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This is a guest column from Miroslav Cuk, host of the Serbian Corner podcast on the DNVR Nuggets podcast feed.
Nikola Jokić wants the pressure
In the weeks leading to the playoffs, which coincide with the deadline for talking heads around the league to submit their NBA awards votes, there has been a lot of talk about which players should feel the most pressure come playoffs. I’m personally sick of that discourse, which was used mostly for discrediting previous accolades of the still reigning league MVP, Nikola Jokić. Without going into details why this agenda exists in the first place (because it honestly makes me sick), I wanted to dive into the phenomenon of workplace pressure in the NBA.
First of all, workplace pressure absolutely exists for the Owners, Front Offices, Coaching staff, and players. If we look from top-down to what the Nuggets have been looking like for the last eight seasons, they have had a very patient, but cost saving ownership, a very methodical front office personalized in Arturas Karnišovas, Tim Connelly and Calvin Booth. Same goes for a defensive-minded head coach in Malone who’s defensive principles have given varying results, while simultaneously establishing an all time powerful offense led by a generational talent.
The ownership group has been very patient until this season. They didn’t put a lot of pressure on the basketball part of their operation for seven long seasons, which they used, let’s be frank, to earn some extra cash that the league gives back to the owners whose teams are not in the luxury tax. They did dip into the tax this season, and will likely dip even deeper next year. But with that, the pressure on the next in command increases.
So far, Calvin Booth has been a very successful successor to Tim Connelly. He stuck with Tim’s core of Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon, added his kind of guys in KCP, Bruce Brown and also drafted differently than Connelly. Instead of “best talent available at the picking spot” he went for need, and drafted two guys, one with immediate defensive impact in Christian Braun, and the one with a great defensive upside, in Payton Watson.
Other than Watson, that core comprises Denver’s top 7 guys. Coach Malone will add Jeff Green, as a guy he trusts the most, and that will more or less be the rotation presented to the playoff audience.
Booth will be under huge pressure to make big changes in case the Nuggets would, God forbid, get eliminated by the Wolves in the first round. But even a second round exit, in my humble opinion, wouldn’t save coach Malone’s position on the Nuggets.
I already mentioned pressure to the non-superstar-level players. It’s time for me to raise a few eyebrows: It’s the pressure on all of them, except for Nikola Jokić. Yes, for eight seasons, the front office had counted on internal development instead of big name hunting. Of course, we don’t know if there were attempts to bring a superstar in (I’d bet there most certainly has been in such a long period of time), but the result is the one known by everybody and their grandma: Jokić is yet to play a single game next to an all star player (in that season). We all hope Murray and Porter are gonna prove their max contracts to be reasonable, since neither did so far, outside of those two months in the bubble, three years ago. I personally don’t think the players should be off the hook for anything less than a tough Western Conference Finals exit.
As for Nikola Jokić, he shouldn’t feel the pressure from the media, since that’s a made up thing. What he should feel, and I’m all but sure he does, is his personal striving for greatness. We all speculate if he cares about the personal accolades. I’ll answer that with a recent quote of his: “I’ve never won anything in my life, but I think I know what needs to be done to get there”.
It’s true, from his, and honestly most Serbian fan’s perspective, he hasn’t won anything yet. Adam wanted to kick me out of his show (that’s a hyperbole) when I declared Nikola 6th greatest Serbian player in history, a year ago. It’s true, his biggest achievement so far, by his own words, is the Olympic Silver, 7 years ago. The reason he says he “never won anything” is the fact that, even though he was probably the best player on the team even then, it was far from “his” team.
Nikola wants to win, that’s the pressure he puts on himself, but he is just one of many in the Nuggets organization facing inspection and introspection going into the most stressful playoffs in recent franchise’s history.
Let the games begin!