Nikola Jokic listened intently with a thumb in his mouth.
Then, for 9 seconds, eyes darting back and forth, he pondered the question.
“How would you define what a Most Valuable Player is in the NBA?” a reporter asked.
“I don’t know,” Jokic mumbled. “The most, uh … I really don’t know. The top scorer? I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I really don’t know. For real, I don’t know.”
See, it’s difficult to process and even tougher to articulate the true definition when you already embody such a superlative. But that’s where we are with Jokic, who leads the Denver Nuggets into Friday’s back-to-back set against the Phoenix Suns as a legitimate candidate to win the 2021 Kia NBA Most Valuable Player Award.
He’s just the second player in NBA history to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists (25.1 ppg, 11.4 rpg and 10.0 apg) through their team’s first 14 games in a season. Oscar Robertson accomplished the feat in 1961-62, averaging 31.6 ppg to go with 13.0 apg and 12.9 rpg.
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) January 20, 2021
“As his teammates, we all knew that he was capable of this; capable of playing at the MVP caliber like he is,” Nuggets reserve guard P.J. Dozier said. “We’re just excited to be able to see it night in and night out. Him being so consistent with his numbers, with his stat line, helps us as a team a lot. Just individually, we’re excited for him, for him being such a force on the offensive end and also being a competitor at the defensive end. He’s taken pride on both ends of the court, putting up MVP numbers.”
The team’s 119-101 win against Oklahoma City on Tuesday served as evidence with Jokic racking up 15 points in the first quarter alone. Jokic didn’t even play in the fourth quarter after churning out his sixth game this season with 25 points or more and 10-plus rebounds.
Before the game, Thunder coach Mark Daigneault used football analogies to explain how to best defend Jokic.
“You want to pressure the quarterback,” he said. “If you just let him sit back and pick you apart, that’s what he’ll do.”Nikola Jokic picked up his 14th straight double-double.
Jokic has produced a double-double in all 14 games and is tied with Dallas Mavericks MVP candidate Luka Doncic for the league-high in triple-doubles (5). As the only player in the league currently averaging a triple-double, Jokic also ranks No. 5 in the NBA in steals per game (1.9), and if you’re into this sort of thing, he’s tops in fantasy scoring (57.1 points per game), too.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone jokingly attributed Jokic’s rise in production to an application of tough love.
“Yeah, I locked him in my office one day,” Malone said Tuesday night after the win over the Thunder. “And I beat him with a pillowcase filled with soda cans and said, ‘You’ve got to score more.’ You know how he is. He’s a great player. He’s playing at an MVP level. He goes out there tonight: 27, 12 and 6; only one turnover. Early on, they were playing him one-on-one. Sometimes, I get frustrated because I don’t think we give him the ball enough, especially when he’s being guarded one-on-one.
“Nikola has seen every possible double team, and so have we as a team. He’s always gonna take what the defense gives him, but he is being a lot more aggressive, which is what we need from him.”
With Denver’s offense flowing through Jokic firing water polo passes all over the floor with precision, the Nuggets rank third in the league in offensive rating (115.3), fifth in net rating (4.0), fifth in points (115.6), tied for second in assist ratio (19.2) and sixth in assist percentage (63.3).
The man just manipulates defenses. pic.twitter.com/GmnPQHqRX2
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) January 18, 2021
The Nuggets also sit at No. 3 in second-chance points (14.9), No. 9 in percentage of points in the paint (43.2%) and sixth in points in the paint (50.0).
Still, the gaudy offensive numbers haven’t consistency pushed Denver into the win column. Starting wing Michael Porter Jr. — in his first season as a full-time starter — has missed 10 consecutive games due to the league’s coronavirus protocols, but Malone said there’s a chance he could join the Nuggets on their upcoming five-game road trip. Porter averaged 19.5 ppg and 6.8 rpg over four games. So, his absence saps Denver of some of its offensive firepower.Where is Nikola Jokic’s place in the MVP conversation?
That has led to some lineup tinkering by Malone, who believes the Nuggets might finally be on the way to picking up from where they left off this past summer in the bubble. Denver became the first team in NBA playoff history to overcome 3-1 series deficits twice in the same postseason with dramatic wins over the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers in the first two rounds on the way to its first conference finals run since 2009.
Even after the Nuggets lost three of their best defenders in Jerami Grant, Torrey Craig and Mason Plumlee in the offseason, the expectation — based off the team’s playoff run and star power in Jokic and Jamal Murray — was that Denver could be a serious contender for years to come.
But the Nuggets stumbled out of the gates, dropping four of their first five to start the season. They’ve now won four of their last six outings.
“We haven’t figured it all out yet,” Malone said. “We’re going on a road trip coming up that’s going to be a hell of a challenge; nine days, five games. So, we’ll try to continue to figure it out on the road. We’re 7-7. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do. But I like this team a lot. They have a competitive spirit. They have gelled really quickly, considering you brought in seven new players.
“We’re getting closer and closer. We’ve had some tough losses; bounces haven’t gone our way. But hopefully, I think we’re 6-3 in our last nine games, and I feel like we’re getting back closer to the team that I believe we can be.”
Of course, Jokic plays a major role in that along with Murray. That’s why Jokic’s teammates continue to make sure the veteran big man receives his flowers for a job well done in carrying the Nuggets through an up-and-down season.
Nuggets guard Monte Morris made it a point to grab Jokic in the weight room recently after a game to explain just how much he means to the team’s success. Morris told Jokic that he compares favorably to former MVPs Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and called the center a Hall of Famer.
Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams believes “there’s really no weakness in his game.”
As for Jokic, he just takes all the praise in stride, and grinned when asked about Morris’ comments.
No long pause this time like when Jokic was asked how he would define an MVP in the NBA.
“It means a lot, just to have my back. I know that they trust me. I know that they’ve got my back,” Jokic said. “It’s nice to hear something like that.”
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