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Nikola Jokic led his team to the NBA Championship and earned himself a Finals MVP award along the way by playing the position of center in a way that no one who came before him had. Let’s check the boxes on the Joker’s performance in the deciding game of the NBA Finals.
Yes, he stayed on the court (41 minutes). Yes, he won his key matchup (Jokic +12 vs. Adebayo -3). Yes, he was a beast on the glass (16 rebs.). Yes, he scored from all over (28 pts. Off 12/16 FGs). Yes, he distributed the ball (4 asst.) Yes, he used his fouls (3). Yes, he provided a spark when his team needed it. Objectively, Jokic was good in game 5 and great in the series. Subjectively, I thought he played the center position differently than any previous player who’s ever won an NBA Final or MVP.
Why Jokic is now in the discussion as a Top 3 all-time NBA Center
Nikola Jokic’s statistical body of work in the NBA is well-documented, so I’m not going to get into the weeds of the data here. Instead, let’s focus on the unique characteristics that place Jokic in the GOAT NBA Center discussion among the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Russell.
Jokic has A complete international game
The game of basketball has changed a lot in the last two decades. It is an international game now with quality players and tremendous youth involvement all over the map. Jokic is this generation’s marquee player — a big kid from a small country that made it to the highest echelons of the game. He’s a good athlete, he can shoot the 3, he can post up, he can eat glass, he can D, and he’s a quality passer (his extensive background in water polo comes into play here). In short, Jokic plays the game in a way that kids in 2023 want to play, and fans want to watch. In this way, he has changed the NBA and the game from the center position and that change appears as if it will be lasting.
Jokic is disrupting the NBA and showing the future of the sport
At no point in 2023 did an opposing NBA coach look at Nikola Jokic and say: “Oh, I’m glad we’re playing him this week. No matchup problems there.” The fact is, the big man’s game is so complete, it’s almost impossible to account for him using traditional basketball IQ and techniques. That causes teams to adjust by acquiring personnel and employing tactics of their own to try and match up with Jokic. As was proven throughout the 2023 season and NBA Finals, this is a losing proposition. The fact is, there is no other big man in the league with Nikola Jokic’s skill set. Until that player emerges – likely from the international ranks – Jokic and the Nuggets will disrupt how basketball is played in the NBA.
Jokic is a bit of an enigma and that’s interesting
Here’s my final point: Nikola Jokic, with Finals and MVP rings in hand and in his own quiet way, now transcends the state of mere NBA star and has now achieved a much more pronounced standing. He is unquestionably now a de facto brand ambassador for the game of basketball internationally. Still, not much is known about Jokic. If Malika Andrews is to be believed, Jokic didn’t really even want to play in the NBA to begin with. He was committed to a Spanish team but the night they came to a game to close the deal, Jokic’s team was terrible. The Spaniards walked away from the deal, the Nuggets took Jokic in the second round, and the rest is NBA history. He doesn’t seek the limelight and seems to keep his opinions off the court largely to himself. Really, we don’t know much about the big guy, and that’s got to be a part of the draw.
Is Jokic a Top 3 NBA Center?
He’s the best in the game right now, at his position, and arguably anywhere on an NBA court. His performance in 2023 and throughout the NBA playoffs was nothing short of historical for a big man, who aren’t supposed to put up triple-doubles and control the game the way he can. Jokic has now defeated the ‘ring bias’ a lot of fans and analysts have towards players who have performed well but never won a championship, but he has work left to do to catch Wilt Chamberlain, Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, and even Shaq in terms of total NBA titles and MVP awards.
In short, Nikola Jokic is unquestionably one of the greatest players in modern NBA history and at the very vanguard of the international game’s evolving influence on the league. At 28, he has years in front of him to earn additional accolades, and he will if he keeps his style and level of play up. He may not be a Top 3 All-time Center in the NBA just yet, but it is impossible to leave him out of the discussion.
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