JOKIC IS THE LATEST REMINDER THAT AMERICA DOESN’T RULE PLANET HOOPS
This could be The Year of The Joker, an understated force who cares only about winning — and leading the nondescript Nuggets to an NBA title — while showing our knuckleheads how to play and behave
If the world is a basketball, America is just a nick on the leather these days. The sphere spins proudly on international forefingers while our guys flip birds and flash guns. The NBA’s last five MVP awards have gone to players from other countries, forcing us to rewind way back to the last two U.S. winners, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, both of whom have been excommunicated.
The Olympics? They stopped being a red, white and blue rave long ago, in Athens, where I drove 30 miles on a rented Vespa before realizing Team USA would lose to Argentina and hoofing it to Hellinikon Indoor Arena. Or Hell, as it came to be known in domestic circles, as America realized a philosophical reset was necessary to outlast the competition in future Summer Games.
Our stars like to demand trades, engage in Twitter wars, scream at the crowd after shots and stage repeat firearms performances on Instagram Live, which secures Ja Morant a permanent place in lunkhead lore. Meanwhile, the global elite simply collects hardware and, two years ago, a championship in the form of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek Freak, who might have been among those laughing as I wore my riding helmet in traffic like Elroy Jetson in the cartoon show.
So on the same night when the league welcomes Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-4 Parisian described by LeBron James as “an alien” two decades after he was dubbed “The Chosen One,” how fitting that a native Serb is positioned to lead the Denver Nuggets to a title. Preposterous as that possibility is — the Nuggets never have sniffed the Finals in 47 years of trying, and are far better known for the city’s mile-high altitude than any mid-May attitude — there’s also an emerging dream even more embraceable. Imagine Nikola Jokic, who strikes you as a bar bouncer or limo driver before casually knifing you for 34 points and 13 rebounds and 10 assists, adding the Larry O’Brien Trophy to his two MVP awards and making this The Year of the Joker.
It could happen. Almost unbeatable this season at Ball Arena, named for a former supplier of Mason jars, the Nuggets control homecourt advantage over James and the Lakers in the Western Conference finals and would maintain that edge in the championship round against Boston or Miami. And yes, on behalf of 334 million Americans disgusted with Morant’s defiance and sick of flawed superegos and failed superteams, I’d say we’re more than ready for a nondescript franchise to win it all and an understated star to make it happen. Jokic never has had an entourage beyond his horses and his family. He never has demanded a trade and quietly signed a $272-million extension last year. He doesn’t do TV commercials hawking bad lunchmeat and insurance companies. He hasn’t challenged local Covid-19 ordinances and used load management as a copout to blow off games. He plays in the forgotten time zone, in a city that disregards basketball and every other sport in the 10 months owned by the Broncos, from training camp through the NFL season and into the draft.
When he didn’t win his third straight MVP award — losing to Joel Embiid, who was eliminated again from the postseason Sunday as Jokic rambles on — he was asked how much thought he devoted to a streak ending.
“Zero,” he said, adding that he spent the day sunbathing, oblivious to the chance to join only Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird with three straight.
Nor did he care about Mark Jackson’s clumsy gaffe and subsequent apology. The ESPN analyst, who once coached in the league and interviewed this week for the Milwaukee vacancy and right to coach Antetokounmpo, left Jokic off his MVP ballot, thinking he was picking a traditional All-NBA team with two guards, two forwards and a center. Embiid was his big man. “I wasn’t even thinking,” said Jackson, who should be out of the ballot business. “I apologize to Nikola Jokic, who is not only in the MVP discussion and deserved to be on my ballot, but he's one of the greatest players in the history of the game. He's a top-10 center of all time.”
Also embarrassed by Jokic, on the court, was Kevin Durant. After a Game 6 pummeling eliminated the Phoenix Suns in the West semifinals, Durant said, “Jokic is an all-time great. Going to go down as one of the all-time centers to ever touch a basketball.”
Any words from The Joker about his individual brilliance? Of course, not. “It’s been a pleasure playing with these guys,” he said, sporting a new haircut Monday. “Hopefully, we can do something nice.”
