- While Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James are firmly in the early-season MVP discussion, Nikola Jokic is averaging a near triple-double and has his Nuggets challenging for one of the top seeds in the Western Conference.
The Denver Nuggets have been hovering around the top of the Western Conference all season, and Nikola Jokic is a huge reason why. The fourth-year center from Serbia is quietly leading a much-improved Nuggets team and have them on pace to make their first playoff appearance since 2012-13. Andrew Sharp and Ben Golliver of the Open Floor Podcast examine the big man's season and discuss whether he has earned the right to be in the MVP conversation.
(Listen to the latest Open Floor podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Andrew Sharp: Kobe says, 'The Nuggets are unreal right now. They are missing three starters, and that usually means struggles are about to hit hard. But not for Denver. They just keep winning. And with Jokic leading the charge and playing phenomenal basketball, I'm wondering ... should we be putting Jokic in serious MVP conversations?' I feel like this is a pivotal stage of any superstar’s evolution in the NBA. Before you become a real MVP candidate, you have to go through this trial phase where you’re sort of quote unquote in the conversation and you’re like a token inclusion in any serious discussion about MVP. Do you feel like that’s where we are with Jokic? Or is that selling him short?
Ben Golliver: Do we call this like the memorial Isaiah Thomas conversation inclusion? Is that what we call it?
Sharp: Yeah, absolutely.
Golliver: Here’s how I feel about Jokic. First of all, it’s nice that Nuggets coach Michael Malone is emailing in with the nickname Kobe. We discovered his burner account, because within seconds of that email coming in, Michael Malone was trying to start the same conversation. I wrote a little bit about Jokic this week, shameless plug at The Washington Post. He had a really nice game on Tuesday night against Dallas that I thought showed off what would be his sort of MVP conversation case. He’s pounding guys in the post with these great pump fake moves, duck-ins, sweeping finishes, left and right. He’s stepping out to the three-point line canning 3-pointers. He’s pump faking you from the three-point line, take you one or two dribbles, getting himself in for the nice, midrange touch shots going left or going right. He is cleaning the defensive glass, turning, pivoting and just rocketing outlet passes to create offense in transition. He’s working his tail off defensively. It doesn’t always look pretty, it doesn’t always get the job done, but he’s working really hard this season on that end as well. And there’s no question about it, he is the lifeblood of that franchise. He’s on pace to become the first 7-footer since Wilt Chamberlain in 1968 to average seven assists per game. That’s ridiculous and it’s not surprising because of how much of their offense revolves around what he’s doing. I think for the MVP conversation, though, let’s not disrespect Giannis, okay. Giannis is playing out of his freaking mind this season. I think the conversation starts with him, I think LeBron’s right there in the mix, but I do think Jokic belongs on that buffer. Because like Kobe rightly mentioned, he’s kept them afloat through a lot of tough injuries. Injuries that would’ve sabotaged their seasons in previous years. And frankly did. The Nuggets were not the same team last year without Millsap. This year Millsap goes down and they have this sort of unwavering belief because most nights Jokic is the best player on the court.
Sharp: Yeah, and it’s not just Millsap. They’re missing Gary Harris, they’ve missed Will Barton for two and a half months now, and Jokic has kept it rolling. I don’t think he deserves all of the credit–I think some of the other guys up there, like Torrey Craig has come out of nowhere over the last year and a half to be pretty useful for them and Juan Hernangomez is also pretty useful depending on the night.
Golliver: Hey Andrew, isn’t that one of those signs though of an MVP-level player.
Sharp: It is.
Golliver: When you’ve got these random guys who all look good because they’re playing with him.
Sharp: Yeah, that’s true. I just think that the Nuggets have done a nice job stocking that roster. Gary Harris goes down and Malik Beasley is a guy who I’ve loved for two years, and he finally gets a shot. And he’s been playing well for them when they need him.
Golliver: It’s a great point. They’ve not only stocked the roster well, they’ve also had some addition by subtraction moves. Guys who are maybe not totally bought in to the team culture there over these last couple of years. And I think when you’re getting in more of these guys who are hungry and trying to find NBA roles and trying to make names for themselves, that winds up helping. I have a theory on Jokic I want you to answer.
Golliver: Has he reached the point where his zelick fans from two years ago, thought he was two years ago? Is he as good as like the Jokic acolytes have been telling us since like 2015?
Sharp: I think the answer has to be yes if only because I find myself significantly less annoyed by Jokic enthusiasm than I was, say, over the summer even. You know, when people would start to say, ‘Jokic is a top-15 guy; you need to give him love. Look at the advanced numbers; it’s all right there. It’s staring you in the face.’ Now I’m like, you know what, it is. And everybody needs to watch more Nuggets because this dude has been incredible. And particularly over the last two weeks. His scoring has hit another level to keep the Nuggets afloat here. But I mean, really, everybody in Denver has been super impressive. Like Monte Morris is a guy, who, you know, I think before the season, more than 80% of NBA fans would’ve had no idea who he is. But he’s been awesome. Sort of steading the ship, as Denver deals with all this attrition.