Familiar faces like LeBron James, right, of the Lakers will not be in the NBA Finals this year with Nikola Jokic leading the Denver Nuggets against the Miami Heat after the Nuggets dispatched James in the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. Ashley Landis/Associated Press

Placing Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic within a matrix of his fellow basketball greats is no easy task. He racks up triple-doubles like Wilt Chamberlain, tosses no-look passes like Magic Johnson and launches high-release jumpers like Larry Bird, but there’s only one Joker, whose contradictions make him one of the NBA’s most fascinating superstars.

Jokic lives in the paint but rarely dunks. He’s almost always the biggest player on the court, but he rarely plays above the rim. He touches the ball constantly but makes a concerted effort not to hold it. He sometimes struggles to move laterally on defense, but he tap-dances past defenders for floaters and step-back 3-pointers. His serene personality is central to his success in late-game situations, but he has erupted for a few memorable flagrant fouls along the way.

As he has risen from a second-round draft pick to a two-time MVP, Jokic has generally shunned media attention and sought to downplay his burgeoning fame. Just last week, in response to a question about his MVP race with Joel Embiid, Jokic said “people are just mean” when they suggest the Philadelphia 76ers center wasn’t a deserving winner.

Jokic had no interest in stoking a rivalry or making a belated claim for the award, even though he had just led the Nuggets to the first Finals appearance in franchise history. Shortly thereafter, he decried social media, home to three years’ worth of fierce debates over his MVP credentials, as “a waste of time.”

Therein lies the greatest contradiction of all: Though Jokic prefers to keep the public at arm’s length, his game is utterly magnetic – an ideal mix of substance and style. Here’s a look at Jokic’s unique approach to basketball, which melds traditional and modern elements that make him the NBA’s most devastating all-around offensive weapon.



Jokic led the NBA with 6,804 touches in the regular season. Not even high-usage perimeter stars such as LeBron James, Luka Doncic and Trae Young had their palms on the basketball more than Denver’s conductor, whom teammate Aaron Gordon calls a “maestro” and a “savant.”

What really sets Jokic apart from his contemporaries, though, is how he keeps the ball in motion. While lead guards such as Doncic and Young held the ball for an average of five seconds or more each time they got it, Jokic moved it along in under three seconds. Similarly, Doncic and Young took more than five dribbles every time they got the ball, whereas Jokic averaged just 1.43 dribbles per touch.

For opposing defenses, this means Denver plays faster than it looks. While Denver ranked only 24th in pace and Jokic’s massive frame requires some work to get up to full speed, the combination of his constant involvement and quick passes forces opponents to keep track of him all over the court.

Jokic will bring the ball up on the fast break, camp at the elbow, operate in the post and set screens so he can pop open on the perimeter. All the while, he uses his height and vision to survey the defense for cracks he can exploit. Moments to rest are few and far between because Jokic doesn’t usually pound the ball in isolation or break Denver’s flow.


Johnson said recently that Jokic is “changing the game of basketball right before our very eyes,” and the Lakers legend evoked Bird, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal to frame Jokic’s impact. But Johnson himself is a helpful reference point. Just as Johnson functioned as a point guard in a 6-foot-9 body, Jokic thrives as a 6-11 point center.


Bill Walton and Arvydas Sabonis drew plaudits for their passing ability, but Jokic is in a class by himself when it comes to the regularity, degree of difficulty and range of his assists. The Serbian star tosses contorting overhead dimes like a water polo player, he can do a slow-motion “Showtime” impersonation of Johnson in transition, and he is a master at zipping the ball to backdoor cutters. His well-honed technique is complemented by a quiet fearlessness: Jokic regularly goes behind his back, leads his teammates into open space and passes without looking at his target.


Entering the Finals, Jokic and Jamal Murray have averaged a whopping 57.6 points in the playoffs. They function as a strong pick-and-roll pairing, and Murray’s three-point shooting and knack for rising to the occasion in big moments make him an ideal partner for Jokic.

