While the whole world is raving about Nikola Jokić‘s outstanding performance in Game 6 of the 2020 western Conference semifinals, L.A. Clippers head coach Doc Rivers went one step further. He compared the Nuggets big man with the 1980s and 1990s legendary big men Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin McHale.
“He’s good! He has a little bit of everybody. The footwork and the moves of Olajuwon. The lanky and goofy intelligence of Kevin McHale. He’s just good. He’s the best passing big that I’ve seen, I think ever. And Walton was one of them. He’s very good, and he’s very frustrating to watch play.”Doc Rivers, Fanatics View
With all due respect to Rivers’ comparison, McHale is remembered as an executor around the basket, someone who was always steady to receive Larry Bird‘s pass in the paint. And with the ball in his hands, he was not giving it back – Boston Celtics Black Hole averaged career-high 2.7 assists in 1985-86 and 1987-88 regular seasons. Jokić’s career-average is 5.5 assists per game.
Hakeem, on the other hand, was a great post player who utilized the mighty Houston Rockets offensive machine. He was the ultimate offensive option for the Rockets, who passed him the ball, and as soon he was double-teamed, he passed it back to a cutter or someone who was spotting up to hit an open triple.
Jokić is not that kind of a passing big man. His assists come not only from the low-post but from all over the floor! If he should be compared with the big men from Rivers’ playing days, it’s fair to say that he is quite reminiscing of Olajuwon, but also of two of the best passing big men of that era – Vlade Divac and Brad Daugherty. Combined, those two big men had five regular seasons with a 4.1 or better assists per game average.
Jokić’s inside-outside game is most reminiscent of his 7’1″ countryman Vlade Divac, who created quite a lot of stir around the league with his most unique ability to knock down the long-distance jumper, and hit the open man with crispy passes, from inside or outside, it didn’t matter. During his late 1980s days in the Yugoslavian league Divac, alike Jokić displayed point-guard abilities to handle and dish the ball like to his teammates, and knockdown triples from time to time. The best Divac did in the assist department was 5.3 assists per game for the 2003-04 Sacramento Kings. But still far away from topping Jokić’s career-best 7.3 assists per game for the 2018-19 Denver Nuggets.
Maybe the best try to chart Jokić’s still uncharted passing skills would be to compare his passing game with the combined mixture of Divac’s crispiness and Webber’s flare on their spectacular passes.
What significantly separates Jokić from the group mentioned above of legendary passers among big men is his most unpredictable decision-making. With Divac, Olajuwon, and Daugherty, you could almost always tell what might happen next – they would pass the ball to the player who is the most logical choice.
Jokić, somehow, skips the most logical choice and bypasses a couple of defensive rotations, sometimes finding an open man in a part of the floor no-one else is looking for. He does a marvelous job reading the defense despite a constant quality defensive effort by Ivica Zubac, Montrezl Harrell, and Paul George! Sure, give his teammates credit for continually moving without the ball in the passing lanes.
His superb passing ability, alongside the ability to knock down the big triple whenever he wants, puts Joker in the class with the all-world shooters like Larry Bird and Dirk Nowitzki. And this is something that Doc Rivers doesn’t want to tell the world, his team, and Jokić before the decisive Game 7 of the series. With all eyes now on Jokić, Rivers’ Clippers seem more vulnerable than ever before.