A Special to 104.3 The Fan from the Action Network’s Matt Moore, the Fan Nuggets Insider
What you have to realize, more than anything, is that no one planned for this, expected this or knows how it ends.
And that includes the 2021 National Basketball Association’s Most Valuable Player, Nikola Jokic.
From a workout room somewhere in Phoenix with nothing but a few treadmills behind him, Jokic spoke to the media Tuesday night after he was announced as the league’s MVP with a dominant (but not unanimous) share of the media vote that afternoon. Jokic was, as always, humble to a near fault and unable to really put into words the experience.
This wasn’t something that Jokic worked for his whole life. It wasn’t something he ever spoke about with desire. Throughout the season through constant peppering by the media on his thoughts on his candidacy, Jokic constantly deferred, speaking of how it would be a team accomplishment, and if he wins, great, but ultimately he wants to win.
It is very natural for a longtime scribe of the most dramatic sports league in the country to roll their eyes at such sentiments given how much pride and brand interest players have. Somehow, someway, the Serbian phenom always conveyed sincerity in those platitudes, however.
Even on Tuesday, he admitted that part of him was glad the award process was over so he wouldn’t have to keep speaking on it. He spoke of how much it meant to his family who wanted to see him do well, and how it was a triumph of not just him, but the whole Nuggets organization.
There are traceable lines to Jokic’s award that run both through the entire Nuggets organization and Jokic, coursing back and forth. Tim Connelly took a chance on Jokic, a pudgy passing phenom from Serbia. But of course, he did so with the 41st pick in the 2014 draft. No one, not Tim Connelly, not former assistant GM Arturas Karnisovas, not director of scouting Jim Clibanoff, international scout Rafal Juc, nor owner Josh Kroenke knew what they done with the pick or how it would shape the future of the franchise.
But the decision does speak to the team’s belief in the capability of players. Consistently, Denver has built a championship-contending core with players that were easy to criticize, instead focusing on what they could do, not what they couldn’t. Instead of seeing the various ways Jokic wouldn’t adapt to the NBA style of play or how teams might make him a weakness, the Nuggets saw how he could make teammates better, his vision, his touch.
Instead of seeing a gunner out of Kentucky with unexceptional athleticism, the Nuggets saw a fearless competitor in Jamal Murray, with quickness and craftiness, alongside a mental toughness. Other teams saw a medical report bursting with red flags on a player with attitude questions, the Nuggets saw a 6-foot-10, 50-40-90 potential shooter in Michael Porter Jr.
The Nuggets have prioritized players that just want to play, just want to work, over everything. There could not be a player more endemic of that than Jokic.
At some point, the Nuggets organization came to some realizations about their team. They were not going to be a free agency destination. They were not going to be get the kind of draft pick that it’s easy to build around. Everything was going to have to be done the hard way. They would have to build the team, really build it, from the bottom up. Changing the culture with Michael Malone, developing young stars and resisting the constant urge to swing for upgrades.
But for as much as the organization and Michael Malone’s coaching staff deserve credit for their part in Jokic and the team’s rise, ultimately, the award showcases what Jokic means to the league and the city of Denver.
You don’t have to play a certain way, or look a certain way, or be of a certain pedigree, to succeed. You do not have to be Los Angeles to have an MVP. You do not have to pirouette after shooting 40-foot threes, dunk like Thor dropping his hammer or sneer constantly to be the MVP. You can be a goofy, good-natured big man. You just have to be the best passing big man and arguably the second best passer in NBA history, an efficiency machine from every level of the floor, a humble leader who makes all his teammates better while also being absolute nails in the clutch, and a goofy good-natured big man.
If you had asked Dallas sports fans in the year 2000 if they would ever really love an NBA player on the level of the Cowboys greats, they would have undoubtedly said no, despite Jason Kidd and Jamal Mashburn and the rest. But Dirk Nowitzki changed all that. He played for one franchise. He lifted the team from obscurity. He changed the rules for what and who could be considered great and he did those things on his terms, with his identity. In the end, he retired as one of the most beloved and decorated athletes in Dallas history.
Jokic is on that same path. He’s already the greatest Nugget of all-time. Just by winning the franchise’s first MVP award, following just the fourth Western Conference Finals appearance in franchise history, Jokic has cemented himself at the top. No one has ever had a season like Jokic just finished, even if so much of it was lost to television contract disputes and an empty arena in the year of the pandemic.
There are great players who put up stats, and great players who make big plays, and then there is that special caliber of player that controls the game like so few can. Jokic doesn’t just make reads, he manipulates the other nine players on the floor, playing the game to his own special melody that only he can hum along to. It may be trite but it is accurate; Nilola Jokic is playing chess while his opponents are playing checkers.
He has mastered the game on his terms, for a franchise that has decided to pursue greatness on its terms. Jokic will still have to win a championship to be truly validated among the game’s greats and to stop the incessantly shortsighted noise about whether he belongs among the league’s all-time greats. But he’s on the way, and it’s certain that the work will be put in, no matter the result.
On Tuesday, social media did not light up with players shouting out congratulations for the new MVP. All year long as Jokic dominated teams through all 72 of one of the most demanding seasons in NBA history, the Nuggets remained off the national TV schedule despite reaching the conference finals the season before. Jokic did not have a giant event for his coronation (not that he could with COVID-19 still wreaking havoc). No pomp. No circumstance. A kid from Sombor who became a dynamo in Denver, thanking his family and teammates for their support.
For a player who always makes the game look so easy, Jokic did things the hard way as the first second-round pick to ever win MVP. The Nuggets did things the hard way in building a team from the ground up through development and patience.
For the city of Denver, there’s no better story than that, the lesson of how the great things aren’t supposed to be easy. They’re supposed to be hard. It makes the reward that much better.
Denver has its first NBA MVP, Nikola Jokic.
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