They don’t call him Nikola Jokic “The Joker” for nothing.
When a reporter covering the 2023 NBA Finals asked Jokic if he considers himself the best player in the world, he responded in classic Joker fashion. “I’m confused,” the Denver Nuggets superstar center replied. “It’s hard to say. Sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not. And I’m cool with that.”
What’s cool about Jokic is he lets his game do the talking. He may not possess the agility of Hakeem Olajuwon, the shot-blocker skills of Bill Russell, or the sheer power of Shaquille O’Neal. But he belongs in the pantheon of all-time big men.
Jokic relies on his basketball IQ and guard-like skills. He’s also quite good at filling in the blanks.
Need scoring? Jokic averaged 24 points per game.
Need rebounds? Jokic averaged nearly 12 boards.
Need a playmaker? Jokic averaged almost 10 assists.
“The MVPs are real. The triple-doubles are real,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said about his franchise player after sweeping the L.A. Lakers in the 2023 Western Conference finals. Three weeks later, Jokic would lead the Nuggets to the franchise’s first NBA championship after overpowering the Miami Heat in five games.
The beauty of Jokic’s game lies in it’s flexibility. He’s a shape shifter. He doesn’t fight the game or force the issue.
There was some talk from TV pundits that he’s padding his stats to strengthen his MVP case. This “silly narrative” irked Malone.
“The narratives, the silly narratives this year are just what, silly and somewhat ignorant,” Malone said. “I think Nikola has gone through three rounds now where he’s averaging a triple-double in the playoffs. Have you seen any stat-padding out there? I’m serious, enough of the silliness.”
Malone continued, “The guy is a great player; give him his damn respect. Stop chopping him down at the knees. He’s a great player, and give him the respect he deserves.”
Shaq certainly has Jokic’s respect. After Jokic produced a triple-double in his NBA Finals debut, Shaq welcomed Jokic into the fictional “Big Man Alliance.” Jokic humbly accepted the flowers from The Diesel.
Each year OneManFastBreak.net ranks the five best players in the NBA. The OMFB Furious Five pays homage to the five styles of Chinese martial arts: snake, crane, monkey, praying mantis, and tiger.
The ranking system is based on one man’s opinion and does not follow or conform to any standard format, with more emphasis placed on how each player and their respective teams performed in the postseason. Stars are born during the regular season, but legends are made in the playoffs.
In 2022, OMFB Furious Five featured Jayson Tatum (5), Nikola Jokic (4), Luka Doncic (3), Giannis Antetokounmpo (2), Steph Curry (1).
Without further ado, here are the five best basketball players in the world.
5. JIMMY BUTLER
Miami Heat, Forward
The Miami Heat have reached the NBA Finals twice since Jimmy Butler came to South Beach. And it could have easily been three Finals appearances if Butler’s 3-pointer in the waning moments of Game 7 in the 2022 Western Conference finals in Miami had gone in. “Next year, we will have enough, and we’re gonna be right be right back in this same situation and we’re gonna get it done,” Butler said after the Heat’s heartbreaking playoff loss.
Almost exactly one year later, the Heat found itself in the same situation. This time it was Game 7 in Boston’s TD Garden Arena with the surging Celtics having built up plenty of momentum to make a historic comeback after being down 0-3 in the series. The pressure was on Butler to deliver, and he delivered in Playoff Jimmy fashion. He scored a game-high 28 points despite struggling from the field (12-for-28 shooting) in 43 minutes. Despite battling fatigue, Butler grabbed seven rebounds, created scoring for others with six assists and was an absolute pest on defense with three steals. He also knocked down three timely 3-pointers. Butler also did the job on the defensive end as he bottled up Celtics All-NBA forward Jaylen Brown to 19 points on 8-for-23 shooting. Butler’s stifling defense also forced Brown into eight turnovers.
Butler, who was named the 2023 conference finals MVP, has firmly established himself as one of the best, if not the best, two-way players in basketball. But what separates Butler from other All-NBA studs is his grit. He can win a game with sheer will and determination. It’s not always pretty, but it is always effected.
“He’s one of those guys who competes at literally everything. Cards, UNO games … he’s just the ultimate competitor,” Heat guard Kyle Lowry told the Associated Press about Butler, who embodies everything about Heat Culture.
