Nikola Jokic became the first big man since Tim Duncan to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player trophy. Sadly, that’s about the only hardware he’ll bring home this year.
With a 125-118 loss to the Phoenix Suns, Jokic and the Denver Nuggets were swept out of 2021 NBA Playoffs and into another offseason in search of answers. Jokic could not repeat his 30-20-10 performance and making matters worse for the Serbian was his ejection with 3:52 left in the third quarter after committing a Flagrant 2 foul on Cameron Payne.
The three-time all-star now joins a list of MVP winners since 2000 that have gone home title-less, with only five regular season MVPs taking home the NBA championship in the same season. However, Dirk Nowitzki and Russell Westbrook remain to be the only two MVPs to have the distinction of being booted out in the first round.
|2001-2002||Tim Duncan||Conference Semifinals|
|2003-2004||Kevin Garnett||Conference Finals|
|2004-2005||Steve Nash||Conference Finals|
|2005-2006||Steve Nash||Conference Finals|
|2006-2007||Dirk Nowitzki||First Round|
|2008-2009||LeBron James||Conference Finals|
|2009-2010||LeBron James||Conference Semifinals|
|2010-2011||Derrick Rose||Conference Finals|
|2013-2014||Kevin Durant||Conference Finals|
|2016-2017||Russell Westbrook||First Round|
|2017-2018||James Harden||Conference Finals|
|2018-2019||Giannis Antetokounmpo||Conference Finals|
|2019-2020||Giannis Antetokounmpo||Conference Semifinals|
|2020-2021||Nikola Jokic||Conference Semifinals|
The fact that only a handful of the MVPs have won a championship in the same season over the past two decades has invited conversations of an “MVP” curse. MVPs usually come up with spectacular seasons to the point that their teammates will naturally defer to them, and when the going gets tough, these same teammates may be unable to step up to the plate.
Take the case for two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. Both playoff exits in 2019 and 2020 came when Antetokounmpo could not get consistent support from teammates such as Eric Bledsoe. It wasn’t surprising then, when the Bucks traded for Jrue Holiday earlier this season, but it remains too early to tell what his impact will be, as he’s struggled a lot against the Nets after having an excellent series against the Heat.
However, correlation doesn’t always mean causation. So many factors can come into play for both an MVP campaign and a title run, and this season’s Nuggets squad endured their fair share of expectations and setbacks.
After reaching the conference finals in the Orlando bubble, expectations were high for Denver. Unfortunately, Jamal Murray’s ACL injury was too much for them to overcome especially in the postseason. Losing another playmaker to complement Jokic and spread the defense proved to be pivotal in containing the Nuggets.
Initially, the early results after Murray went down had been promising, as Denver had a 13-5 record after Murray went down. The fact thatJokic kept the ship afloat despite the huge loss and missed no games in 2020-2021 likely sealed his MVP vote and gave the rest of the team confidence heading into the postseason.
However, come playoff time, the lack of a secondary playmaker and another primary offensive option proved too much to overcome. While they had more success against the Portland Trail Blazers, the fact that Jokic finished in single-digit assists in all postseason games except Game 3 against the Suns goes to show that defense knew who to target and how to disrupt the Nuggets’ offense.
It is likely that Murray won’t be back until some part into the 2021-2022 season, so Jokic will have to take on a more significant workload when next season begins. Should he join the Serbian national team in the Olympic qualifiers, it will likely cut into his offseason rest and only add to the wear and tear on his body. He’s been pretty durable so far, but that mileage adds up and can come knocking at inopportune times.
Michael Porter Jr. showed flashes of brilliance during certain stretches, but he wasn’t as diverse with his shot selection as Murray was. The addition of Will Barton was a much-needed boost, but the rest of the supporting cast could not consistently keep up with him and Jokic.
How the Nuggets will navigate this offseason could define their future as the team would not want to waste Jokic’s best years. Most of the core members of the squad are signed up for next season, with only Paul Millsap, JaVale McGee, and Austin Rivers entering free agency. Getting midseason acquisition Aaron Gordon a full season under his belt could also somewhat make up for the production lost with Murray’s absence early next season.
The looming question, though, is whether head coach Mike Malone will be retained. He has brought consistent success in his tenure in Denver, but he has not gotten over the hump despite having the same roster. The injury to Murray and the results he produced in spite of it could give him another chance, but the leash has gotten shorter.
Winning the MVP award is an achievement nonetheless, but the bitter taste of a sweep at the hands of the Suns should motivate Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets moving forward.