DENVER — Nikola Jokic plays for Denver. And for Serbia.
Both places can once again make the same claim: For the second consecutive season, they’re home to the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.
The league announced Wednesday night that Jokic had won back-to-back MVP awards. The Nuggets’ big man is the second consecutive international player to claim two in a row, after the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo — from Greece — was honored in 2019 and 2020.
This marks the first time international players have won the award in four consecutive seasons. Canada’s Steve Nash went back-to-back for the Phoenix Suns in 2005 and 2006, followed by Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki for the Dallas Mavericks in 2007.
International players finished 1-2-3 this year. Jokic got 65 first-place votes and 875 points from the panel of writers and broadcasters. The Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid was second with 26 first-place votes and 706 points, and Antetokounmpo was third, with nine first-place votes and 595 points. Devin Booker of Phoenix wound up fourth.
“I don’t know what else you can say about Nikola at this point,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said in a statement. “He’s consistently improved his game, he’s consistently proven people wrong when they doubt him and he’s consistently the best player on the floor night in and night out.”
The 27-year-old Jokic averaged 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists on a team that was missing two max players in Jamal Murray (ACL) and Michael Porter Jr. (back) and won 48 games. The do-it-all center nicknamed “Joker” also created a new category in becoming the first NBA player to eclipse 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists in a season.
He is now a member of another rare club — the 13th player to win back-to-back NBA MVP awards. He joined the likes of Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, LeBron James (twice), Nash, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Moses Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (twice). Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell each won the award in three straight seasons.
Jokic was caught by surprise too, as he rode in behind his horse on a two-wheeled cart at his stable in Serbia. Michael Malone was waiting to hug him. Same with Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly.
“It was a real emotional moment for me,” Jokic said in an interview on the TNT broadcast. “Amazing.”
Jokic was taken by the Nuggets with the 41st pick in the 2014 draft. His selection that day flashed across the bottom of the television screen during a Taco Bell commercial.
He has come a long way. He is eligible for a supermax extension that could guarantee him nearly $254 million over five seasons starting with 2023-24.
This will all dawn on him — down the road.
“Probably when I’m old, fat and grumpy, hopefully I’m going to remember and I’m going tell my kids, ‘Back in the days, I was really good playing basketball,'” Jokic said.
James extended his record too — 19 years in the league, 19 years of getting at least one vote in the MVP balloting (a fifth-place vote). Nobody has received votes in more seasons or, obviously, in more consecutive seasons than James.
Despite the Los Angeles Lakers’ disastrous campaign — they didn’t even make the play-in tournament — James’ numbers remained among the league’s best. The 37-year-old averaged 30.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game, moving past Karl Malone for No. 2 on the all-time scoring list and into position to surpass Abdul-Jabbar as the league’s all-time leader late next season.
James has seen the game change during his 19 seasons. He was part of the last USA Basketball team that didn’t win Olympic gold — the squad that went to Athens in 2004 — and was convinced even then that the game was only getting stronger around the world.
Jokic is further proof of that happening.
He isn’t demonstrating it by himself, either. Antetokounmpo and Embiid have more than done their part. Dallas’ Luka Doncic (fifth in the MVP vote) is already a EuroLeague champion and certainly seems like he’ll win at least one NBA MVP award before he’s done.
They are the new class of international greats, following in the footsteps of Nowitzki, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Pau and Marc Gasol, Yao Ming and others. The debate will rage about which international player — either now or all time — is the best, but Antetokounmpo (two MVPs and an NBA championship) and now Jokic (two MVPs after being a second-round pick) have surely entered the chat.
Canada got a championship in 2019 when the Toronto Raptors won the NBA title. That night, the Canadian flag was soaked in champagne. Pascal Siakam danced with the flag of Cameroon around his shoulders and team president Masai Ujiri did interviews with a Nigerian scarf around his neck — and they were only a couple of the Raptors with deep international ties.
It’s not inconceivable that five international players could be lottery picks in next month’s NBA draft. And there’s hardly anyone who doesn’t see France’s Victor Wembanyama — a 7-foot-2 player with guard skills — as the certain No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft right now.
Those newcomers will want to be like Jokic. They’ll want to be the MVP, and he’s just the latest name to show those kids from around the world that it’s possible.
“If it’s not me, who is it?” Jokic responded when asked if he considered himself the longest of long shots. “There’s no way that I would come to the NBA and play basketball from this city and from this stable, basically. Now, I’m playing basketball in the best league in the world and playing at a high level.”
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