But the Nuggets’ offense, which ranks first in the playoffs, is a five-man affair rather than a two-man game. All five of Denver’s starters, plus sixth man Bruce Brown, have averaged double figures in scoring during the regular season and the playoffs. With the big-bodied Jokic in place to handle rebounding and interior defense, Denver can surround him with shooting threats to maximize the potency of its offense.

Jokic’s ability to keep all of his teammates involved, regardless of their size or skill set, is the key. Gordon, his most common target, is a highflier who converts lobs and backdoor passes. Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are natural floor-spacers, and Murray stays involved with a little bit of everything. Remarkably, Jokic registered at least 100 assists to each of his four fellow starters, and no player received more than 23 percent of his assists.

“(Denver’s offense) is a little bit of everything,” Lakers Coach Darvin Ham said. “It’s a talented team. Very few one-trick ponies make it this far. They are able to put pressure on you in the paint, pressure on you from the three-point line with very capable shooters, some of which are elite. You’ve just got to be ready to give multiple efforts.”



Jokic’s dazzling passing ability has occasionally overshadowed the fact that he is also one of the NBA’s premier scorers. During the 2021-22 season, when Murray was sidelined following knee surgery, Jokic averaged a career-high 27.1 points, which ranked sixth in the league.

“There are certain guys in this league that play the game a certain way that I like to play the game as well,” James said. “He’s one of them, where you are always off balance when you are guarding a player like that because of his ability to score, rebound, shoot. He sees plays before they happen. There’s not many guys in our league like that.”

Though Jokic scaled back his scoring this season to accommodate Murray’s return and the summer arrivals of Caldwell-Pope and Brown, he has averaged 29.9 points during the playoffs. That run included a 53-point explosion against the Phoenix Suns in the second round and a 43-point night against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round. He scored 30 points in Game 4 to sweep the Lakers, hitting a fallaway 3-pointer over Anthony Davis and muscling for a drive to ice the game in the closing minutes.

“When you have a guy like Jokic, as big as he is but also as cerebral as he is, you can’t really make many mistakes,” James continued. “Even when you guard him for one of the best possessions that you think you can guard him, he puts the ball behind his head Larry Bird-style and shoots it 50 feet in the air and it goes in.”

Jokic is a nightmare cover: He led the NBA in post touches this season, and he’s shooting 47.4 percent on 3-pointers during the playoffs. If the defense goes small against him, he can bully or deke his way to soft-touch runners, floaters and layups. If the defense stays big, he floats out to the perimeter and goes to work.


A glance at his shot chart shows how well Jokic sticks to his hot spots. A monster anywhere in the paint thanks to his size, excellent hands and array of in-between shots, Jokic largely ignores less efficient midrange jumpers in favor of difficult-to-defend threes from the top of the key. Opponents can’t even compensate by intentionally fouling him a la O’Neal because he’s a career 82.9 percent free throw shooter.


Jokic has peaked this postseason because co-star Murray has returned healthy, his supporting cast has gotten better and years of work on his conditioning have allowed him to hold up for huge minutes with his massive offensive burden. As Jokic set about winning Western Conference finals MVP honors, Nuggets Coach Michael Malone repeatedly stressed his star’s mental command over his surroundings.

“The thing you love about Nikola is he’s going to read the game,” Malone said after Game 2. “Earlier in the game they were double-teaming him, so he found the open man. And when they played him one-on-one, he attacked the basket. That’s the thing I probably admire about him most: He never goes into a game or a possession with a premeditated notion.”

Jokic is averaging 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists after the first three rounds, numbers that have never been posted in playoff history. That type of superlative production is necessary to lead a small-market franchise to its first NBA championship, especially when none of Jokic’s fellow starters has made an all-star team. Although it’s not over yet, this has been a run for the ages from a player who defies comparison and convention at every turn.

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