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Where Does a Title Put Nikola Jokic in NBA History?

The Denver Nuggets star has reached rarefied air after bringing a championship to the Mile High City. Is he already one of the game’s 20 best players ever? “He’s one of the all-time greats and still 28 years old. There’s so much more to go,” says Nuggets GM Calvin Booth.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Every inner-circle Hall of Fame–caliber player is an exception. They conquer and persevere in spite of circumstances—rules, schemes, the mounting pressure that comes with a deep playoff run—that tend to torment everybody else.

Nikola Jokic—a once-in-a-lifetime basketball phenomenon with an unprecedented offensive skill set that’s left some of the shrewdest coaches completely dumbfounded—is now one of them. After leading the Denver Nuggets past the Miami Heat in five games, Jokic is now just the 13th player in NBA history to win at least two regular-season MVP awards and a championship. He’s only the 11th to do all that and win a Finals MVP, too. His accomplishments are now the stuff of lore.

Aesthetically, his talent, power, and acumen resist explicit categorization. Cull the most adored elements from Larry Bird, Dirk Nowitzki, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, and Shaquille O’Neal, and you essentially get what Jokic is right now: a comprehensive megastar, head and shoulders above his contemporaries. If Monday night was the last game he ever played, Jokic would still go down as one of the 20 greatest players to ever pick up a ball.

“From day one, what stood out to me was the skill level, the ballhandling, the ball passing, the soft touch. He is a guy that works on his craft,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “He’s not just a guy that shows up and does that. The amount of time that he puts into his game I don’t think is documented enough.”

His place in history is secure, but he’s 28 years old, and his career is far from being cemented. After a Finals run for the ages—during which the Nuggets lost only four games, never trailed in a series, sent a would-be superteam back to the drawing board, and made LeBron James ponder retirement—what Jokic can ultimately become is still hard to process. He’s a relatively unathletic 7-footer who pounds opponents into the ground with both his mind and body. He gets wherever he wants, whenever he wants, and creates an efficient look (via shot or pass) just about every time the ball leaves his fingertips.

When he was on the floor during the regular season, Denver generated a stunning 124.2 points per 100 possessions. When he was on the floor during the playoffs, they were still at 120.2 points per 100 possessions. Both reflect unconscious efficiency. Now just look at Jokic’s numbers from each round of this title run:

Nikola Jokic During the 2023 NBA Playoffs

Playoff Round Points Rebounds Assists FG% 3PT% FT% Plus/Minus
Playoff Round Points Rebounds Assists FG% 3PT% FT% Plus/Minus
Round 1 vs. the Timberwolves 26.2 12.4 9 48.5 50 70.6 +17
Round 2 vs. the Suns 34.5 13.2 10.3 59.4 44.4 85.4 +74
Round 3 vs. the Lakers 27.8 14.5 11.8 50.6 47.1 77.8 +39
Round 4 vs. the Heat 30.2 14 7.2 58.3 42.1 83.8 +39

In the 2023 postseason, Jokic led all players in points, rebounds, and assists. That has never happened before. He made well over half his shots, too. Nobody has ever gone through an entire playoffs averaging at least 30 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists, with a true shooting percentage above 60.0. Jokic safely cleared all those marks.

“This was a historic run. I don’t know how you can say he’s not the best big man ever, really,” Michael Porter Jr. said after Game 5. “He’s one of the all-time best basketball players. I don’t care what anyone says. I think he’s one of the all-time best players to ever play this game.”

An identical sentiment was echoed in Denver’s triumphal postgame locker room by a beaming Calvin Booth. As champagne dripped down from the ceiling onto the soaked Nuggets general manager, he paused to reflect on what he just saw his franchise center do over the past couple of months. “[Jokic] was so locked in, so focused. I think everybody knew that we had a chance to do something special, and he led the charge,” Booth told The Ringer. “He’s one of the all-time greats and still 28 years old. There’s so much more to go.”

Jokic’s 31.5 PER in these playoffs is tied for the sixth-highest performance ever (only Michael Jordan and LeBron are above him). His 29.1 PER career playoff mark is the highest ever, period. When we strictly weigh what others have done before their 29th birthday, Jokic’s postseason win shares per 48 minutes mark is tied for fourth, behind MJ, LeBron, and Wilt Chamberlain. Not bad! Cumulative counting stats aren’t there, but his peak over these past three seasons is pretty much as high as anyone’s peak can be.

The triple-doubles draw headlines—he had 10 of them this postseason, which is three more than Chamberlain’s previous NBA record—and they obviously matter. Gaudy numbers help measure his unparalleled production and total dominance in pretty much every area of the game. But they’re almost a footnote when you consider his singular impact, which defies similitude across time and era. The center position before Jokic is Hollywood before Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler.

