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With three games gone in the Western Conference Finals, Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets find themselves one win away from a trip to the NBA Finals.
The job isn’t done. The Nuggets need another success somewhere in the next four potential contests against the Lakers to seal the deal. No NBA team has ever snatched victory from the jaws of defeat down 3-0. On three occasions, the side down by such a deficit forced a Game 7, but the comeback kings failed to finish in every instance. Denver isn’t quite Finals bound yet, but it would take something previously unseen for that ticket to end up with the Lakers.
The Nuggets were one of four franchises to make the move over to the NBA when it merged with the ABA in 1976. In the 46 NBA seasons Denver has completed, it has never reached the Finals. It is one of six NBA franchises yet to appear in the ultimate series. This current run only marks the fifth Conference Finals showing in Denver’s history.
This would also be Jokic’s debut on the sport’s biggest annual stage. The Serbian has been the spearhead of this Nuggets team for years, and his ascension to the upper echelon of the sport has been obvious over the last half-decade. Jokic is a two-time MVP winner, five-time All-NBA player, five-time All-Star, and quite simply one of the most dominant players performing on Association floors these days.
But there’s an elephant in the room when Jokic’s name comes up that some people seem eager to poach. Despite all the wonderful individual accolades, Joker hasn’t won an NBA championship, nor has he had Denver especially close before now. In the bubble, the Nuggets won two seven-game series to reach the Western Conference Finals, but the Lakers dispatched them there in five. In every other postseason appearance, it hasn’t been enough to last into late May, and the critics continued to pigeonhole Jokic and Denver as pretenders.
This is a myopic approach to Jokic, the Nuggets, and sports as a whole, but it doesn’t stop it and talking points like it from taking hold. What Joker has done in the NBA is nothing less than remarkable. There has never been a 6-foot-11 center who can manipulate the ball in ways only the greatest point guards ever could. He’s been excellent in the playoffs prior to this season, too: Jokic averaged 26.4 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 6.4 assists per game while shooting nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc and better than 84 percent from the free-throw line across Denver’s 48-total playoff games in the 2019 through 2022 postseasons. Plus, untimely injuries held some of his best teammates, like Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., out of many of those contests.
But these attitudes are not based on the intricacies on the court. To some people, the allure of black-and-white thinking is too strong when presented with something as simple as one team wins, and one team loses; it’s enough to recuse themselves from the reality of nuance.
This is why stating something that shouldn’t be too controversial, like Jokic might be the best passer ever, can lead to tantrums. In fact, an itching sensation might be coming over you right now, with thoughts of disgust aimed at my inflammatory suggestion. If you’re one of those people, watch this video. If you’re not, then you already know to watch it.
Since the start of his NBA career, people have doubted Jokic. He fell to the Nuggets at No. 41 overall in the 2014 NBA Draft and likely wouldn’t have been picked if not for Denver eyeing him. Although he has done nothing but improve his game throughout his time in the league, he has never seemed to receive the same attention as his peers in mainstream NBA discourse. You would think LeBron James or Steph Curry had won two of the last three MVP awards given the difference in day-to-day recognition.
It’s not just because of his ringless fingers. Jokic plays for the Nuggets, a historically terrible franchise not located in a megamarket like Los Angeles or New York. He isn’t a boisterous person, more of an unassuming type. He doesn’t do or say outlandish things that grab headlines and send social media into a frenzy. This does not attract swaths of groupies who have nothing to do with Denver or the Nuggets to follow every move he makes. Jokic, particularly Denver’s Jokic, doesn’t make for an ideal topic of conversation for short-term gratification.
He’s also European, and that carries its own connotations in North American basketball spheres. Prejudice against European players is nothing compared to what it was even a decade ago, in part because of players like Jokic, but it’s not hard to find remnants of it among the sport’s millions of admirers. Stereotypes about hoopers from the continent conclude that they’re unathletic, not physical, and not serious enough to be the best. Sure, they have good fundamentals and a nice stroke, but they can’t do what Americans can do.
This is obviously untrue, but its essence exists in the ether. Add in the mass-understood story that in sports, you’re never good enough to win a championship until you win a championship, and it requires someone like Jokic to do it in the NBA Finals for the proper plaudits to finally flood.
There is a massive narrative shift after every championship is awarded. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are viewed much differently now than two calendar years ago. Kyle Lowry is brought up in many different contexts since 2019 than before. LeBron James needed the Heatles’ help until he didn’t. The same will occur this June for any of the potential beneficiaries.
If Denver is paid back for a lifetime of woes and secures the franchise’s first-ever Larry O’Brien Trophy, Nikola Jokic will no longer be ignorable. For months, he would have a firm grip on the basketball world in the same way Giannis did after the Bucks triumphed in 2021, and the title of NBA champion could never be revoked. It doesn’t matter how lame his social media presence is. There’s an undeniability to rings.
I don’t question the greatness of Jokic. I have never seen a player like him, and I don’t think I ever will again. His movements are entrancing, his anticipation is unparalleled. There is so much to enjoy when you watch him and so much to consider when you defend him. How many players do you think leave Gregg Popovich wondering how to handle him?
For seasons, Jokic has deserved to be discussed like the transformational supernova that he is, but it’ll never come without the final stamp of approval.
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