In Defense of Nikola Jokic: Exposing The No-Finals Narrative

With Nikola Jokic on pace to join Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Larry Bird as the only players in NBA history to win three consecutive MVPs, his lack of Finals appearances has been under a spotlight recently. Is this criticism valid given the context of his career? A deep dive into Jokic’s playoff resume not only counters the narrative that he underperforms but actually propagates him as a superb playoff performer doing his best with what’s available. 

Nikola Jokic Pre-Playoff Appearances

After being selected with the 41st pick in the 2014 Draft, Nikola Jokic didn’t hold high expectations from front offices or fans. His first season was 2015-16, where the 20-year-old Jokic averaged 10 PPG, 7 RPG, and 2.4 APG in only 21.7 MPG. The Nuggets were a mediocre team led by Danilo Gallinari that missed the playoffs with a 33-49 record. When Jokic was on the court though, Denver outscored opponents by 2.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s not an Earth-shattering number in a vacuum, but it’s impressive considering Denver was eight games below .500. 

The following season, Jokic raised his averages to 16.7 PPG, 9.8 RPG, and 4.9 APG in 27.9 MPG. Denver clawed its way to a 40-42 record, but Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Gary Harris, and a 19-year-old rookie Jamal Murray were not enough to manifest a playoff appearance. Once again, Denver thrived with Jokic on the court as they outscored opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions. That 5.6 Net Rating would have ranked 4th in the league behind the 55-27 Houston Rockets. 

The 2017-18 season finally saw Jokic eclipse 30 MPG, and he delivered 18.5 PPG, 10.7 RPG, and 6.1 APG. The Nuggets took another step forward by producing a 46-36 record; however, they missed the playoffs by one game. Gary Harris, Will Barton, and a 20-year-old Jamal Murray were Jokic’s premier teammates – an underwhelming supporting cast. In what is now sounding like a broken record, the Nuggets handled opponents to the tune of a +5.2 points per 100 possessions mark with Jokic on the court. For context, Golden State ranked 3rd in the league with a 5.9 Net Rating. 

Given his youth, playing time, lackluster teammates, and on-court results, can Jokic be blamed for missing the playoffs in his first three seasons? If so, that’s exceptionally harsh. LeBron James and Kevin Durant missed the playoffs in their first two seasons, and yet nobody cares that their young careers lacked postseason accomplishments – it’s expected. 

The All-Star Era

The 23-year-old Jokic earned his first All-Star appearance during the 2018-19 season by producing 20.1 PPG, 10.8 RPG, and 7.3 APG on a 58.9 true shooting percentage (TS%). The Nuggets catapulted to the second seed in the West with a 54-28 record, owned the 8th best Net Rating, and were +4.9 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the court. Jamal Murray took a leap as a 21-year-old and showed flashes of being a future second option; he averaged 18.2 PPG and 4.8 APG. 

In the First Round, Denver outlasted an experienced Spurs squad led by DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and legendary head coach Gregg Popovich. The Nuggets prevailed 4-3 behind Jokic’s 23.1 PPG, 12.1 RPG, and 9.1 APG. Murray added 19 PPG while Harris chipped in 14.7 PPG. 

They advanced and met a formidable foe: the Portland Trail Blazers with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in their primes. Jokic was otherworldly in this series as he produced 27.1 PPG, 13.9 RPG, and 7.7 APG on a hyper-efficient 52/46/82 shooting split. Denver actually led 3-2, and the fact that they lost the series cannot be blamed on Jokic. 

In Game 6, he dropped 29 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 assists on 10/15 shooting. Meanwhile, Jokic had 29 points, 13 rebounds, and 2 assists in Game 7 on 11/26 shooting. 2 assists and 26 FGA despite a mediocre shooting night? What a ball hog! Actually, his teammates combined to shoot 22 of 63 from the field (34.9 FG%), so Jokic recognized that he needed to increase his volume regardless of the fact that he was having an off-night. 

Overall, Portland’s playoff experience clinched the series. Jokic finished the 2018-19 playoffs with 25.1 PPG, 13 RPG, 8.4 APG and a 50/39/84 shooting split – not bad for a 23-year-old in his first playoffs. 

