Denver Nuggets fans are accustomed to disappointment, so they deserve to celebrate the fact that the franchise's biggest star, Nikola Jokic, will be officially named the NBA's most valuable player later this week. After all, the award is Jokic's second in a row, putting him in rare company among the elite of the sport and proving that last year's trophy was no fluke.
But once again, haters are casting a pall over Jokic's achievement, either by dismissing him as a mere creature of analytics rather than a rare talent or by contending that the Nuggets' failures in the playoffs (the squad was bounced in the first round by the Golden State Warriors) taint his accomplishments. Instead of saluting his historic season, sports-media personalities spent much of May 9 damning him with the faintest of praise before arguing that the Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid, the Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo or the Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker — all on teams whose post-season dreams are still alive — were more deserving of the prize.
Still, no one's mentioning the real reason Jokic is undervalued: Even the experts can't quite figure out how this athletically challenged, slow-moving, lousy-jumping load of a man is so damn good.
Predictably, Fox Sports's Nick Wright, among the biggest and most irritating trolls in American media (truly an impressive accomplishment), led the denigration parade. When asked on the FS1 program Undisputed how to describe his feelings about Jokic taking home the prize again, he answered, "Resignation...sadness."
Wright didn't act mopey for long. He posited that the MVP award once "really mattered" before rattling off a list of players who'd won it in consecutive years, including Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Steph Curry and Antetokounmpo, before finally tossing in Steve Nash's name with a sneer.
In Wright's view, the MVP "used to be reserved for the all-time best of the best, the greatest of the greats, plus Steve Nash. Now it's reserved for the all-time best of the best, greatest of the greats, plus Steve Nash and Nikola Jokic."
Here's a clip of Wright ripping on Jokic. Note that the other Undisputed panelists mostly agree with him, albeit in less obnoxious fashion.
Joy Taylor, filling in on The Herd With Colin Cowherd, had a similar take. After conceding that the MVP is a regular-season award, she went on to argue that excellence is truly tested in the playoffs, and that's where Jokic has come up short.
Here's what she had to say:
Granted, not every sports pundit went in this direction. At Sporting News, Stephen Noh laid out the case for Jokic as MVP in compelling fashion. "Somewhere along the way, Jokic voters became classified as nerds that only see the game through a spreadsheet," he pointed out. "What’s missing from this argument is that Jokic doesn’t need the backing of advanced statistics to win the award. Sure, he’s an alphabet-soup stud that stands out in all of the acronym-laden metrics. But he’s also been the best player in the league via eye test," he noted, thanks to brilliant passing, MVP-worthy scoring ability, improved and underrated defense, and unprecedented overall production.
Noh emphasized that "Jokic’s per-game averages of 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 7.9 assists have never been hit before in the 75-year history of the NBA. Let that sink in."
Jokic was also the first player in NBA history to rack up at least 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists in a single season. And he did it with a roster that was undeniably weak. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets' second- and third-best players, sat out the entire season with injuries, and aside from Aaron Gordon and emerging rookie Bones Hyland, the players able to suit up ranged from adequate role players to castoffs and reclamation projects. (Austin Rivers, we're looking at you.)
That the Nuggets were able to win 48 games in the NBA's ultra-tough Western Conference with these deficits qualifies as a miracle. Yet because Jokic seems to lumber instead of float and has a vertical leap that would only be impressive if it were measured in millimeters, he still gets taken for granted by observers who judge quality based on awe-inspiring highlight clips rather than the stealthy skills in which he specializes.
Yes, Denver needs to make a mark in the playoffs, and it's a tremendous shame that Jokic's two MVP seasons have been in some ways wasted owing to circumstances beyond his control. Plans need to be put in place now to make sure that the 2022-2023 season becomes the Nuggets' true national coming-out party, particularly if Murray and Porter remain hampered.
Still, Jokic's MVP was well-deserved, no matter what the haters say.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.