The Nuggets impressive post season run really cements Nikola Jokic in the conversation as an all-time great. Sure, Jokic was a Hall of Famer even before the 2022-23 season started but there is nothing like a title to get consensus from the guys in the back row. Let’s delve into a few details of the title run, FAQ style…
How impressive was Denver’s run?
Denver went 16-4 and was clearly dominant this post season. Only two other teams in the last two decades have won a title with only four playoff losses. Yet when you dig a little deeper, it looks like Denver had as easy a run as any recent title team. Here are the won-loss records and SRS of the Nuggets playoff opponents:
Round 1: Minnesota, 42-40, -0.22 SRS
Round 2: Phoenix, 45-37, 2.08 SRS
WCF: L.A. Lakers, 43-39, 0.43 SRS
Finals: Miami, 44-38, -0.13 SRS
Of course, it’s not that simple. The Suns got Kevin Durant (8-0 in his games, 37-37 without him), the Lakers remade their team at the deadline (19-9 after the Russell Westbrook trade), and the Heat went on a really weird hot streak. Independent of the trades, there is also a general sense that most teams are giving away regular season games in the name of load management. Therefore, maybe won-loss records in the modern era (ie since 2020) don’t matter in assessing the strength of playoff foes?
Let’s compare the Nuggets’ playoff path with that of the other title teams of the post-Warriors dynasty to see if they had it any easier on paper:
2019-20 Lakers (records pro-rated to 82-game season)
Round 1: Portland, 39-43, -0.61 SRS
Round 2: Houston, 50-32, 3.13 SRS
WCF: Denver, 52-30, 2.35 SRS
Finals: Miami, 49-33, 2.59 SRS
Bubble or not, those Lakers were good and played moderately good teams. Stats-wise, Houston and Denver were on par with the 2022-23 Nuggets opponents and the 2019-20 version of the Heat was slightly better than this year’s version. Looking a little deeper, the Rockets were very good but the aforementioned Westbrook was hurt, making that series easier for the Lakers. The 2019-20 Nuggets were better than their record, as Jamal Murray was hitting another level that playoffs. Putting all these facts together, my subjective sense is that the Lakers’ run was close to as easy as the Denver 2022-23 run.
2020-21 Bucks (records pro-rated to 82-game season)
Round 1: Miami, 46-36, -0.06 SRS
Round 2: Brooklyn, 55-27, 4.24 SRS
ECF: Atlanta, 47-35, 2.14 SRS
Finals: Phoenix, 58-24, 5.67 SRS
The Bucks had some luck (the Nets’ injuries, KD’s toe being over the line, and Philly melting down against Atlanta) but this was a nice impressive run as the Nets and Suns were both title-worthy teams.
Round 1: Denver, 48-34, 2.15 SRS
Round 2: Memphis, 56-26, 5.37 SRS
WCF: Dallas, 52-30, 3.12 SRS
Finals: Boston, 51-31, 7.02 SRS
Last year’s Warriors ran a serious gauntlet. They did dodge the top seeded Suns but GS didn’t exactly get a reprieve with the Luka Doncic/Jalen Brunson Mavs. This was a legitimately difficult title chase and makes Denver’s 2022-23 run look quite easy by comparison. Golden State played three legit title contenders and the Grizz and Celtics were probably the best teams on paper.
In all, Denver had a significantly easier path by the numbers and subjective factors but they are worthy champs based on how dominant they were against the teams they played. We will see where the age of parity takes us and whether regular season dominance no longer correlates as much with post season success. I suspect regular season dominance will still be important to most teams and that 2022-23 was particularly anomalous.
Where does Jokic rank on the all-time centers list?
This is a difficult and inherently subjective question. Jokic basically plays point center and even the great passing centers of the past generations didn’t pass the way he does in initiating a motion offense. Wilt Chamberlain passed more from the stationary post and would hand off into teammates bread baskets (which was also quite impressive). Jokic also is the first truly great three-point shooter, something that none of the other greats did (or were expected to do).
On the other hand, Jokic is the only all-time list who has little defensive presence and is vulnerable to the pick-and-roll. Putting aside Wilt & Russell, more recent greats were excellent in both these areas (except Shaq who was toasted regularly in the pick-and-roll by the late 1990s Stockton-Malone tandem).