“Joker is redefining the game,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said. “You are going to start seeing more and more players that can just do everything, regardless of size. He’s breaking that mold, kind of like how Magic Johnson did with the point guard position. He’s breaking the mold of the center position, of not being only dominant down on the block. Now he’s being dominant from 40 feet … everywhere on the floor.”

How do you stop the best post player alive, who’s also the best passer alive, who’s also one of the best rebounders alive, who also just made 46.1 percent of his 3s in the postseason, who held up on defense against a VIP cohort of offensive firepower, and who never needed more than a play or two to adjust whenever the other team switched up its coverage? “What’s, like, the limit on IQ?” Porter asked when he was standing at his locker after Game 4 in Miami. “Whatever the number is, like the limit, he’s up there with his basketball IQ. That’s the best way I can describe it.”

Jokic is one of the most efficient high-volume scorers ever. He’s also Chris Paul in the open floor, Hakeem Olajuwon on the block, and an amalgamation of John Stockton and Karl Malone when running the pick-and-roll. However you need Jokic to function—in an offensive system that’s built around his ability to read plays before they unfold, and as a constant threat off the ball, too—he’ll provide an ideal outcome, moving at his own speed, never in a rush, always methodical. What he does on any given possession is extraordinarily challenging, with a frustrating sheen of effortlessness.

“[Jokic is] very unique because he brings a different style of game and different type of pace to the game,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said. “You can’t scout it. It is what it is.”

Jokic is smooth, unyielding, anticipatory, and synergistic with every single one of his teammates. There are plenty of individuals around the NBA who are eager to make the right play every time they touch the ball. But Jokic is the most consistent at it. Generosity is his mindset. “The open man wins the game” is his philosophy, and it goes hand in hand with the idea that only one person is happy after taking a shot, but two are full of joy when someone gets an assist.

“Some of the passes he makes and how quick he’ll make them, I think that’s what impresses me the most,” Nuggets guard Jamal Murray said. “There’s no hesitation with that. Some guys don’t hesitate with their jump shot. They go right into a shot no matter what. He does the same thing with his passing.

“You’ve got to guard every single person on the court, whether they can shoot or not, finish or not. Everybody is a threat.”

Jokic is almost antithetical to the modern franchise player, on the court and off it. Humble, ego-free, filled with genuine satisfaction when members of his supporting cast have success. Those aren’t common qualities found in every person who can lay claim to the title of the best basketball player in the world. As teammates, Steph Curry and Tim Duncan might be the only appropriate comps in recent history. “[Jokic’s] personality is humble, thoughtful,” said Jeff Green, a 15-year veteran who’s been around the block. “He’s overall a great human being, very down-to-earth.”

When Jokic was recently asked whether he’s the best player on the Nuggets, he said: “It’s hard to say because sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not. I’m cool with that. I think everybody else are good with that. … The ball is in my hands a lot, so I make a lot of decisions. But I don’t know if [I] can be the best player.”

That kind of selflessness matters to an organization that might be at the start of a dynastic run. Going forward, free agents will want to play with Jokic. This season, every player in Denver’s rotation had a higher effective field goal percentage when they shared the court with him, including potential free agent Bruce Brown, who saw his shooting plummet by 18 percentage points in minutes without the two-time MVP.

Jokic’s achievements have also come without any All-Star teammates (a technically accurate statement that doesn’t do Murray and Gordon justice). He’s overwhelming enough to reshape how rosters are constructed throughout the Western Conference. If you don’t invest in multiple big men who can make Jokic work one-on-one, he’ll bully ball you until help defenders have to collapse and thus open up the floor. From there, it’s curtains.

“He’s going to go down as one of the greatest big men to ever play the game,” Heat forward Kevin Love said. “He’s not a guy you’re going to stop.”

All of this speaks to Jokic’s prominence in a league that’s as talented and competitive as it’s ever been. There’s no reason he can’t win another couple of MVP awards. Rings are fleeting, and open title windows are perpetually one sprained ankle away from closing. But, injury luck willing, it’s hard to see any logical reason the Nuggets won’t be a championship contender for the years to come. The present is cause for celebration. The future may be Jokic’s playground.

“He won his first MVP, and his numbers were better [for] the second MVP, and his numbers are better … now,” Murray said. “I think there’s more to come, actually, from Jok. I think we haven’t seen a side of Jok that we are going to see, where he can be just pure dominance all the way, the whole game. Even more than he has been.”

There aren’t any limits here. Jokic is an exception to every rule, and his reign has no end in sight. He’s already one of the league’s 20 best players ever. How much higher he’ll climb from here, in a stable ecosystem suited perfectly to his talents, may very well be up to him.