The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nikola Jokic doesn’t care about being MVP. How refreshing.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic goes up for a shot during the second half of Wednesday's game against the Washington Wizards. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
7 min

The conversation feels as if it belongs at the world’s worst dinner party. Plenty of former ballers have taken the best seats at the table, but instead of passing along nuanced opinions shaped by their experience, they would rather forsake their inside voices and lob allegations back and forth.

Then there are the guests of the MVP candidates, their coaches and friends, but some refuse to focus on the appetizing smorgasbord of talent in front of them. Instead, they pick apart the menu, criticize what’s missing on the other guy’s plate and mock the “nerds” at the end of the table.

All the while, the guest of honor at the NBA’s spiciest debate wears the expression of someone being held against his will. Someone, please, pass Nikola Jokic the beef burek before he passes out from boredom.

This is the Denver Nuggets big man’s third year here, and he no longer pretends to care about the fluff and frills. He’s the no-thirst candidate ambivalently lumbering toward his third consecutive MVP award while loathing the invitation to be part of this year’s conversation. Just ask him, as an international reporter tried to Wednesday, about the MVP race.

Jokic gave substantive responses about the West’s top-seeded Nuggets needing to play better down the stretch of the regular season and expressed appreciation that Serbian fans filled Capital One Arena with their flags and enthusiastic support. But he wasn’t as willing to engage on his detractors’ favorite subject: himself.

Jokic, a perma-placid glaze resting on his face, could not have yawned out a duller answer about the MVP race if he tried.

“I don’t think about it anymore,” Jokic said following his 31-point, 12-rebound, seven-assist performance against the Washington Wizards. “It’s past.”

Brewer: Being the NBA’s MVP is an honor and a burden. Just ask Nikola Jokic.

What a refreshing concept: We’re witnessing a superstar at his peak powers care more about his game than about playing the game.

And also, how utterly boring.

Jokic is the best player in a league that sells the star power of its personalities, yet he refuses to promote himself. And with all apologies to the goldfish snacks and beer company he endorses in his homeland, those commercials won’t inspire American kids like, say, a “Be like Mike” ad campaign did generations ago. So to root for Jokic is to be a pure fan of basketball. Because he gives you little else — no social media presence and no easy talking points. And he doesn’t care about being your MVP.

“If I was him, I’d care about it,” said Nuggets forward Vlatko Cancar, a friend of Jokic’s who also hails from the Balkans. “ … I would — of course I would — but him? I don’t understand it. He’s a puzzle that you cannot solve.”

I have to imagine the daily frustration from the producers of hot-take sports shows. Poor folks, just trying to do their jobs, scrolling for juicy sound bytes served up the night before by the messiest sports stars, and then they come across Jokic saying something like this:

“Because this is three years in a row, so it’s just not worth it anymore to think about it,” Jokic told me when prodded for a morsel of context that would explain his indifference toward the award. “I’m just — I mean, you just get numb from the comments. You know, maybe first year I kind of wanted it, wanted it. But then [I won] back-to-back. … Now I’m just playing the game, so I don’t think about it anymore.”

Jokic, a savant discovered in the second round of the 2014 draft, ascended to the honor in 2021 and again in 2022, edging out rivals Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But apparently winning the league’s highest individual award was so last year. Or maybe just the war of words waged about it has grown stale.

I reminded Jokic about what he already understands, joining the Mount Rushmore of MVPs (Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird) by becoming only the fourth player in league history to win three in a row, and the sound of crickets might have been more illuminating.

“Yeah, but three years. It’s a thousand days that someone is talking about you,” Jokic responded. “So it’s boring. It becomes boring.”

West-best Nuggets go deep to hand Wizards their fourth straight loss

His distaste for the discourse hasn’t stopped everybody else from sharing, screaming and subtweeting their opinions.

Several weeks ago, former NBA player Kendrick Perkins suggested media voters are “80 percent White” (they are not) and prefer to support players such as Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and now Jokic as MVP candidates. JJ Redick, another ex-player, told Perkins his implication was that the voters are racist. Then they talked over each other and raised their volume some more, and the whole segment turned into a sloppy scream-fest on race — the single topic that lurks in the background in all of American society but one that’s rarely discussed with substance and clarity.

When Jokic isn’t accused of being the Great White Hope, he raises suspicions as the analytics world’s favorite plush toy. Sure, his bounty of triple-numbers helps his case, but it’s his player efficiency rating (his 32.85 last season ranks as the highest in league history) and value over replacement player that really stand out to the advanced metrics crowd. That’s much to the chagrin of Embiid’s most vocal supporter on social media, his personal shooting coach, who spends time studying Jokic’s numbers to find flaws and take shots at his defense.

Because Jokic will rarely defend his own honor, it’s his coach who will pack a cape. Nuggets Coach Michael Malone, a kid from Queens who doesn’t back down in this MVP playground fight, willingly serves as Jokic’s greatest champion in every NBA city. But he believes the debate has taken a left turn.

“I think this year, compared to the last two years … has just taken a really ugly, nasty turn in the MVP conversation. And I think it’s really turned a lot of people off, including him,” Malone said Wednesday. “And what’s happening now, there’s so many guys that can win the MVP this year, great candidates. Joel Embiid is a great candidate. Luka Doncic is a great candidate. Jayson Tatum, or whoever you want to put in that mix. Those are all deserving. But what happens in today’s society is … all the negative recruiting. It’s not promoting my guy; it’s ripping down every other guy. And that’s just ridiculous.”

Malone continued: “This game, as Adam Silver told us at the all-star break, the game’s in a great spot. The league’s in a great spot. We have great players; celebrate them. Don’t criticize. Don’t tear them down. Build them all up, and whoever wins it, good for them. That’s one thing that’s been really disappointing this year with the whole MVP conversation and all the hot takes. It’s really just gotten ugly and nasty, and I really don’t care for it.”

According to Ivan Iricanin, the owner of Ambar, Jokic spent an off night in Washington huddled around one of his tables for some Balkan cuisine. There, Jokic must have felt at home. The only loud talking probably came during the toasts, and the biggest debate might have centered on Stara Sokolova or Zaric Honey.

When I spoke to Iricanin, he offered scant details about the dinner: “There’s noting to report here.” I sensed Iricanin was trying to keep Jokic’s privacy, intentionally keeping it boring. Very much how Jokic would like it. But if boring allows the two-time MVP to keep feasting on NBA competition, then we should just sit back and enjoy the meal.