All of which makes him a perfect champion for the preening, brooding NBA times, unselfish yet dominant as a scorer, shooter, distributor and inside force — a Swiss Army knife. “You can’t just call him a great passer or great big man. He’s everything. There’s no ceiling,” said Durant, whose latest “superteam” scheme was exposed. James and Steph Curry have ruled and dazzled the league the last dozen years, with exceptions here and there, and it’s high time — 5,280 feet high, in fact — for a new narrative and refreshing vibe. The Nuggets haven’t made their fans suffer as long as, say, the New York Knicks, still seeking their first championship since 1973. The 0-for-ever Clippers continue to be an annual prank onto themselves, which doesn’t work in Los Angeles with the Lakers down the hall. The other teams that haven’t reached the Finals — Charlotte, Minnesota, New Orleans, Memphis — haven’t been in those cities nearly as long as the Nuggets have been in Colorado. They arrived in the NBA after a merger with the run-and-fun American Basketball Association, where they won and revolutionized the sport. But while Doug Moe’s NBA teams excited crowds with non-stop offense and no-try defense, this is the first time the Nuggets have a legitimate title shot.
And if Jokic isn’t participating in the chatter, coach Michael Malone is squeezing the story line in every media availability session. His father, Brendan, was a Detroit assistant coach during the Pistons’ Bad Boys era. The Nuggets are good boys, by comparison, but they’re hungry to make a historic imprint. Malone reads and hears everything. And he keeps mental notes.
“It seems like for years now we’re some dusty old cowtown in the Rocky Mountains, the little respect that we get. You can sit there and fight it and complain, or you can embrace who we are and what we have,” he said. “I’d rather not waste time with all the pundits who count us out or don’t give us the respect we deserve as a team. There’s one thing we haven’t done. Until we win a championship, people are going to keep saying things about us. So that’s what drives us, winning a championship. Getting to the Western Conference finals doesn’t do it. Getting to the Finals doesn’t do it.
“It’s winning a championship.”
They were supposed to win in the pandemic bubble in 2020 but lost to the Lakers, who went on to win the championship. Devastating injuries to Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. slowed the chase, but everyone is healthy and performing in max mode. The offense is a purist’s work of art. Defense actually is a weapon, not a liability, and Jokic will be watched closely in his matchup with Anthony Davis — on both ends. “Hopefully it's going to be different,” he said. "We lost (last time). We were in the bubble against the Lakers, that make any sense (a reference to the pandemic)? We were injured against Golden State (last year). It's not the finals, but I'm just talking about the teams that we lost (to). So, we have a nice opportunity to do something.”
Meaning, he believes in the mission. So does Murray, who happens to hail from Canada and said, “We’ve believed that we can be this good since 2019. We just needed to be healthy.”
The Lakers can echo the sentiment — particular in the person of Davis, who can’t afford to miss games or perform sporadically if he has any chance of containing Jokic and helping the Lakers advance to LeBron’s 11th NBA Finals. Beating Denver in Florida isolation means little three years later. “They’re a better team. Obviously, they’re more experienced,” James said. “They’ve been the No. 1 team in the West for a reason. They’ve played exceptional basketball all year. And we’re going in with the utmost respect for their ballclub. They’re very well-coached and obviously we know the dynamic of what Joker brings to the game and also Jamal, being back fully healthy. And the rest of those guys.”
The Lakers’ coach, Darvin Ham, took the concept of appropriate fear a step further. “We already know that monster in the Rocky Mountains that’s waiting on us,” he said.
He made Nikola Jokic sound like Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman. Malone made him sound like he’s headed for a top-four, all-time berth on Mount Hoopsmore, saying, “Nikola has just been a definition of greatness for a while now. The consistency in which he plays at, the level he plays at, is just … you marvel at it sometimes. He's changed. He's married, he's a father, he's matured. Nikola is doing things that very few guys in NBA history have done.”
Nah, he’s just The Joker, having the last laugh and never letting us hear.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.