Right now, LeBron James is the betting favorite to win the MVP Award with +350 odds. Just behind James is Nikola Jokic, who the Los Angeles Lakers will see when they take on the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center on Thursday.
While the similarities in James’ and Jokic’s games might not be obvious to the untrained eye, Jokic believes they’re pretty evident.
“The speed is there,” Jokic said at the Nuggets’ practice on Wednesday. “We are the same athletic-wise. I don’t know, can he jump as high as me actually? But we are kind of similar. And quickness. He’s a little bit older so I don’t know if he can keep up with me.
‘I’m joking,” Jokic deadpanned. “Guys, he’s the best player in the league. He’s a guy who’s doing this for a long time and affects the game in every possible way. There is some kind of similarities with how we affect our teammates. I think that’s similar, and just that.”
Even without James’ speed and athleticism, the 25-year-old Serbian big man has done alright for himself.
The Joker is in the midst of a career year with averages of 26.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, 8.6 assists and 1.8 steals. He’s also shooting 57.4% from the field and 38.4% from 3-point range. In case you were wondering: no, there isn’t anyone else in the NBA posting those averages this season. In fact, if his stats hold, he’ll be the first player in NBA history to post those averages over the course of a season.
“He’s a hell of a player,” Anthony Davis said on Wednesday. “He’s playing extremely well this season. He’s able to shoot the ball, he’s able to score out of the post. He’s able to pass, so he does a lot for their team. He brings the ball up and they’re going to set screens fo him ... So he brings a different dynamic that we probably haven’t seen this year, and it’s always fun going up against a player like that.”
The Lakers saw just how good Jokic can be during the Western Conference Finals last year. Although the Lakers beat the Nuggets in five games, Jokic gave Los Angeles all sorts of problems, averaging 21.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals per game.
As good as Jokic was, though, the Lakers were able to slightly minimize his impact by putting Dwight Howard — another big and strong center — on him. Davis recounted Howard’s importance to the Lakers in that series on Monday.
“He didn’t play much in Portland,” Davis said of Howard. “Didn’t play much in Houston, and then to come into a Western Conference Finals matchup or series and start the game for us and make sure that we secure the series, he came in and did his job. He put pressure on Jokic, being physical with him, maybe got in his head a little bit. Made it uncomfortable for him, and I think without Dwight, especially in that series, there’s no telling what would have been the outcome.
“He was a huge part of our success and he deserves every bit of that ring as much as anybody else on this team.”
This year, the burden of defending Jokic will largely on Marc Gasol, who’s the only true center on the Lakers’ roster. However, Frank Vogel downplayed the idea that the Lakers signed Gasol specifically to contain Jokic.
“I mean, we didn’t sign Marc for any individual matchups,” Vogel said. “But playing against one of the better centers in the league and having a defensive presence that can sort of tag team with Anthony (Davis) with what he’s able to do (at center) but we don’t want him doing full time, that was part of the job description.
“So knowing that Marc is an elite defender definitely weighed in to us bringing him into our team, but it wasn’t based on any individual matchup.”
Still, it’s quite the individual matchup he’ll get when the Lakers and Nuggets tip-off at 7:00 p.m. PT on Thursday. The game will be nationally broadcast on TNT.