Nikola Jokic is poised to win a title for the Nuggets and cement his status as the best basketball player in the world right now.
It’s been a half-decade, maybe more, since there was an undisputed best player in the NBA. But that is set to change if, or more likely when, Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets finish off the Miami Heat and win the championship.
They have a chance to do that tonight, in Game 5 in Denver. The Nuggets split the first two on their home court to begin the NBA Finals, but then went into Miami and won two straight on the road to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. Jokic has been sublime, averaging 30.8 points on 55 percent shooting, 13.5 rebounds, 8 assists and 1.5 blocks in the series.
If Jokic leads the Nuggets to wins over Kevin Durant’s Suns, LeBron James’s Lakers and Jimmy Butler and Erik Spoelstra’s Heat, he would have passed every test with flying colors. Those characters, in their own way, represented a fading era of the NBA and appeared in 11 of the last 13 Finals.
LeBron, by his own admission, is no longer the league’s best player and hasn’t been for quite some time. How long it’s been is debatable, but his reign ended sometime after his last Cleveland championship in 2016. He won a championship with the Lakers in 2020, but the Larry O’Brien trophy has been hoisted by five different teams over the last five years, including this one. Crowning the best player in the world during that time has been a game of musical chairs including Kawhi Leonard, LeBron, Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jokic (who won two MVPs in that time) Stephen Curry, and maybe even Joel Embiid, at different points.
No longer. With a championship to punctuate this historic run, Jokic will and should be recognized as the world’s No. 1 player. There will be no debate.
Nikola Jokic is the best player in the world right now
Here’s how Jokic’s postseason numbers, one win away from a championship, stack up with the best players of the previous five postseasons:
- 2023 Jokic: 30.1 points (54-47-81), 13.3 rebounds, 9.8 assists, 1.0 blocks
- 2022 Curry: 27.4 points (46-40-83), 5.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists
- 2021 Antetokounmpo: 30.2 points (57-19-59), 12.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.2 blocks
- 2020 James: 27.6 points (56-37-72), 10.8 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 0.9 blocks
- 2019 Leonard: 30.5 points (49-38-88), 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.7 steals
- 2018 Durant: 29 points (49-34-90), 7.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.2 blocks
Jokic this postseason became just the third player ever to record 500 points, 200 rebounds and 150 assists in a single playoff run, joining LeBron (2015-18, 2020) and Larry Bird. His 10 triple-doubles are the most in a single postseason, surpassing 1967 Wilt Chamberlain (seven). In Game 3 against the Heat, Jokic became the first player to record at least 30 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in an NBA Finals game. He now has the highest career playoff PER in the last 70 years, better than Michael Jordan and LeBron, according to StatMuse.
It could be argued that Jokic was already the NBA’s best player (hardcore basketball fans would certainly do so on his behalf). Prior to this season, he had won the last two MVP awards and already had some morsels of postseason success.
Those watching on League Pass the last couple of years already knew what so many are learning as Jokic dominates this national stage. No player since peak LeBron controls the game with Jokic’s deftness, and the 7-foot Serb does it in his own, unprecedented way. The Nuggets get a good shot on every possession because of his passing, patience and precision. He is as unselfish as stars come, yet it’s not a surprise for him to hang 30 points on an opponent.
But even during his MVP years, the question of Jokic’s defense lingered. Could the Nuggets win a championship with the lumbering Jokic at center? Those concerns have been decisively dashed. Jokic more than held his own against Phoenix’s pick-and-roll attack, then against the two-man game of LeBron and Anthony Davis.
In the Finals, his presence in the paint has been a deterrent for Butler and Bam Adebayo, with Butler shooting 10-for-25 and Adebayo 25-for-54 with Jokic as their closest defender. The Heat enter Monday night’s Game 5 having made 59.7 percent of their shots at the rim, which would have ranked dead-last in the regular season.
Jokic is a player with little-to-no weaknesses. He can pulverize opponents in the post like Shaquille O’Neal, read the floor like Magic Johnson and float in shots like Larry Bird. When operating at the nail, he toggles from one look to another like Yu Darvish on the mound. As a teammate, he is empowering. As an opponent, he is too powerful.
(Maybe the best part about all of this is that Jokic doesn’t care. He deflects every question and comment about his greatness like a horse brushing off an annoying fly.)
His would-be peers have holes in their games. Giannis’s outside jumper remains a question. Embiid lacks playoff success. Durant can’t stay healthy. Curry is aging and can only reach so high a ceiling defensively. Luka Doncic’s commitment to defense remains a big concern.
Credit to the Nuggets for constructing a championship roster with the right kind of players around Jokic. It’s been a disservice to go this long without mentioning Jamal Murray, who has taken the biggest reputational leap of any player in these playoffs. He’s a bona fide killer.
But like the dynasty-era Warriors were built around Curry and the four-Finals Cavs were built around James, everything in Denver starts and ends with Jokic’s one-of-a-kind brilliance. He is 28, squarely in his prime. Murray is 26, Aaron Gordon is 27, Michael Porter Jr. is 24. The core is young and the supporting cast is strong. Jokic is the kind of star that players wanting to get paid and veterans chasing a ring will flock to play with.
This offseason, rival front offices will augment their rosters with the idea of slowing Jokic in mind. Just as teams went smaller to counter Golden State, contenders understanding the championship goes through Denver will look to add size.
By leading the Nuggets to one more win, Jokic will cap off a postseason run in which he sets records, wins his first championship and ascends to the top of the sport. The Joker’s reign doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon.
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