Are Nikola Jokić And The Nuggets Ready To Strike NBA Gold?
The Denver Nuggets are familiar with being there or thereabouts in the Western Conference. They lost in the first round of the playoffs nine times in ten seasons between 2003 and 2013. A period in the doldrums before Nikola Jokic’s rise to superstardom preceded two conference semi-finals and a conference finals appearance across the last three seasons.
Hope is never far away when it comes to this franchise but the championship success remains at arm's length.
However, the window is open.
Currently 23-21 for 6th in the Western Conference, the Nuggets are once again close, but so far away.
Denver tipped the season off amongst the mid-range championship contenders at 4%. Surrounded by the likes of the 76ers, Warriors, Heat and Suns, every mid-range team had a path to the championship if everything broke the right way - and then some.
For the Nuggets, their questions centred around point guard Jamal Murray.
Would he return from his ACL injury in a timely fashion? There is still no return date and it sounds as though neither Murray nor the Nuggets are prepared to take too many risks this season.
Will Murray be able to play at a playoff level if he does get on the court this season? That remains to be seen, obviously. It typically takes 18 months for a player to fully recover from an ACL injury. He averaged 21.2 points, 4 rebounds and 4.8 assists before going down last season.
Can Michael Porter Jr. make the leap so many are expecting and pick up the slack in Murray’s absence? Porter Jr. started to find some consistency in his game to average 19 points per game while shooting 44.5% from beyond the arc in 2020-21. However, he has only managed nine games this season and certainly didn’t display the sort of potential that could make up for Murray. His return would help but is likely to require a lot more nursing into the lineup should he suit up again this season.
Unfortunately for the Nuggets, and it’s reflected in their current 3.2% to win the championship, we don’t have many answers. What we do know is that Jokic is a championship-calibre player and possible MVP.
He’s the hope.
Despite being without the next two best players on the roster, Jokic has put the team on his back and kept them in contention. The brilliant Serb is putting up incredible numbers and doing it every night. The Nuggets are awful during the minutes without him, but lucky for them, he's doing enough across his 33.2 minutes per game for his team to regularly pick up wins.
The Case For MVP
The debate around what exactly makes a player ‘the most valuable’ always pops up in situations like these. By definition - “having desirable or esteemed characteristics or qualities” - Jokic is it.
He influences the game in every way and makes everybody around him better.
He’s 8th - ahead of Donovan Mitchell - in points per game (26.1), 2nd - behind only Rudy Gobert - in rebounds per game (13.8) and 9th - alongside LaMelo Ball - in assists per game (7.6). No other player in the league is in the Top 10 in all three categories.
There is absolutely no question that Jokic is putting up MVP numbers. As it stands, he’s playing out one of the best individual seasons ever.
Currently posting a +14.1 box plus-minus, Jokic leads the league in the category and is ahead of LeBron James’ +13.2 in 2008-09 for the best box plus-minus in NBA history. In addition, Jokic’s current 33.06 player efficiency rating is also the best in NBA history beating out Wilt Chamberlain's 50.4 points, 25.7 rebounds and 32.1 PER way back in 1961-62.
The numbers tell us one thing: Jokic is playing out a historically incredible season.
The eye-test tells us the same:
His numbers compare to his MVP season, but the debate now becomes about how much we should factor in the absences of Murray and Porter Jr. and how many wins are required to win the award.
There isn’t a set criteria for how many games a player’s team must win to be considered for the award but Jokic does have some history on his side. Per Stat Muse, Bob Pettit’s St. Louis Hawks won only 33 games throughout the 1955-56 season. More recently, Russell Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder won 46 games in 2016-17 and LeBron James’ Miami Heat won 46 games in 2011-12.
With FiveThirtyEight projecting the Nuggets to win 46 games and Cleaning The Glass projecting 43.2 wins, Jokic, in typical Nuggets fashion, will be there or thereabouts in the wins required department.
Murray and Porter Jr. once again become a talking point. Can they return early enough to help the Nuggets win a few extra games an inch closer to the much cleaner 50 wins? If they don’t and Jokic still manages to land around the 48-50 win mark, should the fact he did that without his number two and three be a significant factor in voting?
Jokic is the best and most influential player in the league right now. History suggests he can and his numbers more than prove that he should be the favourite to win the award at this point of the season.
Here comes the hope again...
The Nuggets are close. It’s not difficult to imagine the Nuggets sitting alongside the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference if Murray and Porter Jr. had been available to play beside Jokic playing the way he is right now.
Nuggets faithful are now talking amongst themselves about whether or not it's worth bringing either of them back if they’re not fully fit. There is no guarantee that Jokic will be fit for all of next season, though. As slight as it might be, there is a window open for the Nuggets in 2021-22.
Golden State are dealing with a few injury issues. The Brooklyn Nets are doing the same while navigating the strange Kyrie Irving situation. You never wish injury on anybody, but Chris Paul’s history and the 37th birthday he will be celebrating before this year’s NBA Finals is something to monitor. It’s difficult to win one championship let alone two in a row, and the Milwaukee Bucks also have the shortest off-season in NBA history to overcome. Meanwhile, the Utah Jazz are once again towards the top of the standings but are yet to prove they have what it takes to step up in the post-season.
In a season where no team has a particularly clear path and more roadblocks are sure to pop up along the way, the Nuggets have an opportunity to time their run.
The dodgy Nuggets bench becomes less of an issue with Murray and Porter Jr. around. Will Barton, Aaron Gordon, Austin Rivers, Monte Morris and Bryn Forbes all of a sudden make up an excellent rotation when coaches extend minutes in the post-season.
We can be fairly sure a should-be-MVP in Jokic is up to dominating a playoff series or two, as well.
They aren’t receiving much of a mention in the championship discussions right now, but don’t rule the Nuggets out just yet.
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