Imagine being Pat Riley, Jimmy Butler, and the Miami Heat’s training staff right now. They spent two decades preaching the advantages of elite fitness, conditioning, and mining for diamonds in the rough. Every season, Miami mandates that its players maintain a body fat percentage low enough to go walk a Muscle Beach runway. Each player on the Heat roster is a sinewy testament to the rigors of the Miami Heat’s strength and conditioning program.
And then a pudgy Nikola Jokić completely dismantled them with an awe-inspiring demonstration of skill in a Ruthian performance for the ages. A slew of undrafted starlets were just consumed by Jokić’s galactic prowess. Getting humbled by a Richard Simmons workout video extra is worldview-shattering. LeBron James spent millions on his maintenance, only to get swept in the conference finals by the first second-round pick to win the NBA MVP award since Willis Reed in 1970. Jokić made a mockery of a superhuman Devin Booker performance and Kevin Durant’s blinding brilliance in the semifinals. Not only is Jokić Ruthian in the proportions of his statistical profile and build but in his phlegmatic approach to snatching the NBA crown.
In contrast to the Type A intensity of Heat culture, Jokić just wants to get home, play with his kid, tend to his Serbian horse ranch, and is content to let his brothers do the partying for him. Jokić didn’t provide glimpses beneath the surface or deep reflections of how far he’s come after reaching the NBA’s highest pinnacle.
Jokić is unsure he wants to attend the championship parade, although that last bit from him could have contained a hint of snark.
“The job is done, we can go home now,” is all Jokić could muster in his post-game interview. It was a far cry from K.G. bellowing “Aaaaaaanything is poooooosssiiiibleeee!” or Jordan crying with the trophy. Chris Paul was probably fuming last night at how easy Jokić made it look.
It was reminiscent of tales about the Bambino nonchalantly chugging beers from the dugout and lapping the league in homers smashed with a hangover. Jokić came into the league with a Taco Bell body, and has probably never had a muscle striation. My colleague Sean Beckwith affectionately refers to him as less of a unicorn than a dancing hippo. Yet, he’s the model by which all bigs will now be judged while being surprisingly deadly in his element. Not only does Jokić have the charisma of Forrest Gump, but he never tires either.
Jamal Murray’s postgame mention of “a picture of Jok and Embiid running for MVP, and Jok keeps running,” is scary when you realize they could continue this streak for a few more years alongside a core in their semi-prime years.
The Heat found seemingly every gem in the second round over the last decade except the one that mattered. If the Heat had drafted Jokić, maybe he’d have Dolph Lundgren’s chiseled body by now. If I’m Bam Adebayo though, I might be showing up to training camp with a soft body, and wondering if everything I dedicated myself to was a lie.
They didn’t get throttled by some historically great perimeter shooting turrets who solved the 3-point efficiency equation. Jokić is another black swan event in basketball. The last one was Steph Curry. Amazingly, we’ve seen two overlap one another. Maybe the pace of basketball evolution is accelerating at the same speed as science. A true center averaging a triple-double including assists was the natural evolution of positionless basketball. However, few saw him coming. Check that. Actually, nobody saw this coming. Jokić being drafted at 41 is comparable to the Patriots discovering Tom Brady in the sixth round. In an age of advanced scouting, prospects like Jokić aren’t supposed to slip through the cracks that easily.
More conspicuously, Brady’s shirtless NFL Combine photo and Jokić’s flab are inspirations to all the weekend warriors out there. Jokić’s peers transformed their bodies in the gym. Take Joel Embiid’s transformation for instance. The lean Jayhawk who matriculated into the league is somewhere underneath the 2023 version of Embiid. Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like he’s been micro-dosing on Captain America’s super-soldier serum since 2013.
Two years ago, this was shaping up to be Antetokounmpo’s league. Since then, Jokić has evolved beyond his physical body, and integrated with a hoops A.I. He consistently makes the correct play while predicting where teammates will be based on his internal algorithm and projecting a detachment bordering on apathy. In 2023, he went sentient and eradicated his NBA peers with the ice-cold dispassion of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator.
Jokić’s soft touch and slothful movements have given him the best PER in playoff history, surpassing Michael Jordan’s quick-twitch aerial acrobatics with a refined floor game. At the same time, Jokić has so little clout that he was nearly the last player selected before the All-Star Game.
Antetokounmpo is the only player who could challenge Jokić for the NBA’s transient “best player alive” crown. In the paint, you’d think Antetokounmpo was the NBA’s most dominant force. Nope. Steph Curry shooting off Kevin Durant and Draymond Green screens is the most efficient high-usage play in basketball over the last 15 seasons. Jokić’s post-ups this season were second alongside peak Harden’s D’Antoni-aided isolations.
Shaq threw his extra weight around to become a low post-Godzilla, and Antetokounmpo steals souls under the rim in a similar manner, so it’s jarring to see the league bending the knee to a waddling herbivore who moves with two left feet, but makes up for it with unparalleled touch. This is the dawn of a new age, indeed.
Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex