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Nikola Jokic’s status as all-time great was cemented even before leading Denver Nuggets to NBA title

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Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Now that he has finally hoisted his first NBA championship trophy above his head, will Nikola Jokic finally receive his due?

Will the general public finally recognize Jokic as one of the league’s best players? Or will they dimmish this accomplishment because the Nuggets’ playoff run consisted of eliminating teams that were either injured (Phoenix), exhausted (Lakers) or overachieving (Miami)?

Will the general public consider Jokic worthy of comparisons to the NBA’s all-time great centers? Or will they simply dismiss Jokic as a one-hit championship wonder?

Here’s the reality. Before the Nuggets’ 94-89 win over the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Monday, Jokic already cemented himself among the league’s all-time great centers. After winning his first NBA title and first Finals MVP, that honor only reinforces his placement. Jokic doesn’t need an extra piece of jewelry to validate what he already had. Yet, that extra hardware foreshadows something greater.

With the 28-year-old Jokic completing just his eighth NBA season, the Nuggets’ center will likely collect more league titles in future seasons and shatter even more records. Jokic hasn’t shown any signs of his body breaking down soon. The Nuggets are currently constructed with a future All-Star point guard (Jamal Murray), one of the league’s best head coaches (Michael Malone) and one of the league’s emerging general managers (Calvin Booth).

Nikola Jokic’s legacy before NBA title

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Judging by his current resume alone, however, Nikola Jokic already built a sturdy enough legacy. After the Nuggets selected him at No. 41 in the 2014 NBA Draft, Jokic made dramatic steps to morph into one of the league’s best centers. He improved his diet and training habits to become one of the league’s best conditioned and durable big men. He tweaked his superb passing that has made him the league’s best facilitating center. He scored at a prolific rate by blending an old-school post-up presence and a modern-game perimeter threat.

In related news, Jokic won two consecutive regular-season MVP awards. Therefore, it seems a stretch to buy into the Nuggets’ line-of-thinking that Jokic doesn’t receive enough respect. The majority of local beat writers, national NBA reporters and broadcasters that voted clearly respected Jokic enough to select him as a two-time regular-season MVP.

Yet, those who voted against Jokic often became vocal on why he apparently didn’t deserve such accolades. They ripped him for his defense. They downplayed his regular-season success. And they pointed out the Nuggets’ postseason setbacks.

All of those arguments lacked the necessary context.

Nikola Jokic was never an elite defender, but that missed the point. While he has improved substantially in defensive effort and execution, Jokic’s offensive production overwhelmingly subsided concerns about his defense. Amid overlapping injuries to the rest of the team, the Nuggets would’ve fallen to the NBA lottery if not for Jokic’s regular-season dominance. And the Nuggets lost in the second round to the Phoenix Suns (2021) and in the first round to the Golden State Warriors (2022) for reasons that have nothing to do with Jokic.

Both the Suns and the Warriors had fully loaded rosters capable of winning their own NBA championship. A year after facing Phoenix without Murray due to an ACL injury, Jokic squared off against Golden State without both Murray and Michael Porter Jr. (back). The Nuggets won this year’s NBA title after enjoying better health, enhanced depth, and an even more dominant Jokic.

Booth hardly exaggerated when he compared Jokic’s eighth NBA season to his other ones. “I think it’s best one,” Booth told  Sportsnaut. Booth shared those thoughts shortly after the Nuggets swept the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals to advance to their first NBA Finals in franchise history.

The reasons? Nikola Jokic stayed consistently durable and productive while also adjusting with integrating two healthy players (Murray, Porter) and off-season additions (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown). At that point, Jokic had already eclipsed Wilt Chamberlain for most postseason triple doubles in NBA history.

Since then, Jokic’s accomplishments only grew. 

Nikola Jokic became the first player in NBA history to produce at least 500 points, 250 rebounds and 150 assists in a single postseason. Jokic became the first player in NBA Finals history to record at least 30 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in a Finals game. Jokic eclipsed Chamberlain (one in 1967) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (one in 1970 as the only player in NBA playoff history to have three career postseason games with those numbers. Jokic ranked fourth for most points scored in their first three Finals games (100), trailing only Rick Barry (122 in 1967), Allen Iverson (106 in 2001), Willis Reed (104 in 1970) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (103 in 2021).

How Nuggets’ playoff run will be diminished

Prepare for the predictable and misleading rebuttals that centers on the Nuggets’ postseason journey. They will downplay the Nuggets’ quality of competition. They breezed past a first-round opponent without much fuss (Minnesota). They eliminated a Phoenix team that needed Kevin Durant and Devin Booker to play at their absolute best to offset Chris Paul’s injury and a depleted supporting cast. They swept a Lakers team that featured an exhausted LeBron James and Anthony Davis as well as inconsistent role players. They dispatched an eighth-seeded Heat team that maxed out on their talent and potential.

What about what those opponents accomplished before meeting Denver? The Suns’ faulty roster aside, Durant and Booker showed they could carry the Suns mostly on their own. Following this year’s trade deadline, the Lakers became one of the league’s best defensive teams before exploiting the Memphis Grizzlies’ youthful arrogance and the Warriors’ inconsistency. The Heat dispatched two Eastern Conference title contenders (Milwaukee, Boston) by working their will against two talented teams that lacked consistent chemistry.

That being said, it might be premature to decide definitively where to rank Nikola Jokic among Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Bill Russell,  Tim Duncan Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon as the NBA’s all-time great centers. All of those players have collected multiple NBA championships and set countless records. There’s no need, though, to evaluate Jokic’s career legacy when he remains in his prime and appears on the upward path with further cementing his Hall-of-Fame bound resume.

In the present moment, however, Nikola Jokic has settled at least one debate surrounding his standing. By hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy, not only did Jokic collect his first NBA championship. He should also put to rest any lingering notion that he is not the league’s current most dominant big man.

Mark Medina is an NBA Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.

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