The numbers Nikola Jokic posted helped him become the Denver Nuggets’ first NBA Most Valuable Player but fall short of capturing his complete impact.
The way he got those points — rebounds and assists while playing and acting selflessly — seems to be a better indicator.
“When your best player, who is now an MVP, is your hardest worker, that sets a tone and an example for everyone else, whether it’s a veteran coming in, a new player that’s been drafted, whoever it is,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after the media award was announced Tuesday. “When you see Nikola, after playing 38 minutes in a hard-fought game, that he’s the first one to go upstairs into the weight room to do his postgame routine, that example is so invaluable to the young players, to the vets, to his teammates.”
Jokic was the only player to finish in the top five in points (third), rebounds (fifth) and assists (third) this season. He played in all 72 games, something that neither Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, who finished second in the voting, nor Golden State’s Stephen Curry, who finished third, could boast. Jokic received 91 of 101 possible first-place votes, eight second-place votes and one third-place vote, giving him 971 points in the polling, nearly 400 more than Embiid. He scored a career-high 50 points against Sacramento in February, grabbed 22 rebounds against the Suns in January and had an 18-assist game against Houston in December.
“It’s an accomplishment that shows me that I’m doing a good job of playing basketball, that I’m doing something that people recognize. It doesn’t affect me that much, to be honest,” Jokic said. “When I see the list, of course, it’s great names. It’s an honor to be on that list, but I never even thought that I’m going to get to this. It’s a surprise, but … I would rather win a championship than MVP. There is always that. Maybe that’s my motivation (now).”
Denver’s unlikely star finished the year averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists while shooting 56.6% from the field, 38.8% from 3-point range and 86.8% on free throws. He becomes the lowest draft pick, at 41st overall in 2014, and first Serbian to win the NBA’s highest individual award.
“I came here six years ago, and I was growing. The organization was growing. The coaching staff was growing. The players next to me were growing, so I couldn’t do it by myself,” Jokic said.
“It’s an individual award, but it’s the effort of everybody who was a part of the Denver Nuggets organization. It’s a big thing, but it’s not just mine. ... It’s the award of everyone who worked for me and with me.”
Jokic admitted there was relief that he wouldn’t have to discuss his individual success once the award was announced. Instead of focusing on the impact winning MVP might have on his place in basketball history, he hoped it might serve as inspiration to others, especially those in Serbia.
“I’m probably going to feel it when I go home. I’m going to feel what it really means,” Jokic said. “But what I really want it to mean is that kids are going out and playing basketball. They don’t need to play basketball. They can play whatever sport they want to play, just for people to go outside and play sports. If I do that for the kids back home, I think that’s going to be my biggest accomplishment.”
After discussing his award Tuesday, it’s back to preparing for Game 2 of a second-round playoff series against the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday. The Nuggets lost Monday’s Game 1, but Denver seems to have a chance as long as Jokic is on the court. He’s carried the team over the course of a season where the Nuggets were rarely at full strength due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols. Jokic found a way for it to work regardless of if he was playing next to co-stars Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. or alongside unheralded two-way players like Markus Howard and Shaq Harrison after injuries took their toll on the roster. Denver finished third in the Western Conference and only lost three consecutive games once the season.
“He makes everyone around him better. We saw that all season. We’ve seen that for six years now. We saw that in the first round against Portland,” Malone said. “If Nikola was all about me, me, me, we wouldn’t have had the success, and I don’t know if he would’ve had the success. He is totally selfless.”