There wasn’t a lot of debating whether Nikola Jokic should have won the MVP award in 2020-21. The Denver Nuggets center nearly averaged a triple-double, earning 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists per game. Coupled with a 56.6% from the field and a career-best 86.8% from the free-throw line, The Joker received 91 out of 101 first-place votes to become the first second-round pick to win MVP.
Even though Jokic was the runaway winner as the best player in basketball last season, it doesn’t mean he’s receiving unlimited respect. One such example will offer plenty of motivation for the big man, as well as the Nuggets as a whole.
Nikola Jokic finished outside the top-five of ESPN’s player rankings
Every year, ESPN releases a list of the top-100 players in the NBA. To come up with their “NBArank”, ESPN asks voters to give their pick between two players until a complete list is former. It’s not a perfect formula, but it does lead to plenty of discussion about where certain players are ranked.
In this case, it was Jokic whose spot will be questioned. The 6-foot-11 unicorn finished sixth on this year’s NBArank, up four spots from his 2020 ranking. When asked why Jokic failed to crack the top-five, voter Kirk Goldsberry offered up a simple explanation: Defense (h/t ESPN).
“Jokic and the Nuggets got blown off the court by the [Phoenix] Suns in the second round. Why? They couldn’t get stops when it mattered most. With Jokic on the floor in the postseason last year, the Nuggets logged an embarrassing defensive rating of 123.5. That just won’t get you wins against the best teams out west. Make no mistake, Jokic deserved the MVP last year, but if he wants to climb higher on lists like this, he needs to find ways to become a more complete two-way star.”Kirk Goldsberry
Jokic has never been an elite defender, earning a career-high 4.3 defensive win shares in the 2018-19 season. However, that’s still more than three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert earned (4.2) in 2019-20.
Is Jokic deserving of a top-five spot?
Number six on the list of the top-100 players in basketball is nothing to be ashamed of. Jokic sits one spot ahead of Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid and three spots ahead another big man, Los Angeles Lakers star Anthony Davis. But should the Joker be even higher?
As of writing, ESPN has released the players slotted in spots 100 through six. Using common sense, the five players ahead of Jokic, in no particular order, are LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Luka Doncic.
It’s hard to argue with most of those names. James is likely one of the two or three best players of all time and is still playing at a high level. Antetokounmpo is fresh off of a historic NBA Finals performance as he continues to build up his historic resume. Additionally, future Hall of Famers Durant and Curry returned from injuries and were great in 2020-21. Curry led the league with 32.0 points per game while Durant averaged 35.0 in a legendary postseason.
That leaves Doncic, who at 22 years old is already one of the game’s best players. But is he better than Jokic? Last season, Luka averaged 27.7/8.0/8.6, fairly close to the MVP center’s points, rebounds, and assists. But his shooting line was 47.9/35.0/73.0, well off from Jokic’s 56.6/38.8/86.8 percentages. And as far as defense goes, Doncic’s highest number of defensive win shares in a season is 2.8, a number the Joker has eclipsed in each of the last four seasons.
Comparing the point guard Doncic to center Jokic is comparing apples to oranges in a few ways. But with both players serving as number one options of their respective teams, as well as primary playmakers and leading scorers, it’s a fair comparison to make. And at first glance, it appears the reigning MVP got the raw end of the deal.
Nikola Jokic can lead the Denver Nuggets to a title
If there’s anything the Phoenix Suns showed last season, it’s that the Western Conference is wide open. And the Nuggets are certainly in the mix to contend for it once again.
Jokic is not only consistent on the court, but he’s consistently on the court. The big man has missed just two total games in the last three regular seasons. Alongside him, the 23-year-old Michael Porter Jr. will try to build off of his breakout 19.0 points per game season in 2020-21. The x-factor is point guard Jamal Murray, who will eventually return following a torn ACL suffered last April.
Those three, along with role players Aaron Gordon, Will Barton, and Jeff Green, give the Nuggets a team that can win the West. They made the Western Conference Finals in 2020, losing to the eventual champion Lakers, but were swept in the second round this year.
Expect a big year from Jokic, who along with trying to deliver the Denver Nuggets their first ring will have added motivation of proving he’s a top-five player in the NBA.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.