Who’s the NBA’s MVP? That’s easy: It’s Nikola Jokić by a large margin


DENVER — If we are being honest with ourselves, the NBA’s MVP race is over. Thursday night at Ball Arena served as the expiration date for it being a competitive race.

If we are being nostalgic, while also being forward-thinking, it’s time we start putting Nikola Jokić into proper historical perspective. That he is the best player in the league today is like saying to fans of “The Wire” that Stringer Bell had a hard time with Clay Davis. It’s just obvious.

That Jokić, who had 32 points, 11 assists and 12 rebounds in the Denver Nuggets’ win over the Boston Celtics, is on track to win the third MVP of his career should also be obvious.

Yeah, we can make a case for Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but that case stops short of him eclipsing the best in the business.

Yeah, we can make a case for Luka Dončić. But can we make a case for someone leading the Dallas Mavericks to the lofty heights of the eighth seed in the Western Conference?

I suppose we can make a case for Boston’s Jayson Tatum, but that case went to MVP heaven Thursday night when he didn’t show up against the Nuggets.

No, the MVP race is done. It’s finished. We may as well drive the trophy to Denver and store it at Ball Arena for safekeeping. That’s how dominant Jokić currently is. He’s tied for third in the NBA in rebounding with 12.3 per game. He’s fourth in assists with 9.2. He’s averaging 26.0 points. The Nuggets (43-20) are one game behind the top-seeded Thunder in the Western Conference. Jokić is not just the best player in the league right now. He’s the best player in the league by a good margin.

What’s insane is how collectively talented and deep the NBA is. From Joel Embiid to Giannis Antetokounmpo to SGA to Dončić to LeBron James to Kevin Durant to Stephen Curry and Tatum, it’s difficult to think of an era of NBA basketball that has had this amount of top-end talent. For Jokić to be head and shoulders above everyone shows how amazing he is.

It also tells us that we have to start putting just what we are seeing into the proper context. Jokić is the only player in the league for whom there is no defense. There’s no way to scheme against him. There isn’t a singular individual matchup around the league capable of bothering him.

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For context, Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert used to give Jokić fits with his length and athleticism. That stopped around 2019, and Jokić has dominated that matchup for five years. The closest we can get to this on offense currently league is Dončić and Embiid. But Embiid’s dominance is mostly based on the regular season, and he’s been successfully guarded at the highest levels of the postseason. Dončić can sometimes go cold from distance. We can throw Antetokounmpo into this mix for sure, particularly with his run through the 2021 postseason. But he’s not the playmaker Jokić is, although he can bend defenses in similar fashion.

If we are talking historically, prime LeBron is the last player the league has seen for whom there is simply no answer. Some will argue the 2016 version of Curry, but he was soundly outplayed in the NBA Finals that June by James, and it emphatically proved that James was still the best player in the world at that time. Jokić and James are similar in their dynamic playmaking ability and the ability to take over games offensively while still empowering their teammates to play comfortably within their individual skill sets. More than anything, it’s what separates the two from Dončić. Jalen Brunson had to trek to the New York Knicks to turn into Jalen Brunson.

At this point, what we are seeing with Jokić is the best and most dominant center in the league since Shaquille O’Neal. If we are opening this up to big men regardless of position, we would of course have to include Tim Duncan. But I remember a few years ago having a social media argument with Nuggets fans about the impact of Jokić and the prime version of Dwight Howard. Denver fans can now take solace that Jokić has easily cleared that hurdle.

Jokić and O’Neal are the last two centers for whom the league had no defensive answers. Even with Shaq, you could foul him and hope he missed enough free throws to keep you in the game. But we have arguably never seen a center be the consistent three-level scorer that Jokić has turned into. In my lifetime, the three best passers I’ve seen are Magic Johnson, James and now Jokić. And Jokić being one of the best and most dynamic passers the game has ever seen — from the center position, no less — makes him unique in the game’s history.

How high can Jokić climb the all-time list? If he wins his third MVP, he’ll become the ninth player in NBA history to win three. The other eight — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six MVPs); Bill Russell and Michael Jordan (five); Wilt Chamberlain and James (four); Moses Malone, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson (three) — are unquestionably among the greatest players of all time. Jokić would be among the elite of the elite.

Winning also matters. But multiple titles — he’s already won one — would certainly allow him to be in the rare air of some of the best players in history. Of that three-MVP group, only Malone has one title. But NBA championships aren’t always created equal, and some hold more weight than others. Jokić and Antetokounmpo winning in markets such as Denver and Milwaukee, respectively, is something that can’t be ignored. Those titles are on the level of James bringing one to the Cleveland Cavaliers or Dirk Nowitzki bringing one to the Dallas Mavericks.

The fact that the Nuggets are favorites — and perhaps the favorite — to win another this season is a testament to Jokić’s greatness and the excellence of the supporting cast. Denver’s road to a second consecutive championship has been more difficult than last year. The West has been better at the top, and the depth has made for a compelling regular season. As a result, the Nuggets haven’t run away with the No. 1 seed as they did last spring. I think they will eventually garner the top seed, but it won’t be easy.

“We want to have the highest seed possible for sure,” Jokić said. “We know what advantages come from that. We get to play our games at home, and we know that we play well at home. But it’s really important for us to be playing well when the playoffs come around. No matter what seed we have, we want to be playing like the best versions of ourselves. That’s very important.”

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The best thing about having the best player in the world is that you are guaranteed to have the best player in every postseason series, and that’s the advantage the rest of the NBA can’t duplicate. Even last year, when James averaged nearly a 30-point triple-double in the Western Conference finals, Jokić cast a shadow on his greatness with his own excellence averaging 27.8 points, 14.5 rebounds and 11.8 assists in a four-game sweep of the Lakers.

And that’s the advantage the Nuggets would have on Boston in a potential series. Yes, the Celtics have been the best team in the league during the regular season, and it would take a major collapse for them to not have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. But, as shown on Thursday night, the Celtics don’t have Nikola Jokić, and that’s the ultimate difference-maker.  On Thursday night, he made 11 of his 18 shots and made all 10 of his free throws. His mere presence on the floor caused so many issues for a normally dynamic Boston defense.

That’s why the MVP race has become nothing more than a coronation. That’s why Jokić is in the middle of one of the best career peaks we have ever seen. And that’s why the Nuggets have to be considered the favorite to win another title.

(Photo of Nikola Jokić: AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post via Getty Images)





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