Joker In The Castle

Nuggets' Nikola Jokic picked as starter for Western Conference in 2021 NBA  All-Star game
Nick Wass/AP

It’s almost guilt-inducing to laugh at anything right now. Aside from the scornful, halfhearted chuckles any of us get from seeing anything people with a higher Q-score than I have deem “newsworthy,” genuine joy begetting laughter is akin to heartbreak. For every laugh, there are countless tears, and even (especially?) if they’re happening elsewhere, you’re aware of them and their beholders, and you become innately attuned to that reflexive awareness. Laughing to keep from crying almost becomes communal.

The thing about laughter, though, at least usually, is that it’s spontaneous – we expect the things we love to make us smile, whether it be foster pet success stories, an ELI5 display and accompanying graphic of how light moves through space or a book by a favored author. This is trusted comfort, something we can at least give a courtesy smile, as if remembering the one dog, or the one gif, or the one line from a book we were forced to read in high school that brought us here.

As we in the United States start to glacially dig our collective way out of the mess we essentially created ourselves – “we” being whatever it is that feebly stood and stands in as leadership – a worthwhile pastime in the meantime has been to take stock of what carried us through to this point, all of the empty footprints filling with retroactive gratitude.

While there may later – or never! – be a more comprehensive list of what has kept me afloat, personally, one reliable source of bliss throughout his entire NBA career has been Nikola Jokić. The hub of the Denver Nuggets’ offense is enjoying one of the finest seasons a center has had since prime Shaq two decades ago, and we are all enjoying him.

A season-plus of generalized apathy since the league shut down, rebooted in a bubble in Orlando and then fired up in a state of limited normality, gave us humdrum spates of business as usual at various sponsors’ behests, even as people lost their livelihoods. Still, the NBA was a signal post league to shut down, and then it was among the first to return, giving us the grave acceptance of NBA basketball in July. Anything to ward off the demons, really, even if it meant making fools out of the Phoenix Suns[1].

Then again, it seems Jamal Murray has certifiably made The Jump and is the consistent perimeter performer the Nuggets have required during Jokić’s rise. The emergence of Michael Porter Jr., along with help from the likes of Will Barton, the dearly departed Gary Harris and the newly-arrived Aaron Gordon in his place, have given Jokić and Nuggets coach Mike Malone an entirely new sandbox in which to experiment with squiggly lines and roughshod dashes, the likes for which Jokić is largely responsible.

In a sense, a player like Jokić shouldn’t exist – he is slow and almost animatedly plodding, self-aware to an extent about how ridiculous some of the things he does look on TV or to a still-limited crowd. It’s a joke to him, the consummate and American announcer-applied “Joker” moniker working in his favor and in place of people actually being able to pronounce a Serbian name, and it works in a way that nothing quite like it ever has.

If you’re into counting stats, Jokić currently sits at eighth in points per game (26.3), eighth in rebounds per game (10.9) and fifth in assists per game (8.7). For the advanced stats heads[2], Jokić has a significant impact on his teammates offensively, scoring 7.7 points per possession more and increasing the Nuggets’ win expectancy by 17 wins than when he sits. Funnily enough, these stats come from Ben Falk’s Cleaning The Glass, which uses Jokić himself as an example in explaining some of his methodology.

I’m not sure any of us were ever equipped to deal with a force as singularly benevolent yet destructive as Jokić, at least from the center position. Even when Wilt Chamberlain was trying to win an assists title as a show of his own force in 1968, he wasn’t quite near where Jokić is now – his current assist rate of 40.4% makes Wilt’s assist-title winning 23.2% seem pedestrian.

Beyond that, though, it becomes a matter of how much you actually enjoy watching a player. It always is, to some extent; some fans gravitate toward Giannis because he’s a spectacle, and even more toward players like Brad Beal, Devin Booker or Karl Towns because they have displayed the skills that can change a game on a moment’s notice. Damian Lillard exists in a class of his own, but then his backcourt running mate CJ McCollum can start a fire in a similar way.

Whenever Jokić really starts to cook, you can feel it. He assesses something like a text-based adventure game, watching pieces dart in order to figure out where he is, sizes up a situation and then starts to move. While Russell Westbrook refuses to believe that some things are not possible, Jokić doesn’t especially care if they are or are not. Watching Jokić move about the paint, and especially at the elbow, is a delight, unbeknown to him, a man who is prepared to field any national TV broadcast question that he wants.

Jokić, thus far, is the MVP. Such awards are an insane thing to debate about, especially now, but as far as ways of killing time go, you could do worse. The fact that I never know what to expect out of Jokić, only that it will be extraordinary, is reason enough for me, and any Nuggets game might turn you onto that. He makes me, and a lot of the rest of us, laugh, begrudgingly and in wonder. That alone is worth an award.

[1] 8-0 in the bubble, but out on a tiebreaker to the Memphis Grizzlies, who lost to the Portland Trail Blazers. Incidentally, all of these teams deserve many plaudits for their exploits this season, particularly the Suns.

[2] This is where we get into all-time Win Shares and things of that nature, which ends up featuring Wes Matthews Jr. and Udonis Haslem in its top fifteen leaderboards, but is nevertheless useful with context – which is and remains vitally important!


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