Getting swept by the Suns wasn’t a disappointment. Approximately speaking, It was inevitable. Some indignity or another was bound to usher the Nuggets out of the playoffs sooner than they deserved to go. They had enjoyed one season—in the West’s upper echelon, Nikola Jokić building his game to proportions that consumed the box score, Jamal Murray rounding into sharp-shooting shape as he does every year—and endured another, following Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April. To their credit, the second thing didn’t resemble a death march. They kept on winning without Jamal, with Michael Porter Jr. impressing in particular, but the postseason is about cumulative firepower. You can scarcely afford to swap in your ninth man for your seventh. Without your second star, you eventually find yourself overwhelmed. 25, 13, and 6 out of Jokić against the Suns. Four successive Ls. The Nuggets needed quite a bit more than what Jokić could give them, perhaps a couple of those 42-point greater metropolitan area-range games from Jamal, and they just didn’t have it. Bad luck, especially with the conference as wide open as it is this season. The Nuggets could have gotten to the Finals, maybe won it, if Murray’s knee hadn’t bent the wrong way on that break.
Every so often you wonder about the different epistemologies people apply to the NBA, the efficacy of the top secret statistical models teams develop internally, the work that scouts young and old do, the tape-grinding media folks like Zach Lowe and the number zealots like Nate Duncan, who’s standing on the firmest ground and who feels like they are, if those two things correlate, all of it contributing toward the big question: what do we actually know? When you’re looking at the game with a postmodern slant—waves of data in which you search mostly for feeling, playing the role of mystic, critic, storyteller, philosopher, verbose hack—it’s not a question you ask a whole lot. Out of equal parts intellectual conviction and laziness, you’ve decided that there is not much we can know, not in the field of assigning real life players videogame-style ratings anyway. But hell, it’s possible you’re wrong. And you’re not incurious about it.
It is the scientistic parsing of tiers—is so-and-so truly great?—that wearies you, drives you from this corner of the discourse head throbbing, preferring not to know anything, if this is how you have to find out. Nikola Jokić is our 2020-21 MVP, and I’m not at all dissatisfied with that, not even conditionally, in an Embiid Got Hurt, LeBron Got Hurt, kind of way. He’s one of the best we’ve got; figuring whether fifth- or seventh-best isn’t worth the aggravation. His game is singularly beautiful, and the Nuggets were very good with he and Murray shining, and still damn good with just the big Serb running things, proof that he will carry whatever you burden him with, finding shooters at the edges and cutters across the lane, scoring a lot, against his more generous instincts, if that’s what he must do.
You need to clear certain statistical barriers, win a bunch of games to compete for the trophy, but the MVP is not about value, strictly speaking, so much as it is the commemoration of an apparent magic—to call this narrative is to cheapen it, suggest that we’re stupid for having eyes and the capacity for awe—in a player’s performances. A worthy MVP illumines previously darkened areas of the sport’s possibility, which is what Jokić does in his spastic-elegant, rapid-lumbering way. He is confounding, and six years into making work what seems like it shouldn’t, his coronation is us coming into a still somewhat baffled understanding of his genius. How wonderful it is that such a weird player is so effective. Straight up dominant. We feel compelled to throw this guy a parade. Because we see him clearly.
Apparently this failure against the ascendant Suns is as far as Nikola Jokić can carry you, as a lone star, with a respectable but hardly awesome squad behind him. (And for that matter, a banged up Michael Porter Jr.) You can beat a Portland team that fired its coach, with a spectacular star of their own who’s been making dissatisfied noises all year. You can’t overcome Devin Booker on fire, Deandre Ayton making—check the statistical record—every single one of his shots, and Chris Paul as steady as ever. Sure, that seems about right. It’s not anything like a 2007 Dirk Nowitzki situation; there’s not a whiff of fraudulence in the air. Our worthy MVP didn’t have the requisite help.
There’s a tendency to ascribe foreigners, especially white Euros, positive attributes in the space the language and cultural gaps leave. A deafness to vanity expressed in other tongues. Jokić said earlier this season that he doesn’t care about the MVP. This means less than nothing. LeBron has said the same thing. So has Russell Westbrook. Jokić is more easily taken at his word because he’s a little less knowable, a little less obviously lying. And he did seem genuinely embarrassed, having to garner the trophy in front of an adoring Denver crowd. He mumbled some stuff about how terrific his teammates were and turned toward them like please help me with this. It’s possible he really is all about winning, would prefer not to be considered for any honor that requires him to stand alone at center court. I just don’t trust anybody as hard-working and accomplished as he is to be egoless. It’s okay to enjoy the recognition.
Unfortunately this season, which was at one time so promising, individual recognition is all he’s gotten. Whatever it’s worth, whatever comfort it provides in what might be an anxious summer, wondering when Jamal will get back to full health, and if they’ll be able to make an honest run at the title in 2022. If Jokić doesn’t care one bit about what esteem we hold him in, where he rates on our uneven and imperfect scales, he is definitively at the high end now, regardless, and that means something, if not to him then to the rest of us. He is a brilliant, magnetic talent. This was his year, in many respects. Maybe the next one will belong to his teammates too.