It’s also very early to compare career value to centers who were great for 10-15 years. So, it’s really unfair to peg a precise value on Jokic due to his unique skillset, the early phase of his career, and the different contexts in which these centers put up their numbers. Having said all that, it’s reasonable to conclude that, as a player with ridiculous offensive stats, a title win, and two MVPs, Jokic has surpassed the outer circle of the great centers.
Let’s compare him to the inner circle. Your mileage may vary, ESPN writers voted on this point in 2016 and came up with the following list:
1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
2. Wilt Chamberlain
3. Bill Russell
4. Shaquille O’Neal
5. Hakeem Olajuwon
6. Moses Malone
7. David Robinson
8. Patrick Ewing
9. George Mikan
10. Bill Walton
It’s hard to assess a list unless you define the criteria. Are we measuring dominance relative to peers? Are we taking players at their peak? Are we magically bringing the players to play in the 2022-23 NBA? Without articulating a measure, voters usually meld several factors for an overall “feel” of the players being ranked. Without guidance, this is an inherently unsatisfying exercise but still let’s do it anyway.
We can safely put Jokic ahead of Walton who barely played (but was great for about two years before his feet went). Also, Mikan’s era is so far removed from the modern NBA that he’s not worth assessing (though if the criteria was dominance relative to era, Big George was as good as almost anyone).
That takes Jokic to the Ewing/Robinson/Moses level. Ewing was never too close to an MVP as Jokic has been and, though Ewing had a great career, he is clearly a level below the Joker by virtue of this fact. Robinson and Moses are closer calls and it’s hard to put Jokic ahead of them unless he maintains this level of dominance for another few years. If Jokic can play this well for another three years or so, he could vault into the inner sanctum. At worst, Jokic is the eighth best modern center ever right now (yes, Joel Embiid is also creeping up the list too but is behind Jokic at this point).
Okay, so where does Jokic rank against this crew through the same age?
Ugh I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that. The era differences complicate the comps but here are the advanced stats of this group through age-27:
Jokic: 596 games, 27.7 PER, .247 WS48, 9.4 BPM
Kareem: 467 games, 26.7 PER, .276 WS48, 7.6 BPM (partial stats)
Wilt: 391 games, 30.3 PER, .272 WS48 (no BPM available)
Hakeem: 468 games, 23.6 PER, .182 WS48, 4.6 BPM
Shaq: 534 games, 27.9 PER, .224 WS48, 6.1 BPM
Russell: 415 games, 20.2 PER, .201 WS48 (no BPM available)
Ewing: 357 games, 21.8 PER, .149 WS48, 3.5 BPM
Moses: 670 games, 23.1 PER, .186 WS48, 2.4 BPM
Robinson: 314 games, 26.3 PER, .239 WS48, 7.7 BPM
Walton: 223 games, 22.1 PER, .175 WS48, 7.7 BPM
Jokic: 68 games, 29.0 PER, .236 WS48, 10.4 BPM
Kareem: 57 games, 25.5 PER, .236 WS48 (no BPM available)
Wilt: 36 games, 29.3 PER, .274 WS48 (no BPM available)
Hakeem: 47 games, 26.2 PER, .224 WS48, 7.2 BPM
Shaq: 89 games, 28.5 PER, .192 WS48, 6.8 BPM
Russell: 67 games, 21.2 PER, .210 WS48 (no BPM available)
Ewing: 23 games, 22.2 PER, .142 WS48, 3.9 BPM
Moses: 64 game, 23.0 PER, .191 WS48, 3.9 BPM
Robinson: 24 games, 23.5 PER, .201 WS48, 6.7 BPM
Walton: 21 games, 20.2 PER, .166 WS48, 6.3 BPM
Advanced stats are a bit buggy and the data is limited for the pre-1973 players. Also, DBPM weirdly rates Jokic as a top defender when he is objectively not great in that area. Even with all those caveats, Jokic rates about as good as any NBA center to ever play through age-27. Assuming he maintains a normal aging pattern, he will plausibly be in the top tier by the end of his career, if not sooner.