Assessing Jokic’s Place in Nuggets’ History

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

Nikola Jokic has achieved stardom in the NBA. He’s been made the franchise staple for the Denver Nuggets. Where does he fit among the greats in Nuggets history?

The list of all-time greats in Denver Nuggets history is short when compared to other teams throughout the league. Much of this is due to a distinct lack of talent throughout much of the history of the franchise, or at the very least top-heavy talent. However, the Nuggets also have a trend of not holding onto players for very long meaning few players have a lasting impact with the team.

(All stats in this piece were obtained using basketball reference’s play index tool)

If you search for Nuggets players with at least 7500 minutes played with the team you get a list of only 43 players. That minute count is the equivalent of about 18 minutes per game over 5 seasons. To widdle it down, even more, I added a criterion of at least .12 WS/48 which limits the list to players who consistently had a positive impact. That brought the list to 21 players, with Jokic among them.

Among those 21 players, Jokic ranks 9th in PPG, 3rd in RPG, and 4th in APG. That said, per game numbers need some additional context to compare players across generations, because of a differing style of play and the difference in pace.

For this comparison, I like to use per 75 possession stats. 75 possessions is roughly the equivalent of 36 minutes played in a 100 possession game. It normalizes the difference in pace and the difference in minutes per game.

Per 75 possessions, Jokic ranks 6th in points, 5th in rebounds, and 3rd in assists. No other player is in the top 6 in each category and only Alex English shows up in two of these categories.

Most Denver Nuggets fans will recognize the names Jokic is competing with for the title of greatest Nuggets ever. Beyond English, David Thompson, Dan Issel, and Carmelo Anthony belong on that list. Arguments can be made for others in the pantheon of Nuggets heroes, but those four are clearly at the top of the list for most Nuggets fans.

That said, after now 5 full(ish) seasons, Nikola Jokic is poised to join that list and perhaps unseat one of the faces on Denver Nuggets’ Mt. Rushmore. He doesn’t yet have the longevity of any of those players, but his game to game impact is on par with, if not exceeding, all of those names.

Of the 5 players mentioned, Jokic comes fifth in points per 75 possessions, but leads in rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per 75. He also leads them all in TS%, FG%, and 3P%, making him the most efficient scorer of the bunch despite shooting the most 3s of the group.

If we turn to advanced metrics, we see a similar story. Stats like Win Shares and Value over Replacement player are cumulative stats and as such Jokic sits 5th in the former and 3rd in the latter among the five players being discussed. So despite 2-4 fewer seasons worth of minutes, Jokic has comparable career win shares to both Carmelo Anthony and David Thompson.

The issue of fewer minutes is handled by looking at the advanced stats that are rate based. The Win Shares per 48 minutes stat used as a filter takes the win shares number and turns it into a rate statistic. Jokic leads this stat with .213, followed by Issel with .181, Thompson with .161, English with .135, and Anthony with .125.

In another rate stat, Box Plus-Minus, Jokic again ranks first with 7.2, one of the best marks in NBA history. Thompson is a very distant second among this group with 2.6, followed closely by English with 2.5 and Issel with 2.3. Melo comes in last with 1.2 BPM.

Based on the statistical analysis, the only thing keeping Jokic from being considered the best Nugget ever is simply minutes. Alex English played nearly 30,000 minutes in Denver, Issel had 25k, Melo 20k, and Thompson 16k. Jokic sits at just over 10k, but by the time he hits Thompson’s minute count he’ll likely already be in the top 10 in franchise history in total points, rebounds, and assists while still being an advanced stats darling.

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At the very least it seems that Jokic has done enough already to unseat Carmelo Anthony as the 4th best player in franchise history. Whether Melo deserved that spot over even Fat Lever is another question entirely, but I for one am excited to see what Jokic will do as he enters his prime.