The drive from the Denver Nuggets’ arena to the city’s airport usually takes half an hour. That’s where Felipe Eichenberger, the Nuggets’ director of performance and head strength-and-conditioning coach, often learns more about Nuggets center Nikola Jokić.
During some of their car rides this season, Eichenberger reported Jokić expressing feeling pleasantly surprised with how he played the previous night.
“I thought he was a lot better defender than he was,” Jokić said. Eichenberger replied, “Yeah, but you were pretty good on offense.”
Jokić’s response: “Yeah, but he was a really good defender last year. This year, I can’t even feel him.”
That Jokić feels unstoppable this season isn’t a surprise.
In his sixth NBA season, Jokić not only remains on pace to record career highs in points (26.2), field-goal percentage (56.7%), 3-point shooting (40.9%), rebounds (11.0) and assists (8.7), he has also ranked high among other NBA stars in several statistical categories. He ranks second in the NBA in triples doubles (15), which also ranks second in Nuggets franchise history for most in a season. He also fares sixth in assists per game, ninth in rebounds and 10th in points.
In what the Nuggets and Jokić consider most important, he has helped the Nuggets (40-21) maintain a fourth-place standing in the Western Conference despite fielding eight new players and nursing a combined 163 games due to injuries. The Nuggets have also gone 6-1 since point guard Jamal Murray suffered a season-ending ACL injury on his left knee, and Jokić has averaged 26.8 points on 59% shooting, 10.7 rebounds and 8.2 assists during that stretch. As Denver coach Michael Malone said, “his fingerprints are all over everything we do.”
Therefore, the Nuggets have strongly touted Jokić as the most favored NBA regular-season MVP candidate. If that happens, Jokić would become the first center to win that award since Shaquille O’Neal did 21 years ago.
Nikola Jokic is one of the front runners to win the MVP award. He would become just the second second-round pick to be voted as MVP. Willis Reed was the 1970 MVP after becoming the second-round draft pick for the Knicks in 1964 (No. 8 overall).
“I’m not objective certainly, but he’s having an historical year,” Tim Connelly, the Nuggets’ president of basketball operations, told USA TODAY Sports. “I’ve never seen a more difficult player to guard. He’s the best passer in the NBA. He has an ability to step out and consistently make 3s. He’s got 15 moves in the post. You never know what he’s going to pull out.”
Jokić might face stiff competition in the NBA regular-season MVP race against Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry. Unlike those candidates, though, Jokić has yet to miss a game this season. He has stayed durable despite starting the 2020-21 season almost three months after the Nuggets lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
Aside from returning to his native Serbia to marry his long-time girlfriend (Natalija Macesic), Jokić spent the remainder of his short offseason focused on basketball.
“He stayed in great shape and he came back ready to go,” Malone said. “He didn’t ease himself into the season. He came back playing at a high level, and he’s done that for every game we’ve played this year. That’s why I think he’s a leading candidate for MVP.”
Why Jokic is viewed as the MVP
Jokić hardly has been as vocal about his MVP credentials as the Nuggets have. Jokić has declined numerous interview requests partly because he does not want to self-promote. Still, Jokić has fielded questions about his MVP chances following many practices and games.
“I don’t know what to say,” Jokić said. “There are a lot of players in this league that play at a really high level. That’s my answer.”
The reason for Jokić’s answer?
The Nuggets liken Jokić’s demeanor to former San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan, who famously deflected attention. Yet, Duncan will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame next month after helping the Spurs win five NBA championships and make 19 consecutive playoff appearances while collecting three Finals MVPs and two regular-season MVP awards. Jokić remains far away from matching Duncan’s credentials. Nonetheless, the Nuggets marvel on how Jokić has mirrored Duncan’s mannerisms.
Jokić has mastered everything expected in a center both in a previous era (superior post-ups, passing) and in today’s game (dependable outside shot).
“He’s one of the greatest people I’ve ever met and one of the most unselfish players I’ve ever met,” Eichenberger told USA TODAY Sports. “In the back of his mind, he might care [about MVP]. But he cares more about the team than anything else.”
The Nuggets harbored a different impression of Jokić’s trajectory after selecting him at No. 41 in the 2014 NBA Draft.
“At no point did we think this guy was going to turn into a top five player in the world,” Connelly said. “If we thought that, we wouldn’t have waited for the 41st pick to pick him.”
After seeing Jokić play in Serbia both professionally (KK Mega) and for their national team, Denver’s front office became enamored with Jokić’s passing, timing and paint presence. Yet, the Nuggets quickly realized that Jokić lacked the proper strength and conditioning to compete in the NBA.
Consider that Jokić could not even hold a plank for 30 seconds during one of his first workouts with Eichenberger. And now? Eichenberger quipped that Jokić “can hold a plank for a day while reading his book.”
Jokić reached that point by changing his diet and training habits significantly in recent seasons.
