DENVER • It’s all relative at this point, but the nicest thing about never winning an NBA championship is how it invites debate.
The best Nugget ever? Well, you’ve got options: the consistency of Alex English; the scoring of David Thompson and Carmelo Anthony; the graceful leadership of Chauncey, the charm of Dikembe. Shoot, Dan Issel is knitted in the franchise fabric, and only a few guys would fit the modern NBA better than “Fat” Lever.
Like we were saying, options. Great ones, too. Monday at Pepsi Center, the next option aww-shucked his way through a press conference that announced him as a $146 million man.
Hey, Nikola Jokic. You’re filthy rich, dude. What do you think about that?
“When I was younger my dream was not to sign a big contract like this,” Jokic said in his endearing Serbenglish.
His childhood dream?
“To win championship rings.”
For once, the “Joker” wasn’t joking. For once, there’s a neatly groomed path to becoming the best who ever played here. Win Colorado’s first NBA championship and the answer will be Jokic.
Stay healthy, and the best Nugget ever is going to be the 23-year-old from Sombor, Serbia. The Nuggets paid him like a superstar with a max contract, and he’s worth every dinar. It’s going to be a guy who first leapt onto the team’s radar through “grainy” videos of players wearing pink jerseys, as team president Josh Kroenke put it. It’s going to be a guy who will prove to be the best player from the 2014 NBA draft — astutely identified by the Nuggets in the second round at No. 41 overall. It’s going to be a guy who genuinely does not care about the generational fortune he just earned as a generational talent.
“We thought he had very unique skills. We thought he could eventually turn into an NBA player,” said Tim Connelly, president of operations. “But to see how quickly he’s made the jump and to see how comfortable he is producing against the elite of the elite? It’s something I’ve never seen. It’s something we may never see again.”
I have questions about this next Nuggets squad, and just about all of them concern an unproven and limited bench. Either they feel really good about backup point guard Monte Morris, or I don’t think they’re done moving and shaking through the offseason yet. Standby.
It’s fair to say the odds are stacked against the Nuggets winning an NBA title in the Jokic era, or any era. Forty years of history and the superteam takeover say so. But so long as we’re dreaming big, it was a seven-game stretch to close the 2017-18 season that cemented my belief that Jokic is the man for the mission.
With the Nuggets staring down elimination from playoff contention, Jokic flipped a switch that only the great ones know how to locate. Over two dazzling weeks in March and April, Jokic averaged 25.2 points, 12.8 rebounds and 7.4 assists. Missing the playoffs never felt so it’s-all-going-to-be-OK.
“You’re still only 23. Is that right?” Kroenke said on Monday.
"OK, just making sure."
Previously, Jokic didn't know how good he can be. Now he has proof on tape.
“I think we showed ourselves we can do hard stuff,” he said.
Nikola has company in his down-to-earthness. Natalija Macesic, his girlfriend since they were 16 and in Serbia, just completed her psychology degree at Metropolitan State, across the street from Pepsi Center. “Once I get my Master’s I’ll be all done,” she said. His brothers — Nemanja and Strahinja — recorded his life-changing press conference on an iPhone to send home to Mom and Dad. And right on cue, they rolled their eyes at baby bro’s corny wisecracks. Arguably his biggest fan — teammate Will Barton, whose $54-million deal confirmed Jokic as the loosest ATM in Colorado since Peyton Manning — recalled the first time he saw Jokic in a Nuggets practice jersey: “He wasn’t trying to be a star. He’s racing to get water. Then you see him on the court and it’s like, ‘Wow.’”
The Serbian translation of “wow” is “bob.”
The first time I saw Jokic on the Nuggets practice court was a bob moment, too. It was something like your first well-made Manhattan: Praise God, I have seen the light.
You weren’t kidding about big boy, I told Connelly.
“He’s going to be so good,” Connelly said.