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The Denver Nuggets started Tuesday evening with coach Michael Malone arguing that three-time All-Star center Nikola Jokic has not received enough credit after winning last season’s Kia MVP.
“He is one of the more disrespected reigning MVP’s I can think of in terms of the attention that he gets,” Malone said. “But if you look up the dictionary and look up the word ‘consistency,’ there’s going to be a picture of Nikola there.”
The Nuggets ended that same evening stomaching the frustration that a picture of their team logo would not also be presented next to the word “consistency” in the dictionary. The Nuggets endured a 87-85 loss to the LA Clippers after squandering a 25–point lead. Technically, the game ended with Jokic missing a potential game-winning 3-pointer. But the loss mostly stemmed from the Nuggets’ on-going failure to fully capitalize on Jokic’s MVP-caliber season.
“We have a really good player that we can’t get the ball to,” Malone said. “We had a lot of guys who looked nervous out there.”
Denver also has a lot of guys who are not available.
The Nuggets (20-19) are sixth in the Western Conference partly because point guard Jamal Murray has remained sidelined all season while recovering from a surgically repaired ACL in his left knee. For the past two months, forwards Michael Porter Jr. (spine) and P.J. Dozier (left ACL) have also rehabbed from surgically-repaired injuries. Denver plays the Portland Trail Blazers (16-24) on Thursday in a nationally-televised game (10 ET, TNT) with players already missing a combined 162 games related to injuries and Health and Safety Protocols.
All of which has dampened Jokic’s consistent productivity in points (25.7), shooting percentage (56.3%), rebounds (14.1) and assists (7.0) performances. Those stats are drops from last season in scoring (26.4 ppg), assists (8.3) and shooting (56.6%) — with a solid uptick in rebounding (10.8).
“I know it’s going to be like that, especially because we miss players with injuries and COVID happens,” Jokic said. “I think everything is normal. I know personally we’re going to win some tough games. We’re going to win some easy games, not easy but games that we are up by 25 and supposed to win.”
Jokic spoke those words in a matter-of-fact tone. He has almost become resigned to the reality that he has to play at his absolute best just for the Nuggets to squeeze out wins. That’s hardly what the Nuggets faced when they advanced to the 2020 Western Conference finals after overcoming two consecutive 3-1 series deficits in the restart bubble in Orlando. Denver hoped to build off of that run in the 2020-21 season, only for the Phoenix Suns to sweep the Nuggets in Western Conference semifinals somewhat because of Murray’s season-ending injury.
Nikola is not sexy to people. But if you’re a true student of the game, then you appreciate him at the level he should be appreciated at. But he’s not going to be on SportsCenter dunking on somebody. He’s not going to block a shot into the third row.”
— Nuggets coach Michael Malone, on Nikola Jokic
Still, the Nuggets’ decimated roster usually has not deterred Jokic from fulfilling his usual responsibilities.
“There is no panic. There is no concern,” Malone said about Jokic’s mindset during the Nuggets’ adverse season. “‘I’m going to go out there and do my job.’ The best thing about Nikola is he has the ability to make everyone around him better, no matter who that is. That’s one of the other definitions I use to define a great player: ‘Those that make everyone around them better.’ He’s done that in his last three years, going on four years now better than anybody else in the league, in my opinion.”
There have been exceptions to Jokic’s stoicism and ability to make teammates better.
The NBA suspended Jokic for one game this season after committing a retaliatory shove to Miami Heat forward Markieff Morris. Jr., who has missed 31 consecutive games since then while nursing a subsequent spine injury.
In Denver’s Jan. 11 loss to the Clippers, Jokic (21 points on 9-of-14 shooting) and Aaron Gordon (30 points on 11-of-16 shooting) remained prolific while the rest of the team shot only 12-of-50 from the field (24%). And the Nuggets have also experienced significant winning streaks (five) and losing streaks (six).
“That’s basically our season right now — sometimes we’re good and sometimes we’re bad,” Jokic said.
During some of the bad, Malone said he has encouraged Jokic “to be more aggressive.” Yet, Malone has abstained from urging Jokic to shoot more for two reasons.
One, Malone noted that Jokic recently “has seen more double teams than he’s seen in the past 10 years.” Two, Malone remembered how a young LeBron James also fielded criticism for passing to open teammates when Malone worked with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ coaching staff (2005-10).
“That goes against the way that Nikola approaches the game. He’s not going to force the issue. If you put two guys on him,” Malone said. “I’m not saying Nikola and LeBron are the same player. But they approach the game the same way. They’re going to play the game the right way.”
In related news, Jokic has led the NBA this season for most 20/20 performances in points and rebounds (three). Jokic has joined James, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and James Harden as the only players to record three consecutive triple-doubles at least twice in their NBA career. And Jokic went through a seven-game stretch in which he averaged 26.9 ppg on 59.2% shooting along with 13.1 rpg and 10.1 apg.
Those numbers may not be enough for Jokic to defend his MVP, not with the Nuggets’ record where it is. And not with Jokic facing other candidates, including Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant or Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. To Malone’s disappointment, he might not be surprised.
“Nikola Jokic is just not sexy,” Malone said. He then paused before musing, “his wife might disagree.” As far as Jokic’s basketball game, though?
“Nikola is not sexy to people,” Malone said. “But if you’re a true student of the game, a coach or someone who loves the game being played the right way, then you appreciate him at the level he should be appreciated at. But he’s not going to be on SportsCenter dunking on somebody. He’s not going to block a shot into the third row. But if you appreciate passing, IQ, reading the game and just what he does every night from a scoring, rebounding and playmaking standpoint?”
Then, Malone might believe you have given Jokic his deserved respect. Then, Malone might believe you have enough sympathy for the tough circumstances Jokic has inherited this season.
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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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