First, Jokić stopped consuming soda and sugar in place of healthier alternatives. He eats light meals filled with protein every three hours. He avoids the postgame spread in favor of his own customized protein-heavy meal. After workouts, Jokić drinks a smoothie packed with protein and vitamins that Eichenberger said often includes collagen and a banana. To avoid snacking in between meals out of hunger or boredom, Jokić fights temptations by playing with a fidget spinner.
Even with all their injuries, Nikola Jokic believes that he and Aaron Gordon (left) can help lead the Nuggets to their first NBA title.
Otherwise, Jokić has stayed busy in the weight room. Eichenberger has flown to Serbia a few times each offseason to help Jokić train. Following the season shutdown last year because of the pandemic, Eichenberger sent Jokić workout equipment and weights to train at his Denver residence. Jokić still lifts weights following every game and on off days. By following this routine, Jokić told ESPN last year he lost between 20 to 25 pounds. Although he declined to share specifics out of respect for Jokić’s privacy, Eichenberger maintained those numbers are “pretty conservative.”
“What you see this season is all the hard work he’s been putting in on the last three to four years,” Eichenberger said. “He’s been focused and committed for a long time.”
How Jokić has improved this season
That focus and commitment partly explain why Jokić has since made the NBA All-Rookie First Team (2016), All-NBA First Team (2019) and All-NBA Second team (2020) along with three consecutive All-Star appearances. That also coincided with the Nuggets making the playoffs for the past two years, including advancing to last year’s Western Conference finals after overcoming 3-1 series deficits to the Utah Jazz and the L.A. Clippers.
Nonetheless, the Nuggets believe Jokić has become a better version of himself this season.
“His work ethic this year has separated him. That’s why he’s having the season he’s had,” Denver guard Will Barton said. “This is the most work I’ve seen him put in. He always works hard, but he took another leap this year.”
Barton shared those thoughts with Jokić following the Nuggets’ recent double overtime win over the Memphis Grizzlies. Then, Jokić scored 31 of his 47 points in the second half and overtime in a season-high 45 minutes and made a go-ahead game-winning 3-pointer with 42 seconds left. “I told him that’s MVP (right there,” Barton said. Yet, Malone hesitated in touting that performance as an MVP moment. Malone countered that “Nikola has got around 56 moments where he’s shown he’s the MVP.”
Jokić has helped the Nuggets stay afloat through the team’s numerous ailments. Not only has Jokić done that with his play but he galvanized the team following Murray’s injury and subsequent injuries to Monte Morris and Barton, according to reports. After Murray’s injury, Jokić reiterated confidence to his teammates that the Nuggets can still win an NBA championship this season.
“Nikola is such a bright person that when his energy’s correct and when he has a real sense of belief and confidence, our guys will follow,” Connelly said. “He’s enjoyed becoming more of a vocal leader. But he’s only speaking up when he really has something to say.”
Jokić has also been credited for elevating his teammates’ play. Before Murray’s injury, the duo willingly deferred to each other. While Murray has had nine games of 30 or more points this season, Jokić has had 11. According to NBA.com, Jokić has shown balanced passing to Murray (28.9%), Barton (16.0%), Morris (12.6%), Michael Porter Jr. (10.3%) and Facundo Campazzo (9.1%). And since acquiring Aaron Gordon from Orlando before the NBA trade deadline last month, Jokić has already recorded more assists to Gordon than any of his former Magic teammates.
“Nikola has seen every double team the defense can conceive. Nine times out of 10 he’s going to make the right read and find the open man,” Malone said. “His playmaking, his passing, his IQ and his vision all allow his teammates to thrive.”
Jokić has kept that team-first mindset while still becoming an increasingly aggressive scorer. He has improved his scoring average from last season by more than six points and has taken about four more shots per game. Hence, Jokić has won two Western Conference Player of the Month awards in January (27.3 points, 11.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists) and March (27.1 points, 11.4 rebounds, 8.4 assists).
“The step that he’s made toward being an MVP candidate is he punishes you by scoring. He’ didn’t always do that,” Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He desired to pass so much more than to score. Now, he just takes whatever the defense gives him.”
Often, the defense does not know what to give the 6-foot-11 Jokić because of his versatility and deceptively slow speed.
“The question should be, ‘How do we speed him up?'” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “He plays at his own pace. While he may not be blazing out there, he just does anything he wants. That’s what he makes him such a remarkable player.”
Eventually, the Nuggets often circle back to how Jokić has consistently fulfilled these job descriptions without missing any games.
“We’ve talked to him extensively about potentially taking a day off here or there — he just refuses to do so,” Connelly said. “He has no interest in doing it “
Instead, the Nuggets see Jokić having interest in fulfilling his MVP role for the Nuggets regardless of whether it results in an actual trophy.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić could win NBA MVP: Here’s why