Staking the flag
Two consecutive 3-1 comebacks later, and it’s clear: Nikola Jokic is the best center in the NBA. Since the Warriors dynasty era, the center position took a backseat in regards to importance. Yes, the defensive centers, with perhaps some rim-rolling, is a necessity.
However, the center as the focal point of an elite offense, reminiscent of Shaquille ‘ONeal in the early 2000s, is decades ago apart from the role player at the five-spot. Jokic, and all of his awkward one-foot fadeaways, the speed of a slightly energized tortoise, yet possesses the vision of an owl with its eyes fixated on the night’s dinner. The Serbian-born NBA anomaly breathes life into an otherwise disregarded position in the league.
Although Rudy Gobert empowers the Jazz’s defense in an elite manner, his limited offensive arsenal rears its ugly head compared to a dynamic player such as Nikola Jokic. Regardless of Gobert playing some of the best defense against the Denver All-Star, the long arms of Gobert couldn’t extend to Jokic’s greatness.
Following the numbers
Even though Jokic has a reputation as a decent three-point shooter, the last two seasons indicate otherwise. The 31 percent from beyond the perimeter didn’t discourage Jokic in the Jazz series. Miraculously, his playoff percentages exceeded the regular season prestige. Opposing the best defensive center in the league, Jokic shot 47 percent from deep.
In addition to the three-point buckets, Jokic’s command in the post serves as a reminder that the Siberian husky doesn’t fit your mold of what a center must do to fit in a modern offense. Gobert’s valiant efforts of disrupting Jokic’s odd-rhythmed offense made for an improv-like theater.
No matter what Gobert threw at Jokic, an answer followed. Per NBA.com/stats matchup numbers, Jokic attempted 19 free throws with Gobert as the foul committer. Piling on to Gobert’s constant fruit-in-a-blender state at the hands of Jokic, the 158 points accumulated on a two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner speak volumes.
All year, Jokic withstood shots from critics. Although some criticism was deemed warranted by early-season results, one of the main critiques was the all-star center’s nature to lay off his shot attempts. Yet, in pivotal moments of both the Jazz and Nuggets series, Jokic shut down any takes which question his willingness to score.
The beauty of Jokic doesn’t exist in cliches of yesteryear’s basketball minds. The idea of Jokic conforming to some dated standard doesn’t fit his character. He doesn’t move like us, literally and figuratively. Also, seeing his on-court dynamic with Murray, Jokic’s playstyle shifts against the grain.
Nikola Jokic transcends the center position. The notion that a center can’t initiate the offense throughout a game doesn’t’ stick with the 2019-2020 second-team All-NBA star. When teams reach desperation by forcing the double team, the futile efforts only enhance the wonder of his game.
The Los Angeles Clippers, before its monumental implosion, came as the ultimate roadblock for a theoretically close-but-not-there-yet Nuggets’ team. Concluding the 97-120 loss at the claws of the Clippers, the Nuggets never panicked.
At this point, a Nuggets series doesn’t commence until the tested franchise falls to a 3-1 series deficit. Jokic, a man who seldom makes proclamations, diffused any sense of stress with his comments on the Clippers harboring all the pressure after falling to the Nuggets in game six of the Western Conference semifinals.
Typically, double-teaming centers ends in a favorable outcome for the aggressive defense. However, Jokic is the anomaly of the league. Rivaling some of the best passing bigs in league history, Jokic dissected the array of Clipper defenders by dishing out assists for the hungry cutters in Denver’s offense.
If Jamal Murray was considered the ultimate star in the first round versus the Jazz, Jokic is the undisputed needle-mover of the Nuggets’ existence as a contender in the NBA. Jokic took the title of the best center in the league in his superstar efforts in the past two rounds.
Between the fact of which saw the methodical center leading the Clippers series in both assists and rebound percentage, and the outright shredding of a narrative stemming from earlier in the season, the jury is in Jokic’s favor.
With that said, it’s time to address the elephant in the room: Anthony Davisslots most of his minutes at the four-spot. While The Lakers’ frontcourt star does rival Jokic with his place in the first-team All-NBA position, technically Jokic is the pure center of the two.
Per Basketball-Reference, Davis played 60 percent of his possessions as the four. In the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers looked best with Dwight Howard the five. No matter how you try to label or contextualize, Jokic’s playoff run warrants the recognition.
Joel Embiid, although the more famous star, and although he shares the “he’s in bad shape” critics, pales in comparison to Jokic’s overall impact. Karl-Anthony Towns, although clearly gifted athletically, currently lacks the intangibles to push his team to a playoff berth.
The Nuggets understated star escapes the “yeah, but” interjections for the invisible title of the best center in the NBA. Jokic’s all-time passing repertoire deserves all the fanfare. However, so do his clutch-time scoring performances.
Rising to the occasion
Once again, it’s easy to lose your attention for a split, assuming Jokic is looking for a cutter in the finals minutes of a game. Yet, withstanding his generous reputation, the typically pass-happy center braces his broad shoulders for a seismic lift in clutch situations.
Astonishingly, the “somber shuffle” works like a charm, although nothing is charming about the methodical, seemingly drunken, fadeaway. No matter the aesthetics, the results typically favor Jokic.
When in doubt, Jokic puts his back to the basket and produces efficient basketball. As a defender, hope for the best and expect the worst when Jokic leans back and hoist up some of the ugliest prettiest shots in the final minutes.
When the game is in the balance, with five points, in the final five minutes, the superstar center finishes with a 26.6 net rating and shoots a remarkable 82.2 true shooting percentage.
Although the Lakers currently sit with a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals, Los Angeles barely cathed by a heroic Jokic performance. In the final five minutes, Jokic’s time to shine, he scored the last 10 points for the Nuggets.
If not for blown coverage by Mason Plumleeon a final buzzer-beating three-point shot by Anthony Davis, the Nuggets would have tied the series 1-1.
Despite the 0-2 hole in the Western Conference Finals, don’t consider the Nuggets finished, especially with its stoic leader in Nikola Jokic at the helm of the offense. At the highest and most pressure-filled moments, Jokic excels in the spotlight, win or lose.
No other center in the league is making consistent plays at such a high level, especially at an ultra-efficient clip. Nikola Jokic is the best center in the NBA, bar none.
all stats appear courtesy of NBA.com/stats and Basketball-Reference.com