’s man that flows into a dribble handoff with Jokić:
This is Denver’s way of putting guards through hell. Dennis Schröder, for the most part, did a masterful job of chasing Golden State’s lethal scorers around screens in the last series. But the Nuggets are banking on their screening actions putting more strain on the Lakers’ guards, particularly if they have to chase around multiple screens on the same action. Schröder gets hung up on the Porter pindown, making a step behind while chasing Murray.
And it doesn’t matter how good a player is at screen navigation. If they are constantly being run through actions and forced to get around Jokić, even the most disciplined teams will concede good looks.
That’s why the Jokić & Murray ball-screen handoff is among the deadliest plays of this era. Forget the last few years. It’s probably second to only the Steph-Draymond pick & roll when you combine the frequency (how much they rely on it) with the absurd efficiency it yields.
On this first play below, Murray sets a dummy backscreen for Gordon, which makes Schröder pause for just a half second as Gordon cuts. It ultimately leads to Murray utilizing a Jokić screen for a clean 3-pointer. The second play is a simple post-entry feed by Murray, who does a terrific job of running Austin Reaves into the Jokić screen. When the handoff is complete, AD is dropped into the paint and allows the mid-ranger:
That’s the thing about Jokić: His playmaking is so different than any other player in the league. Sure, you have the glamorous cross-court passes, or the no-look, behind-the-head feeds to a cutter when he’s posting up. But the vast majority of his setups are through handoffs and freeing up his guys with sturdy screens.
As an offensive initiator, there’s nobody better. At 81.1 passes per game during the playoffs, he’s making 14.5 more passes per game than the next-highest player and a full 27 more passes than the next center on the list (Sabonis). He generates 24.9 points per game off his assists, meaning he’s accounted for nearly 56 total points, on average, for Denver’s offense during this postseason run. That’s simply bonkers.
Where he truly kills you is from the elbow, the station where Dirk Nowitzki operated and inflicted most of his damage for two decades. I would say imagine having a seven-foot Chris Paul in the middle of the floor, able to dissect the defense with his passing threat … but we don’t have to imagine. That’s how Jokić has tortured teams since 2016, before he really became a household name.
The Nuggets love to pull out this modified split action, not too dissimilar from what Golden State runs with Draymond and the dynamic shooters. When Jokić catches the ball here, KCP and Bruce Brown come together as if one of them is screening. When they ‘split’ apart, Jokić decides to keep it himself and use Davis’ guarding position to his advantage:
As soon as Davis smothered him and slightly jumped, it was over. For a player that gets criticized for his agility, Jokić sure dusted the Lakers off the dribble in the first half of Game 1.
Jokic’s diverse skill-set and how he blends efficient scoring with an unselfish approach is what makes him the most complete player in basketball.
After all, how frequently do you see a center (especially one this large) receiving a pindown from his point guard with the goal of creating an open jumper? Outside of Denver, Karl Towns is the only one who consistently flies off these kind of screens looking to score immediately:
That possession above started with ‘Flex’ action, which was the cross-screen Jokić set for Porter in the right corner. It was just a dummy screen before Murray came down and screened two people at once (AD and his own man).
Note: Another takeaway I have from watching the first half film is just how slow the Lakers looked defensively in those 24 minutes. Expect them to be more dialed in to begin Game 2, reacting quicker to screens, and trying to blow up Denver’s quick-hitters.
When Jokić is required to put the ball on the floor, the defense is never safe. Because if you’re looking for a reason Denver has scored 123.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in the playoffs … it’s how easily he punishes double teams:
If Christian Braun is on the court, the Lakers are likely going to help off and throw an extra body at Jokić any time they can. With Jokić working on a cleared side, he sees D’Angelo Russell digging down from the nail. That triggered Lonnie Walker to step closer to Braun, as he’s trying to zone-up between two shooters.
As you could see, that’s where the Nuggets’ IQ will make you pay. KCP quickly makes the ‘45 cut’ from the slot, giving Jokić another passing angle out of the double team. Go back and look at how Jokić contorts his body. He’s ready to sling a one-handed pass to the opposite corner (you’ll see Gordon setting the pin-in screen for Brown). Instead, it’s a hell of a dime to the cutting KCP.
The biggest knock against Jokić in the postseason is that he’s not versatile or mobile enough defensively to survive against elite shot creators or pick & roll scorers.
It was not wrong the last few years. Factually, he’s not the best pick & roll defender against pull-up scorers.
But in the second round against Phoenix, he showed tremendous strides on defense. He ended those talking points fairly quickly and told everyone to find a new slant. He was effective in ball-screen coverage, coming up higher to the level of the screen and disrupting the handler — sometimes forcing turnovers, but mostly just taking away the easy ‘walk into a jumpshot’ possessions we would see from Golden State and Phoenix in the last two playoff runs.
This is where the analysis has always fallen short, though. One of these days, people will understand there’s no perfect basketball player. LeBron James is the closest we’ve seen.
There will be weaknesses in everyone’s game.
The only thing that matters is how much value you provide for your team in the aggregate. When you’re the best offensive engine in basketball, serving as the hub that everyone on the court flows through, and you seemingly have every answer when things go awry, the defensive concerns aren’t as painful.
Entering the prime of his career, the Joker is almost at the mountaintop. He’s already one of the most productive playoff forces in history without the postseason accolades.
If this dominance continues, make more room in that trophy case.
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