History was made on Tuesday in Denver.
Nikola Jokic was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for the 2020-21 season. The Nuggets center received 91 out of 101 first-place votes, easily outpacing Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Golden State’s Steph Curry for the award.
It’s a monumental achievement, one that caps a tremendous season for Denver’s star. He becomes the first player in franchise history to earn the league’s MVP honor.
Jokic accomplished the feat in part because of numbers. He finished in the top-five of the league in points (26.4), rebounds (10.8) and assists (8.3), showcasing an all-around game that is unmatched in the NBA.
The center also earned the award due to his team’s performance. The Nuggets finished with the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference despite the loss of their second-best player, Jamal Murray, for the last third of the season.
Those things aren’t what make the accomplishment remarkable, however. They’re certainly impressive, to be sure. But they aren’t once-in-a-generation achievements.
Jokic’s stats are well-rounded, but there’s nothing about them that is gaudy. And Denver had a nice season, but they didn’t even win their division.
For a Nuggets player to win the league’s MVP, it always seemed like a certain somewhere would have to freeze over. Leading the NBA in scoring, carrying Denver to the No. 1 seed in the West or perhaps both would’ve been the predicted formula for capturing the honor.
Jokic didn’t do anything that flashy. Somehow, he still won the award.
That’s not to say he didn’t deserve it. He cleared did.
It’s just amazing that the rest of the basketball world noticed him. It’s somewhat stunning that Jokic didn’t get ignored by the NBA establishment.
They love to reward players who toil in the big markets. The all-time list of MVPs is littered with Bulls, Celtics, Knicks, Lakers and Warriors.
They also tend to lean toward stars. Names like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, LeBron James and Curry show up repeatedly on the ledger.
Jokic had to buck a lot of trends en route to the award. It’s why his selection is the great individual accomplishment in the history of Colorado sports.
There have been teams from the state that have won championships. The Broncos have captured three Lombardi Trophies, the Avalanche have hoisted a pair of Stanley Cups and the Buffaloes have won a national title. But those were group efforts; that’s a different animal.
This was about one person who calls the Centennial State earning the highest honor possible in his field of endeavor. None who have come before him have had to overcome as much as Jokic to earn the honor.
Three Broncos have won the NFL’s MVP award. John Elway (1987) was the first, followed by Terrell Davis (1998) and Peyton Manning (2013). The latter two did it by hitting huge milestones, as TD rushed for 2,000 yards and PFM set nearly every single-season passing record. No. 7 led his team to the Super Bowl for the second-straight year.
It also helped that Denver is a marquee franchise in the NFL. They appear on national television. Their players are well-known around the country. That’s how the league is built. Aaron Rodgers can play in Green Bay and be a star. Manning can start his career in Indianapolis and still become the darling of Madison Avenue.
That’s not to say that those three MVP awards aren’t impressive. They are. But Elway, Davis and Manning didn’t have the deck stacked against them in the way Jokic did.
Neither did Joe Sakic (2000-01) or Peter Forsberg (2002-03). When those former Avalanche stars won the Hart Trophy in two out of three seasons, Colorado was one of the hottest hockey markets in the country. They were competing for a Stanley Cup every season, selling out the building every night and appearing on national TV whenever the league could get them on.
They were stars. The NHL positioned them as such. It made their path to the MVP riddled with less potholes.
The same can be said for Larry Walker. He didn’t face the obstacles that would be in his way today.
When the Rockies outfielder won the National League MVP in 1997, Coors Field was still a new ballpark. Just three years into its existence, the stadium hadn’t earned a hitter-friendly reputation that would lead to future generations having their numbers saddled with an unofficial asterisks.
Nowadays, it’d be tough for a Rockies player to win the MVP. Nolan Arenado found that out the hard way. Despite leading the NL in home runs three times, topping the league in RBIs twice and leading Colorado to the postseason in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history, the third baseman never finished higher than third in the Most Valuable Player voting.
He faced an uphill battle, one that couldn’t be overcome with huge numbers or winning baseball. Heck, it couldn’t even be jumped via highlight-reel plays.
Therein lies another head scratching part of the Jokic story. In a world that is all about bite-sized moments that resonate well on social media, his game doesn’t fit.
Curry shoots three-pointers from the logo. Giannis Anteokounmpo throws down monster dunks. Kevin Durant does both.
Jokic doesn’t do any of those things. He plays fundamental basketball. He makes awkwardly looking shots. He throws unbelievable passes.
While all of those things are great, they don’t lead “SportsCenter.” And they don’t win MVP awards.
Until this season.
Playing for an oft-overlooked franchise in a league that focuses almost entirely on big markets, playing in a way that focuses on the team over himself in a sport that is all about the individual, Nikola Jokic managed to do the impossible.
He got the attention of the basketball world. He earned their respect. And he got their vote.
Nikola Jokic is the 2020-21 NBA Most Valuable Player. That’s remarkable.
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