Nikola Jokic is the MVP frontrunner, but lately, he hasn’t been treated like it by the officials. While these problems have existed all season and even into the past, the Nuggets have been especially frustrated by the officiating in their past several games. It all started in a recent game against the Orlando Magic. Jokic was clearly fouled twice on a single possession, and when no whistle came, he fouled Terrence Ross in an over-the-top fashion just to get the attention of the officials.
Things spiraled from there. First, Denver coach Michael Malone was ejected from a game against the San Antonio Spurs for arguing a non-call on Jokic. Then Jokic was T’d up again in their rematch with the Spurs. Finally, on Sunday, Jokic drew his softest technical foul yet after expressing frustration on a foul he was called for against Marcus Smart.
That technical foul against Jokic has been rescinded, according to Harrison Wind of DNVR Sports, but the greater problem hasn’t been solved. Malone revealed last week that the Nuggets have been in contact with the NBA over the way Jokic is officiated, and Jokic believes the problem extends far beyond him and the Nuggets. “The whole 30 teams are complaining and whining,” Jokic said Sunday before going on to say that teams need to be able to overcome such mistakes.
Yet there’s compelling evidence suggesting that Denver has drawn the short end of the officiating stick. Jokic had taken the eighth-most shot attempts in the NBA this season entering Monday, but among players that have started at least one game, his 26.2 percent free-throw attempt rate ranks an embarrassingly low 142nd in the NBA. That has little to do with where his shots are coming from. After all, he has the same free-throw rate as 3-point specialists Bojan Bogdanovic and Nemanja Bjelica. In fact, looking purely at shot distance, Jokic compares favorably to fellow MVP-candidate Joel Embiid, who is on pace to break Wilt Chamberlain’s NBA record for free throws per 36 minutes.
Shot distance (via basketball-reference)
Percentage of shot attempts within 0-3 feet of basket
Percentage of shot attempts within 3-10 feet of basket
Percentage of shot attempts within 10-16 feet of basket
Percentage of shot attempts between 16 feet of basket and 3-point line
Percentage of shot attempts behind 3-point line
Free throw attempts per game
All in all, Jokic and Embiid take a very similar overall portfolio of shots. If anything, Jokic takes more shots close to the basket, which, generally, tend to produce more free throws. Yet Embiid is taking almost two-and-a-half times as many free throws as Jokic is. Drawing fouls is a skill, and Embiid has mastered it. His body type is arguably more conducive to drawing fouls as well, but that gap really doesn’t make sense in the context of their playing styles.
In the playoffs, every minuscule advantage counts. For a shooter as skilled as Jokic, every uncalled foul is essentially lost points. The Nuggets aren’t asking for Jokic to be treated like Embiid, but they rightfully believe he should be getting to the line more often than Bjelica and Bogdanovic. That has manifested in several technical fouls lately, but if the Nuggets don’t call attention to this issue now, it’s not going to be addressed in time for the postseason.