Next up? The Bubble Season. 

Denver finished the shortened 2019-20 season at 46-27, good for 3rd in the West. Jokic earned his second All-Star nod through a stat line of 19.9 PPG, 9.7 RPG, and 7 APG on a 60.5 TS%. Murray slightly improved his scoring to a then career-high of 18.5 PPG, and they had rising younger players in Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. 

The 2020 playoffs as a whole definitely hold a unique place in NBA history because of the unusual circumstances: no fans, players living in a hotel, and experiencing a massive in-season break. The Nuggets added to the atmosphere by delivering multiple awe-inspiring series. 

In the First Round, Utah stormed out to a 3-1 lead before Jamal Murray took control. He outdueled Donovan Mitchell by scoring a combined 92 points in Games 5 and 6. His magic sputtered in Game 7 though as he chipped in 17 points on 7/21 shooting. The Nuggets leaned on Jokic to close out the series; he had 30 points, 14 rebounds, and 4 assists on 12/23 shooting against then 2x DPOY Rudy Gobert. 

Overall, Murray stole the spotlight at 31.6 PPG for the series, which perfectly complemented Jokic’s 26.3 PPG, 8.1 RPG, and 5.4 APG. It finally seemed like the Nuggets had a co-star. 

The newly paired Kawhi Leonard and Paul George also attained a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Semifinals before Denver once again pulled off a historic comeback. Jokic paced the Nuggets in Game 6 at 34 points, 14 rebounds, and 7 assists before Murray put the nail in the coffin with 40 points in Game 7. For the series, Jokic led Denver in PPG, RPG, APG, and BPG – a common theme. 

Denver reached their first Western Conference Finals in the Jokic era, and they unfortunately ran into a buzzsaw. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers were in peak form, so few teams if any could compete. The Nuggets lost 4-1 despite Jokic and Murray playing well, but the year remained an immense success. They reached the Conference Finals, found an emerging co-star for Jokic, and glimpsed Michael Porter Jr flashes. 

The MVP Era

The Nuggets built on their previous season and saw massive internal growth. Jokic captured his first MVP through 26.4 PPG, 10.8 RPG, and 8.3 APG – his playmaking was always transcendent, but he improved his scoring. Murray breached the 20-point barrier at 21.2 PPG, Porter Jr shot the lights out at 19 PPG on a 44.5 3PT%, and trade deadline acquisition Aaron Gordon provided much-needed two-way play at power forward. 

Tragedy struck at the worst time; only weeks before the playoffs, Murray tore his ACL on April 12th, 2021. Just like that, the season was over because they simply didn’t have the star power or guard rotation to compete. Denver finished the shortened regular season at 47-25 with the 6th best Net Rating, but there wasn’t a sliver of hope for the playoffs sans Murray. 

Nobody apparently told Jokic as he powered Denver past Lillard, McCollum, Powell, and Nurkic. The MVP put on a masterclass by averaging 33 PPG, 10.5 RPG, and 4.5 APG on an absurd 52/42/91 shooting split. 

The talent gap was simply too much in the next round though as Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Deandre Ayton swept the Nuggets. Jokic had 25 PPG, 13.3 RPG, and 5.8 APG on a 47.7 FG%, but that was an utterly dominant Phoenix squad that nearly won the Finals. Perhaps a starting backcourt of Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers was doomed from the start against Paul and Booker? 

Jokic, now 26-years-old, had to endure the 2021-22 season without a recovering Murray, who missed the entire year. To make matters worse, Porter Jr only played 9 games before suffering a season-ending injury. How did Jokic respond to losing his top two teammates? He won a consecutive MVP by producing historic numbers: 27.1 PPG, 13.8 RPG, and 7.9 APG on a 66.1 TS%. The Nuggets slipped to the 6th seed at 48-34 in large part because Jokic didn’t have a single teammate at 16+ PPG. 

Denver faced their worst nightmare in the First Round: the eventual champions Golden State Warriors. Their motion offense and three-point shooting was a terrible matchup for Jokic’s defense, and it definitely didn’t help that the Nuggets had no semblance of perimeter defense from their guards. As a result, Curry, Klay, and Poole combined for 71.6 PPG, and all three shot over 50% from the field and 40% from three. To Jokic’s credit, he managed to steal a game without Murray or Porter Jr and produce 31 PPG, 13.2 RPG, and 5.8 APG on a 64.3 TS%. 

