The Joker’s Time: Is Nikola Jokić the Greatest Postseason Big Man of All Time?
After dismantling the seemingly dangerous Phoenix Suns and guiding his Denver Nuggets to their first Western Conference finals since the Orlando Bubble, it’s safe to say that the Nikola Jokić love is at an all-time high.
The Joker has been marvelous this postseason, averaging a near – *checks notes* – 30-point triple-double through 11 playoff games (30.7 PPG/12.8 RPG/9.7 APG). He’s the only player since the implementation of the 3-point line in the 1979-80 season to average at least 30.0 points, 12.0 rebounds, 9.0 assists and 1.5 3s through 11 postseason contests.
Jokić also has four triple-doubles in wins already this postseason – the only players to record more triple-doubles in wins in any postseason are Magic Johnson (five in 1979-80, six in 1981-82) and Wilt Chamberlain (six in 1966-67).
And being that he has now suited up for 59 career playoff games – spanning across five different postseason runs – we have enough evidence to show that his success during the game’s second season isn’t some fluke.
We know that Jokić is a great playoff player, but what if it is time to start talking about him as something more? How do his numbers compare to the best who have ever done it? And is Jokić quietly the greatest playoff big man of all time?
To start, let’s add some more context around just how good Jokić has been compared to the rest of the league in these playoffs.
A brief explainer of why we are looking at these specific stats. First, we use pace-adjusted measures (per 100 possessions) to account for every team/matchup’s differences in tempo and player playing time. We shouldn’t penalize Jokić because he only played 32 minutes in a game, while Jalen Brunson is logging all 48 because he plays for Tom Thibodeau. Using per-100 possession statistics for things like points and assists helps us account for this disparity.
True shooting percentage is the best measure for evaluating a player’s scoring efficiency, since it accounts for 2s, 3s and free throws. Jokić’s true shooting is actually a bit negatively skewed because he loves using the old Moses Malone trick of tipping in his own misses around the rim.
And that’s why we included offensive rebounding percentage (ORB%). Listen to any coach talk during any interview, and they will always emphasize the importance of winning the possession game, and what better way of doing that than to have someone who is constantly garnering you second chances.
We talked about this during March is Reading about Rookies Month (and coincidentally, Thibodeau’s New York Knicks are a good example of this), but offensive rebounding can juice a team’s overall offensive efficiency, as it gives them multiple shots in a single offensive possession.
Jokić’s offensive rebounding is part of the reason why his Nuggets rank No. 1 in our adjusted offensive rating and have made the biggest jump in overall adjusted team rating (ATR) since the start of the postseason. ATR measures how many points per 100 possessions better or worse teams are compared to the league-average club during that season, including the playoffs.
Defense is incredibly important at the center position, as those players (because of their size) tend to have the highest impact on that end of the court.
It is hard to find great measures for this facet of the game. So, we just used block percentage (BLK%) – a solid indicator of a player’s rim protection prowess – and team defensive rating (because bigs play such a large role in shaping that number) as rough proximities. We’ll also include Basketball Reference’s standard catch-all metric: box plus-minus (BPM).
Now, without further ado, here are Jokic’s 2022-23 postseason numbers (based on percentile standing):
Wow. Do you know what makes some of these marks crazy (particularly his assist numbers)? This is not Jokić’s ranking compared to centers in this year’s playoffs. This is his ranking compared to every player that has suited up for the postseason. That means his playmaking volume is higher than the likes of Trae Young, James Harden and Chris Paul.
Between his scoring volume and efficiency, playmaking volume, and how his team is performing overall on that end of the floor (first in offensive rating in the playoffs), it is safe to say that Jokić has been the best offensive player in the league this postseason.
On defense – the side of the ball he’s always faced the most criticism – he’s still been serviceable. His BLK% is very unimpressive considering his size, but he’s been able to do enough on that end by leaning on his stature, institutional knowledge, and great hands (58th percentile in steal rate) – as evidenced by his team having the fourth-best defensive rating this postseason.
And as we have seen in the past, elite offense coupled with good defense is a popular framework among many of the playoff teams that have made deep playoff runs.
OK, so between his monster offensive impact and sound defensive contributions, it is likely that we are dealing with the best postseason performer on the planet right now. But where does that put him among the other all-time great big men?
Jokić is accounting for 28.7% of his team’s total points, rebounds and assists so far this postseason. That is in the 99th percentile among all centers since 1951-52, despite Jokic playing just 37.8 minutes per game, which is in the 88th percentile among that same group.
His counting statistics are right up there with all the all-time greats, despite not having as many opportunities to accumulate these totals.
It’s also important to note that Jokić has also accounted for 38.6% of his team’s assists this postseason, which is far higher than any member of this group. Tim Duncan’s 26.6% in 2001-02 is second.
We could go on all day. You get the point. Jokić is an offensive force, unlike anything we have ever seen before. Defensively, Jokić’s rim protection pales in comparison to some of his predecessors. But still, he’s done enough on that end of the floor to be a cog in a high-end playoff defense this season.
And when you combine that with the fact that he may be having the greatest extended offensive playoff run we’ve ever seen from a big man, Nikola Jokić, at just 28 years old, has a strong case as one of the best playoff centers of all time.
Research support provided by Jake Coyne of Stats Perform’s data insights team. Like this? Follow us on Twitter for more.