Nikola Jokic Won't Start the ASG - And That's OK
Tonight's official announcement that Nikola Jokic would be Denver's first All-Star since Carmelo Anthony in 2011 was a mere formality. Any NBA observer knew that Jokic was a shoo-in for the All-Star Game; the real question was whether he would be a starter.
As the talisman for the West's second best team, Jokic made a compelling argument. He's one of only seven players in the league averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, but unlike the rest of the bigs in that exclusive fraternity, he's the leading assist-man on his team as well. His 7.7 assists per game are good for sixth in the league -- better than Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, even noted distributor LeBron James. If it wasn't for potential-space-alien Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double AGAIN, Jokic could lay claim to being the league's most well-rounded player.
The advanced stats back him up too. He's 6th in Win Shares: only five players in the league have contributed more wins to their team's record than he has. He's 5th in Player Efficiency Rating (PER): when the offense runs through him it does so in a tremendously efficient way. He's 2nd in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP): of all the players in the league, Jokic is the second most difficult to replace with an average player.
So if he's ranked so highly in THE LEAGUE in all those metrics, and he only needs to be one of the top five players in THE WEST to start in the All-Star game, shouldn't Jokic and Nuggets fans be disappointed that he's coming off the bench? No.
Not everyone can be Joel Embiid, jumping directly into the starting line-up of the All-Star Game in his first appearance, but then again, not everyone plays in the Eastern Conference. To be one of the frontcourt starters in the West, he had to beat out one of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Paul George this year -- three of the league's brightest stars, two of whom have MVP awards to their name. Even Anthony Davis, the talk of the league, two-time defending 1st-Team All-NBA, isn't starting in the All-Star Game! Those spots are hard to come by.
The other -- and more compelling -- factor concerns something much larger than who starts the All-star Game: Jokic's development as a player. Think about this from the perspective of the Denver front office and coaching staff. Would they prefer that everything be handed to their star, so that he might become complacent and think that he had reached the pinnacle of his profession and had nothing to push for? Or would they like to keep the chip on his shoulder in place, the feeling of disrespect driving his efforts, and the continuing motivation to say 'I'll show THEM'? I'm guessing it's the latter.
Early on in the season, Mike Malone could be found lamenting that Jokic was periodically too passive, and needed to take a more active role in impacting the Nuggets' success. Experiences like the All-Star game are crucial for a young player: they let him know that he belongs to the upper echelon, that he can compete and distinguish himself even among the absolute best in the game -- that experience is invaluable. But to let him know that he has not reached the mountaintop, that he is still looking up at the best? That will light a fire that will drive Jokic to be even better than he is now.
That is a terrifying thought for the rest of the league, indeed.