BY DAVID THORPE
Early in the fourth quarter Monday night, the Nuggets’ second unit was getting swamped in Dallas. They started the final period up 83-79, but after a 13-2 Mavericks run and Tim Hardaway Jr. on the line to finish an and-one that would put Dallas up 93-85, Nuggets coach Mike Malone only had one option to stop the bleeding.
He turned to the best basketball player in the world. Nikola Jokic checked back into the game. It had only been 213 seconds of rest, but Malone surely saw that even one more minute without his star would be deadly. Jokic took the court with the smirk that counts as his game face. Maybe some opponents see him being silly, but the correct way to read that smile is: “I’m your worst fucking nightmare, and you never see me coming.” Lost amidst the sea of NBA talent in the NBA, the reigning MVP artfully and steadily remains the game’s top player. Nikola Jokic is more like LeBron James and Michael Jordan than anyone since the days of Bird and Magic.
TrueHoop has been all in on Jokic as a star for years. In the summer of 2019 we talked about what it would take (mostly weight loss) to bring on the Age of Jokic. A year and five months later we compared the new, slimmer version to Captain America, positing “it’s certainly possible Jokic could hold up the MVP Trophy in the coming few years.” Turns out, he only needed months.
But even in winning the most coveted individual trophy in the NBA, Jokic is still somehow the forgotten man. We barely mentioned him in our own MVP preseason predictions. ESPN’s experts ranked all the players in the NBA just before training camps opened this season, and Jokic didn’t crack the top five. CBS Sports agreed. The Athletic’s brilliant Seth Partnow put Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant as the only three “Tier 1A” players in the league. Then they started playing the games.
Near the end of The Last Dance, Michael Jordan admitted that early in his career he relied mostly on athleticism. But as those abilities diminished, he had to outthink opponents. The reality is, he wasn’t a thoughtless player when he was truly Air Jordan, and he wasn’t gravity bound when he was mentally the sharpest player in the game. But his point is still well taken. When he dominated the game for his final three titles, Jordan saw plays before they happened just as often as he made plays in the air. Everyone remembers his championship-clinching jumper against the Jazz. The steal that preceded it, though, came from a premonition. There was risk in leaving his own man.
Jokic has those kinds of premonitions nightly, and they are a huge part of what makes him the best player in basketball.