Rarely does Nikola Jokic look lost on a basketball court.
While Giannis Antetokounmpo galloped from end to end and Joel Embiid took off for windmill dunks, Jokic ambled back and forth during the All-Star Game in Cleveland, eventually settling into his role as Team LeBron’s garbage man.
“Best in-bounder on the planet,” Jokic quipped afterward.
The reigning MVP was benched the entire fourth quarter, relegated for his more athletic teammates.
Asked by The Denver Post whether such games were hard for him, Jokic offered an all-time answer.
“For me it is, actually,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”
In that way, and in dozens of others, Jokic is a basketball anomaly. He’s a center with a point guard’s proclivities and a superstar with a benchwarmer’s ego. He’s also the odds-on favorite to become only the fifth center in NBA history to win back-to-back MVPs.
Asked that same weekend about his designs on another MVP, Jokic said he’d be happy as long as a big man won the award.
“There’s not even a little bit bad blood between us,” Jokic said of Embid. “I think (he’s) a great player.”
The anecdote became fodder for debate shows and an argument that, supposedly, precluded him from being the best player in the NBA. As the temperature on the MVP race cranked up, and the arguments for Jokic, Embiid and Antetokounmpo crystallized, an even simpler question emerged among the NBA’s giants: Who was the best center in basketball?
Since February, when the MVP looked destined to answer that question, The Post asked nine different big men a series of questions revolving around which player — Jokic or Embiid — was the more difficult matchup.
Here’s what they had to say.
What makes Nikola Jokic so tough to stop?
Jarrett Allen, Cleveland Cavaliers: “If you let your guard down even for a split-second, he’s going to make a pass to the corner. If you let your guard down for a split-second, he’s going to somehow do three spin moves on you and he’s gonna have an open layup at the rim. He just has so many things to his package that you have to guard.”
Ivica Zubac, Los Angeles Clippers: “Nothing. I’m kidding. Shoot, everything. He can handle the ball, he can shoot from outside, he can score in the post, mid-range, whatever. It’s just like, you gotta pick your poison, you gotta live with something. It’s hard. … You just gotta hope it’s not his day. … His skillset is amazing. It’s hard to pressure him into doing anything he doesn’t want to do.”
Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz: “You’ve got a lot of guys that are really, really good scorers. As far as the game plan goes, you can adjust. You can bring help, you can do a lot of things to limit them. But Nikola is such a good passer that he’s always thinking ahead of time. You really gotta be unpredictable if you want to limit him.”
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: “Just because of how much he makes his teammates better. It’s the same thing I’ve had with Marc Gasol coming up in my career when Marc was in Memphis. It’s not always about the person scoring the most points. It’s the fact that you put your hands down for one second because you know he’s not in a scoring position, he’s not a scoring threat. Next thing you know, he zips a pass. It hurts the same way.”
Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings: “He can pass, he can shoot, so you’re up pressuring him, so he doesn’t get those two off, and then he’s just sneaky. He gets by you, he’s strong.”
Jonas Valanciunas, New Orleans Pelicans: “If you’re tough to guard, you see double-teams every night you play, that means you’re doing something good.”
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors: “He’s very difficult to cover on any part of the floor, whether it’s him handling the ball, shooting the ball, post-up. Most guys who are that dominant, you want to send a double-team. He’s one of the best passers we have in the league, so he picks double-teams apart, and you can’t give him the same look. He picks things apart. I think the nimbleness, and most importantly, it’s his touch. He gets the ball on the rim, it’s going in. That’s one of his best attributes is his touch around the rim.”
Who’s the tougher player to guard, Jokic or Embiid?
Perhaps stealing a page from the Book of Jokic, Embiid’s passing has taken a marked jump this season. It’s not uncommon to see him lead a transition break or slingshot a pass to the corner or draw defenders into the post, only to kick it out, quickly, to a shooter. His career-high 4.2 assists complement his imposing, physical style inside, while his outside touch (36.5% from 3) makes him a bear to defend. Similarly, there’s nothing Jokic can’t do. His defenders have to be prepared for everything. In some cases, the best defense is just to guess.
Wendell Carter Jr., Orlando Magic: “That’s a tough one. They’re both tough guards. One thing about Jokic is you just don’t know what you’re going to get from him. He might hit you with a fadeaway, he might hit you with a, like, they’ll set screens for him. You just never know what they’ll do for him. Joel Embiid’s been on that, too. They’ve been setting little pick-and-rolls for him. He’s becoming a better passer. Shoot, in my opinion, Joel’s a little bit more athletic, but other than that, they’re pretty much the same in terms of having to guard them.”
Isaiah Stewart, Detroit Pistons: “I’m going Jokic just because his passing ability. Joel is just as tough a cover, but I feel like with Jokic, he just sees the floor like a point guard. You put a hand in his face, wave it, try to cover his eyes, he still makes those crazy passes. … I feel like at first, when I watched it on TV, I’m like … (I can handle it). … Once you get to the game, it’s a different situation. He’s a guy I watch a lot of film on.”
Towns: “Both days you know you’re going against the best. I think it always ends up being a fun day for me.”
Allen: “Obviously, Embiid had the triple-double on me, but Embiid’s the brute. Embiid’s going to back you down, he’s going to punish you, and he has all the skill. But at the same time, Jokic might have a 15-15-15 night. Both matchups are tough.”
Gobert: “Joel has been playing at an amazing level the last few weeks, the last month. And Nikola has been doing that the last two years. It’s just great for me to see big men playing in games I respect, playing at that much higher level.”
Zubac: “I feel Embiid is a tough matchup because he’s really strong. When he gets in the post, it’s like, one, two dribbles, he gets to his shot. But with Nikola, his skillset makes him super tough. The fact that he can dribble it outside, he can handle in the pick-and-roll situations. I don’t want to choose one.”
Who’s the MVP?
Embiid has stumped publicly for the MVP for weeks. In contrast, Jokic is somewhat indifferent to the award. Jokic concedes he’s been even better this season than he was in last year’s MVP run, though he has zero interest in espousing narratives and indulging the conversation. Both have been individually dominant and have a case as the NBA’s preeminent center. Embiid leads the NBA in scoring (30.4 points per game) and dragged the Sixers to a top-four finish in the East despite enduring the Ben Simmons saga. Jokic had to do more with less as well, owing to injuries to two of Denver’s three best players. No player has ever averaged 25 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in a season. Jokic is hovering close to 27 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists.
Carter: “If I had (a vote), who’s got the better record? … I’ll say Jokic.
Stewart: “Season ended today, I’ll probably give it to Embiid just because of the tear he’s been on. I know Jokic got it last year, but I think Embiid’s having just as great a season as Jokic. To be honest, it’s a toss-up between those two and DeMar DeRozan. And Ja.”
Gobert: “I think it’ll all come down to team success at the end of the day. I think it can go either way. I think Nikola has been doing it from the beginning of the season. Joel has been raising his level as of late, so we’ll see how that goes.”
Towns: “I’m gonna give it to myself because that’s who I feel is the MVP.”
Zubac: “Nikola. I feel like the way he’s been carrying this team this year, it’s amazing. With two of their top three guys being out the whole year, what he’s done, it’s amazing. Not taking anything away from Joel. He’s had an amazing year, too.”