Behind the Numbers: Nikola Jokic for MVP?
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There has been plenty of hype surrounding the streak of James Harden, which has the Houston Rockets centerpiece firmly at the top of the MVP race so far. The likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George and Joel Embiid have all been offered as potential players to knock off The Beard, however, one man has been overlooked for far too long.
Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic has been in scintillating form throughout all of the 2018-19 NBA season, assisting the Denver Nuggets lay claim as a contender for the Western Conference at the All-Star break. Earlier in the year, this author wrote that Jokic was on the outside looking in when we spoke about James Harden’s MVP caliber year. That belief has changed, with Jokic firmly in the middle of the pack that is slowly reeling back the Rockets sharpshooter.
The career progression for the Serbian center is something to marvel at, considering that he is turning 24 during the All-Star break. As a second round pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Jokic has grown in both presence and game awareness from when he debuted in the 2015-16 season. There is no bigger testament to this statement than when he ended up putting in the game-winner for Denver against Sacramento. It also happened to be another triple-double for the Serbian center, his 12th of the season.
Looking at the statistics this season, Jokic is well above where he was last year when he was labeled as a “breakout star”. In terms of scoring, Jokic is averaging 2 more points per game, with a better percentage of shots from inside the paint compared to last year. Jokic is a solid free throw shooter, consistently averaging 85% this season from the line. In addition, Jokic has remained a threat from behind the arc. Jokic is down on last years average of 1.5 made shots from 3-point range, however, he is taking more shots from said distance. It is allowing him to free up the paint so that he, or his teammates can drive in and receive perfect passes.
This brings up the topic of distribution, something that Jokic has improved on more than most other facets of his game in the current season. Jokic is currently ranked 8th in the NBA for assists per game, with an average of 7.7. That is on par with James Harden and Lebron James, all 3 ahead of other potential MVP candidates outside of Russell Westbrook (1st, 11.2 per game).
The assists-to-turnover ratio is what is setting Jokic from the rest of the MVP candidates. Out of those who are seen as said candidates (Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Antetokounmpo, Curry, Westbrook, Davis and Leonard), Jokic has the best assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.42. He is tied with Russell Westbrook in that regard as the only 2 players within the top 100 in that statistic. The nearest MVP candidate after them is Anthony Davis, at 2.12 and close to 150 in the rankings.
Rebounding will forever be a key stat for Nikola Jokic, one that puts him in elite territory. Jokic averages 10.6 rebounds per game, to go with his 20+ point average. Out of those rebounding statistics, he is in the top 12 for defensive rebounds, while averaging just under 3 offensive boards per game. His presence underneath the bucket for Denver has won the Nuggets a few games along the season, including that aforementioned put-back shot against Sacramento.
It’s important to note that he is also having what is seen as a record season for Denver. Sports Illustrated via Evan Fiala wrote a piece the day after New Years about Jokic being in the MVP race.
Sports Illustrated/Evan Fiala – Jan 2, 2019
Regardless of how others’ might be playing, Jokic is having such a year averaging 18 points, 9.9 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game. According to Basketball Reference, the only other center to finish a season with such production was Wilt Chamberlain, who did so twice in the 1960’s while winning the MVP award in those years. Jokic is literally having a historic year.
Jokic has stepped up in his 4th year as a true leader on this Denver roster. His ability to run around the court and direct traffic, all while playing at MVP-caliber levels makes him a threat. For most of the season, Jokic played with a team that had 6 roster members down with injury. He was still able to lead Denver to the top 2 spots of the Western Conference. He has 38 double-doubles, 1 less than all of last year. He has eclipsed last years triple-double tally with 25 games to go.
It is a tall task to see Jokic taking out the MVP award this year, with James Harden and Giannis Antetokoupnmo chasing one another at the top of the board. Paul George is lighting it up in Oklahoma City, while Steph Curry and LeBron James are always close to the title race. However, Jokic is having a record year, with merits that will eclipse Michael Jordan this year and Wilt Chamberlain soon after.
Featured Image- BasketUSA/ Getty Images
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