Last season, in my memory, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic had an epiphany. At some point after the all-star break, Jokic made the decision to stop engaging NBA referees. It seemed like from that point, he settled into a run that nearly propelled his team into the playoffs.
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Let’s just put it out there because there’s really no way to defend the opposite: Nikola Jokic is a superstar. He’s seventh in the NBA in assists, as a center. He’s averaging numbers that nobody has averaged since Wilt Chamberlain was playing against my uncle Barry in the 60’s. Nikola suffers because the NBA media landscape is far more interested in a Giannis Antetokounmpo poster dunk than an efficient, game-winning performance from the Serbian unicorn.
It’s fine, really it is, no matter what attention is meted out to Jokic, his performances continue to carry his team. Fans clamor for MVP and All-Star attention, hoping for validation. The thing is, Nikola no longer needs validation. His team is in first place, he’s hit a nice, consistent place, he has the attention of pundits like Charles Barkley (even if the comically terrible Shaquille O’Neal doesn’t agree). For all that we can observe, it feels like Jokic is at the top of his game.
Recalling last year, there is still another gear that the big man can hit and it lies in that ability to overlook officiating.
First, a disclaimer, NBA officiating is a difficult and thankless job. The play happens fast and a game can hinge on a call, made or missed. It is remarkable that NBA officials can see 1/8″ of Jamal Murray‘s shoe touch the end line but they miss Patrick Beverly launching himself sideways into Monte Morris or even more egregiously, they miss whatever happens that leaves Jokic cut, red, bruised and battered. Nikola’s arms bear the scars, scrapes and cuts of the defensive strategy most-employed against him. That’s play him hard, borderline dirty and make him overcome.
He almost always does but the frustration has boiled-over lately. Particularly after watching James Harden draw phantom calls nearly every time he has the ball in his hands. Jokic will embellish for foul calls but it’s not the outright flop assault employed by the likes of Harden.
That’s the decision facing Jokic. Become the guy in the referee’s ear, an unpopular confirmation of the bias shown to European players, floppy and manipulative or continue to play his game and let the officiating chips fall where they may.
If his decision last season is any indicator, it would benefit Jokic and the Nuggets to let go. Until he’s blooded in to the fraternity of elite players that get calls based on their word, there’s no value to his palms-up displays and frustration. His time in the officiating barrel may or may not come but what’s certain is he can’t force it. What he can force are the all-star numbers he’s putting up.