SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The clubs that Nikola Jokic might be on the cusp of entering are highly exclusive.
There’s the three-consecutive-MVP club, with only Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird as its current members. Then there’s the averaged-a-triple-double club, which includes only Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook.
Jokic doesn’t care about being added to either of those lists. It might happen anyway.
The best team in the Western Conference so far has been the Denver Nuggets, and the biggest reason why they’re atop the standings coming out of the All-Star break is the 28-year-old Serbian big man who was the league’s best player two years ago, was the league’s best player last year and very well might be the best again this year.
“I can’t lie,” Cleveland guard Donovan Mitchell said. “I don’t know if you all have been watching what Jokic has been doing. It’s ... outrageous, to be honest. I don’t know how many people have won it three times in a row. I definitely feel like I’m in that conversation as well, but he’s otherworldly right now.”
Jokic’s numbers: 24.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists per game, on 63% shooting from the field, 39% from 3-point range. Such a collection of stats is unprecedented; others have scored more, assisted more, rebounded more and shot better, but nobody has ever had all those averages and percentages in one season — especially not a big man.
Westbrook is a guard. Robertson was a guard. In their average-a-triple-double years — four for Westbrook, one for Robertson — they didn’t shoot better than 48%. Jokic is making almost two of every three shots he takes, and that’s with him as the top priority for every defense Denver faces.
“I just think that he just plays at his own pace,” Toronto’s Pascal Siakam said. “You can’t really disrupt what he does. He just plays at his own pace. He does what he wants. His passing ability, the scoring, how smart he is on the basketball court. Yeah, it’s dope to watch.”
The Nuggets are five games ahead of Memphis — Denver has 23 games left, the Grizzlies have 25 — for the top spot in the Western Conference. They’re well on their way to securing the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout at least the first three rounds of the playoffs.
And that would be huge, given that Denver’s 27-4 home record is the best in the NBA. Evidently, teams don’t like playing at 5,280 feet above sea level. And they can’t match the way Jokic thinks, with his brain in home games at 5,287 feet above sea level. He’s played in 51 games; the Nuggets are 38-13 in those contests, 3-5 when he doesn’t play.
Denver coach Michael Malone was asked how he would create a pie chart to show the components that make Jokic great.
“Athleticism, 1%. I’ll start there,” Malone said. “Then I would say the big pieces of that Serbian pie would be IQ and unselfishness, the ability to make every one of his teammates better. What I marvel at, having coached Nikola for eight years now, the thing that I’m just blown away by is the consistency to being great. I mean, there are a lot of great players in this league. But for Nikola to win the MVP, to win it again, and now he’s putting together an even better season ... it just speaks to the fact that he is so damn consistent.”
Conventional wisdom would have been that Jokic’s numbers, good enough to win him the last two MVP awards, would take a dip this season simply because the Nuggets were getting two of their best players — Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. — back from injury.
It hasn’t happened, or at least, not much. His scoring is down slightly. Rebounds, down slightly. Assists, up slightly. Murray and Porter are getting their numbers — largely because Jokic looks for them every chance he gets — and he’s still finding the way to fill all the columns next to his name on the stat sheet as well.
“That, and the ability to make everyone around him better, is what allows Nikola to be a historically great player in this league,” Malone said.
And it should be noted that the player who is least impressed by Jokic is, well, Jokic.
If he had his way, he’d show up, play games, hop on YouTube to watch horse racing — he owns harness horses, and was even driving one when the Nuggets’ brain trust showed up in Serbia to surprise him with last year’s MVP award — and live very quietly.
The West should be an absurd race down the stretch. Phoenix just got Kevin Durant. The Los Angeles Lakers have LeBron James trying to make a playoff push. The defending champion Golden State Warriors could have Stephen Curry back from his injury before too long. Dallas got Kyrie Irving to play with Luka Doncic. The Los Angeles Clippers will be adding Westbrook. Sacramento is poised to end its long playoff drought.
If nobody is talking about the Nuggets, Jokic won’t complain.
“We don’t need it,” Jokic said. “We know what we’re doing. We know what we’re trying to do. We believe in the basketball system that we have built over the years, so it works. It’s still working. Nothing can affect us from outside. We are thinking about ourselves and just how to get better.”