Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 28, 2023

Nikola Jokić is making the case

By JOSH FELTON | February 3, 2023



Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić is chasing history in more ways than one.

More than halfway through the 2023 NBA season, there has been a lot of chatter surrounding Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić’s current Most Valuable Player (MVP) campaign. After last weekend’s defeat to the 76ers center and MVP runner-up Joel Embiid, the MVP narrative has begun to shift away from Jokić and towards other candidates.

Embiid finished behind Jokić in MVP voting the last two seasons, and many felt that Jokić was undeserving of those awards. It certainly won’t please many fans to hear that Jokić is on pace to win his third consecutive MVP award, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Larry Bird did it in 1986

To many, it seems like Jokić is undeserving of this year’s MVP award. His box score numbers are impressive, but they somewhat pale in comparison to those of Luka Dončić and Joel Embiid. However, take a closer look, and one can see that not only is Jokić making the case for this year’s MVP award, but also for greatest offensive player ever.

Most efficient scorer in the league

There’s so many factors that go into Jokić’s dominant offense. Starting with his scoring, Jokić is the most efficient volume scorer in the league currently. Of all players in the NBA averaging at least 25 points per game, Jokić is leading them in efficiency with a 70% true shooting percentage. That means his efficiency is 12.4% better than league average (+12.4%). If the season ended today, Jokic would have the third most efficient MVP season in NBA history, trailing only 1967 Wilt Chamberlain and 2016 Stephen Curry. His MVP season from last year would be tied for eighth on the list.

The biggest separator between good and great scorers is how their play translates in the playoffs. Jokić showed in last year’s playoffs that he has the capability to elevate in the biggest moments. When facing the number-one-rated defense in the league, Jokić improved his scoring volume and efficiency, averaging 31 points on excellent efficiency despite missing his two best offensive teammates.

Part of the reason Jokić and the Nuggets' offense have been so dominant is because Jokić takes the best shot possible at all times. He almost never takes ill-advised shots, and as a result, the Nuggets' offense has been historically good. Jokić is the most efficient mid-range shooter in the league and ranks in the 90th percentile in rim field goal percentage. His ability to create the most efficient shots in the game while scoring the ball effectively makes him such a dangerous offensive threat. He can be a passive scorer at times, which we saw clearly in last weekend's matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers; however, those games are rare, as Jokić is perhaps the best at knowing when to score and when to create for teammates.

Best passer ever?

Last month the Nuggets faced off against the Memphis Grizzlies in perhaps what might be a playoff preview in the future. It was just one of several games happening that night, so many might’ve missed it; however, that game alone could easily make Jokić’s case for the best passer ever. His ability to find open teammates is unique and marvelous to watch. Whether it’s no-look passes, touch passes, skip passes or even between-the-legs passes, there’s not a play Jokić cannot make, which makes him even more dangerous to guard for opposing defenses.

Part of being a great offensive player is being able to leverage scoring and playmaking together to improve a team’s overall offense. Too much of one or the other can actually end up hurting a team’s overall offensive efficiency. It’s not easy to do, but Jokić makes it look easy, finding just the smallest opening in a defense to exploit. 

There is no perfect statistic to contextualize passing and playmaking; however, passer rating and box creation are some of the best stats available, of which Jokić ranks first and third in the league currently.

Jokić is truly a passing virtuoso who can also find any opening in a defense. He’s truly a threat whenever the ball is in his hands, but combined with his fantastic off-ball play, his argument for best offensive player ever begins to manifest itself.

Historic team impact 

Of course, many spectators will not marvel at Jokić’s MVP case because, as mentioned earlier, his box score numbers do not look nearly as impressive as other MVP candidates, despite averaging a triple-double. The biggest indicator of a star player’s impact is how much better or worse their teams perform when they are on and off the court.

So far this season, the Nuggets are outscoring teams by 12 points per 100 possessions (+12 net rating) when Jokić is on the court. When he leaves, the Nuggets are outscored by seven points per 100 possessions (–7 net rating). This means Jokić is accountable for a 19-point net swing — one of the largest in NBA history. His competitor Joel Embiid has an eight-point net swing and Luka Doncic has a 10-point net swing.

Jokić being such a dangerous off-ball threat while being a significantly more efficient scorer than Doncic and a much better passer than Embiid best explains why there is such a massive gap between Jokić and his competition. When Jokić is on the court this season, the Nuggets are challenging some of the best offenses of all time. This is solely based on the play of Nikola Jokić. 

Of course on/off numbers aren’t a perfect indicator of impact and should be used prudently; however, his historically efficient scoring, playmaking, passing, off-ball ability and playoff dominance are the reason Jokić is making his case in more than just one aspect this season.

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