The Denver Nuggets are in a tough position right now. They were viewed as contenders this season after they managed to dispatch the Los Angeles Clippers and Kawhi Leonard in a playoff series last season. But with Jamal Murray's devastating recent injury, they are once again the underdogs. However, they do still have one of the league's most talented players in Nikola Jokic, which means that they are a team that shouldn't be counted out just yet.
There are plenty of underdogs that have managed to win unlikely titles. The Denver Nuggets could potentially do the same. There was once another European superstar that led his team to a championship against unlikely odds: Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks. During the 2010-2011 season, Dirk Nowitzki led a team as the lone superstar to an NBA championship. It is viewed as one of the best championships in NBA history, as Dirk Nowitzki dispatched multiple superstars by himself. If Nikola Jokic will lead the Denver Nuggets to a ring, then he will be regarded in the same light as Dirk Nowitzki.
Nikola Jokic And Dirk Nowitzki Have Similar Roster Situations
Dirk Nowitzki's roster during the 2010-11 championship had some really talented players, but no clear-cut second star. While some of the people on his team have had prior All-Star selections, none got the nod that season. What Dirk Nowitzki did have, is a lot of elite 3 and D players, as well as an elite 6th man who could create his own shot in Jason Terry. The 2010-11 Mavericks were a great defensive team that managed to win by grinding the game out. On the other end, they were a team that had a heliocentric offense around Dirk Nowitzki, with experienced veterans who knew how to play their role, and step up on offense when needed. Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, and Jason Terry all played key roles on that team.
Nikola Jokic is in a similar situation as Dirk Nowitzki was. With Jamal Murray out, he doesn't have his star second option on offense. Michael Porter Jr. could probably play the Jason Terry role as a secondary shot creator for Nikola Jokic for the rest of the season, but he's not quite star-level yet. The rest of the roster consists of solid defenders who can also shoot the ball. Aaron Gordon and Will Barton are lengthy and athletic defenders who can switch fairly well, while also possessing some degree of perimeter creation. An apt comparison for Gordon could be Shawn Marion from the Mavericks roster. Gordon's obviously younger and more athletic than Marion was at the time. But he will play a similar role to Marion as a supplementary offensive player while guarding the best forward on the other team. Paul Millsap could be compared to Peja Stojakovic in terms of bench presence: Peja Stojakovic was also a former All-Star who settled for a 3 and D bench role on a championship team.
While obviously, the two rosters are not directly the same, they still have similarities in terms of having solid veteran players surrounding a top-tier superstar. The roster comparison is meant to highlight the fact that if Nikola Jokic manages to win the NBA championship with his current roster, then he will be regarded similarly to Dirk Nowitzki.
Nikola Jokic Has A Tough Path In The Playoffs Like Dirk Nowitzki
One of the reasons that Dirk Nowitzki's championship is regarded in a high light is not only due to his ability to carry his team as the lone superstar on offense, but also because he managed to beat teams with far superior star power. On his way to his ring, Dirk Nowitzki beat teams led by LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Kobe Bryant. All of their teams had at least one other All-Star caliber player, and Dirk Nowitzki managed to beat them despite how stacked their rosters were. This season, Nikola Jokic will face similar challenges in the Western Conference against contending teams.
The Los Angeles Lakers have two top-tier superstars in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Phoenix Suns have a big 3 of Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and Deandre Ayton. The Los Angeles Clippers have an MVP candidate in Kawhi Leonard and an All-NBA performer in Paul George. If he ends up facing the Utah Jazz, then there's Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. Point is, most teams in the Western Conference have more talent than the Denver Nuggets without Jamal Murray. Even teams like the Portland Trail Blazers and the Dallas Mavericks have star duos. The Western Conference has always been a bloodbath in recent seasons. Nikola Jokic managed to get to the Eastern Conference Finals last season with Jamal Murray. If he gets further than he did last year, especially without Jamal Murray, then he will certainly show his status as an MVP caliber player just like Nowitzki.
If Nikola Jokic does miraculously make it to the NBA Finals, it's not like his job gets easier there. Finals contenders like the Milwaukee Bucks, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Brooklyn Nets are all led by MVP candidates, as well as having significantly better rosters than Nikola Jokic's Nuggets currently. It seems that Nikola Jokic's path to the championship looks just as daunting as Dirk Nowitzki's.
If Nikola Jokic does manage to win a championship, it won't be easy. He will have to face far superior teams, and figure out how to beat them in a long series. There are only a few players in the history of the sport that have been able to elevate a team to become a championship team as the only superstar: Dirk Nowitzki was one of them. If Nikola Jokic manages to bring the Denver Nuggets to the championship this season, then he will be regarded with the same level of respect as Dirk Nowitzki was when he won.