Overall, Jokic doesn’t experience a drop in play during the postseason. From the 2019-2022 regular seasons, Jokic averaged 23.3 PPG, 11.3 RPG, and 7.6 APG on a 54/33/82 shooting split. Over that same span in the postseason, Jokic averaged 26.4 PPG, 11.5 RPG, and 6.4 APG on a 51/39/84 shooting split. 

2022-23 Season & Resume Review 

The Nuggets finally have their cast healthy for the first time since 2019-20 (their Conference Finals berth), and they are absolutely thriving. Denver holds the 1st seed at 44-19, and they rank 3rd in Net Rating. Jokic is averaging a triple-double and radically improving shot quality for teammates. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets currently have the best Offensive Rating in NBA history with him on the court at 126.1 points per 100 possessions.

Knocking Jokic for not reaching the Finals when considering the context is ludicrous. He ran into prime LeBron and Davis in 2020, lacked Murray for 2021, and lacked Murray and Porter Jr for 2022. He has never played with an All-Star, which doesn’t bode well for playoff aspirations. The following list contains players that have reached the Finals without an All-Star teammate since 1980: 

  • Julius Erving (1980)
  • Moses Malone (1981)
  • Isiah Thomas (1989)
  • Clyde Drexler (1990, 1992)
  • Michael Jordan (1991, 1998)
  • Hakeem Olajuwon (1994, 1995)
  • Karl Malone (1998)
  • Jason Kidd (2002, 2003)
  • Tim Duncan (2003)
  • Ben Wallace (2004, 2005)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (2006, 2011)
  • LeBron James (2007, 2016)
  • Kobe Bryant (2008)
  • Tony Parker (2014)
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo (2021)
  • Jayson Tatum (2022)

Without counting the 2020-21 season where Murray tore his ACL and thus was unavailable for the playoffs, Jokic has also never played with a 20 PPG teammate. The list above slightly shrinks down to the following when adding that factor: 

  • Julius Erving (1980)
  • Moses Malone (1981)
  • Isiah Thomas (1989)
  • Clyde Drexler (1990,1992)
  • Michael Jordan (1991,1998)
  • Hakeem Olajuwon (1994)
  • Karl Malone (1998)
  • Jason Kidd (2002, 2003)
  • Tim Duncan (2003)
  • Ben Wallace (2004, 2005)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (2006, 2011)
  • LeBron James (2007, 2016)
  • Kobe Bryant (2008)
  • Tony Parker (2014)

Most if not all of those names still had vastly superior supporting casts too. And because league dynamics have radically changed since the 80s, 90s, and 00s, the most relevant cases are the 10s and 20s. Therefore, an All-Star has led their team to the Finals without an All-Star or 20 PPG teammate only three times since 2010: 

  • a magical run by Nowitzki
  • a Spurs team that didn’t care about stats and fielded Parker, Duncan, Ginobili, Leonard
  • A Cavaliers squad that featured prime LeBron, Kyrie, and Love in the weak Eastern Conference 

Winning without premium support is extremely difficult, especially when the roster doesn’t suit the star’s strengths and weaknesses (ex: Denver’s horrible defensive guards and wings before this season). While Jokic still doesn’t have an All-Star teammate, Murray finally broke the 20 PPG streak at a whopping 20.1 PPG. The supporting cast is optimized and dangerous though, so Jokic has all the tools to succeed this season. If they burn out early this postseason, then Jokic criticism is completely warranted. But slandering him for not reaching a Finals despite often having only role players by his side? That’s a bridge too far. Would Durant have made the Finals with Jokic’s 2021 and 2022 cast? Curry? Giannis? I highly, highly doubt it, so why would it be held against Jokic? 

Braxton has been covering the NBA for Lineups since the 2021-22 season. He's worked with multiple collegiate coaching staffs about analytics and scouting, which has allowed him to understand the game on a deeper level. Braxton is also a contributor at Thunderous Intentions and NBA Analysis Network.

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