UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – Joker’s 2nd MVP Award no ‘joke’—or mistake

Nikola Jokic is a worthy MVP, but winning meaningful games should have mattered.

He didn’t get this voter’s vote because the Denver Nuggets were not a contender—through no fault of his own.

*   *   *

IT WAS ANNOUNCED last week that Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets’ gifted center, won his second straight National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player Award. This was expected, though not unanimously heralded.

The above comments, found online, explain why. But are they valid? 

I, for one, don’t think so. I don’t think “most valuable player” necessarily means “the best player on the team that wins it all, or at least is in the hunt.”

The MVP, to me, is that player who elevated his team to a level it could not have reached without him. Usually that describes a player whose play was integral to his team’s superiority. But there’s more to it than that.

Everyone agrees that Nikola Jokic exceeded his first MVP season by every statistical measure.

He became the first player in the history of the NBA—IN ITS 75-YEAR HISTORY—to score 2,000 points, grab 1,000 rebounds and have 500 assists IN THE SAME SEASON.

That means he did something not even Michael, The Big O, Magic, Bird, Russell, Shaq, Jabbar, Wilt, Dr. J or dozens of other megastars ever accomplished.

And most importantly, he did so on a severely wounded team that needed everything he could give it.

Jamal Murray—inarguably the Nuggets’ second-best player—has not played a minute in more than a year as he rehabs from a serious knee injury. Michael Porter Jr.—inarguably Denver’s third-best player—missed all but nine games of the season with a back injury that has dogged him since before he entered college at Missouri as the natin’s top recruit.

Yet, thanks to Jokic and the efforts of a game group of guys named Barton, Green, Morris, Rivers, Cousins, Gordon, Hyland and others, the Denver Nuggets won 48 games and made the playoffs. 

Take a close look at the rosters of the teams still alive in the NBA playoffs and see how many of them would have even made the playoffs without their second- and third-best players.

Few, if any. Without Jokic, Denver likely has a sub-.500 record.

The popular alternative to Jokic was Joel Embiid, the 7-foot center of the Philadelphia 76ers who led the NBA in scoring with 30.6 points per game.

Asked for his reaction to the news the Jokic had won the award over him, Embiid responded:

“I don’t know what else I have to do to win it.”

In addition to his 30.6 points per game, Embiid averaged 11.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists. The Sixers won 51—only three more than Denver—without losing two of their top players for the season. (They were eliminated in the same round of the playoffs as Denver.)

By comparison, Jokic averaged 13.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists. They were virtually even in minutes played per game.

Perhaps the best measure of Jokic’s value to his team is what’s called a triple-double—a game in which a player reaches double figures in three statistical categories. Jokic, who has the awareness and passing skill of a point guard, ranks seventh all-time in triple-doubles, thanks to the assists he piles up. This season he led the league with 19—NINETEEN—almost one-fifth of his team’s games. Embiid managed two.

Jokic’s nickname is The Joker, in part because it’s close to his actual name but also because he doesn’t take himself too seriously. His interview—from his home in Serbia—on TNT’s “Inside The NBA” following the announcement of his second MVP Award, is typical.

Asked for his reaction to joining Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone as the only centers to win back-to-back NBA MVP Awards, The Joker said:

“When I’m old, fat and grumpy, I’m going to tell my kids back in the day I was really good playing basketball.”

More seriously, Jokic showed the humility that has made him so popular with his teammates (another factor that makes him so valuable):

“I think everybody knows I’m the same guy,” he said, seated outside his horse stable, “so hopefully I’m gonna stay the same after this and just be in that company with Wilt and older guys. We’ve made history in this league and sports. It just means a lot, some kind of legacy.”

The 41st player picked in the 2014 draft, Jokic’s selection occurred during a television commercial for the fast-food chain Taco Bell. Asked one time about losing his first moment of fame to Taco Bell, The Joker said:

“Hopefully I’m going to have some percentage from the Taco Bell.” 

Don’t be surprised if he shows up in one of the Bell’s ad spots in the future.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 14 books, eight of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.