What exactly is Heat Culture? It’s about keeping the main thing the main thing. It’s about competing. It’s about winning.
The Heat Culture is not for everyone, but it perfectly fits Butler’s hard-charging personality.
“More than anything it’s just the belief that we have in one another, the belief that you must have in yourself to realize how special you can be in this league, in this moment, in this organization,” Butler told the AP. “I think everybody’s bought into that. Everybody’s confident. I don’t even know if overconfident is what you would call it, but it’s a thing. And our guys are playing some incredible basketball. So that Heat Culture, the confidence that Heat Culture instills in each and every one of us is very real.”
4. STEPHEN CURRY
Golden State Warriors, Guard
Steph Curry admits he is the NBA’s “petty king.” He sees and hears and remembers all the disses, the slights, and the snubs. It doesn’t matter if they are done in jest. If Curry thinks he or any member of his inner circle gets disrespected, he will clap back.
When a Boston bar trolled Curry’s wife, Ayesha, by posting a sign saying “Ayesha Curry Can’t Cook” the NBA’s greatest 3-point shooter fired right back by wearing a T-shirt to a postgame press conference that read “Ayesha Curry CAN Cook.”
When ESPN talking heads like Domonique Foxworth and Kendrick Perkins both predicted that Curry will win “zero” championships after signing his $215 contract extension with the Warriors, Steph put it in his memory bank and saved the retort for the right occasion. After Curry and the Warriors clinched their fourth NBA title in eight seasons, Curry called out Foxworth and Perkins during a postgame session with the media.
“I clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero on how many championships we’d have going forward because of everything we went through,” Curry said. “We hear all that, we carry all that and try to maintain a purpose, not let it distract you. But you carry that weight.”
Curry has been carrying the weight of the Warriors since 2015 when he won the first of two straight MVPs and broke the Bay Area’s 40-year NBA title drought. For nearly a decade, the road to the championship had to go through Curry and Golden State. But the 2022-23 season was a trying season for Curry and the Warriors.
The normally buttoned-up franchise had to deal with the ugly Draymond Green incident where he was seen in a video punching teammate Jordan Poole during practice. The Warriors struggled to find their footing during the regular season and finished in sixth in the standings. There were flickers of hope that the Dubs dynasty would keep moving after Curry dropped a record-setting 50 points in Game 7 of the 2023 Western Conference first-round series against the Sacramento Kings in Sac Town. The Dubs’ tumultuous season came to an end one round later after getting eliminated by LeBron James and the L.A. Lakers in the conference semifinals.
3. JOEL EMBIID
Philadelphia 76ers, Center
Doc Rivers once asked Joel Embiid, “Have you ever seen an out-of-shape MVP?” Embiid laughed when he heard the question. Rivers then followed by saying, “It doesn’t exist.” The Philadelphia 76ers big man got the message loud and clear. In order for him to be at an MVP-level, he needed to work on his conditioning. He hired a chef and worked with a nutritionist. The renewed commitment to fitness turned Embiid into one of the most dominant centers the league has seen since Shaq and Tim Duncan.
Over the last three seasons, Embiid has averaged 28.5 points (2021), 30.6 (2022), and 33.1 (2023). He has led the NBA in scoring two years in a row. The last time a center did that was Shaq back in 2000. Embiid put an exclamation point on his remarkable 2022-23 season by dropping 52 points on a super efficient 20-for-25 shooting from the field against the Boston Celtics. After the game, Rivers told reporters that the MVP race was “over.”
Philly fans have been trusting the process for a decade. Thanks to Embiid, the 76ers are back to being one of the beasts in the East.
The 7-foot, 280-pound big man from Cameroon is an absolute two-way beast. He is an old-school centerpiece on offense who can destroy single coverage and command double teams. He forces teams to adjust. He has amazing footwork for a big man. It’s not quite Olajuwon level, but it’s getting very darn close. He has a vast array of low-post moves and shots, and he can drain the occasional 3-pointer if given space. Defensively, Embiid’s ability to be up on the pick-and-roll while also going back and protect the basket have made the Sixers one of the toughest teams to score on. He’s one of those guys who just has great size and skill and that allows him to be a top-notch defender. “He’s just smarter,” Rivers said of his center. “Smarter and able to cover ground. With this size, I never realized that he had the feet that he has and his IQ helps too. He’s a very smart defensive player so you don’t really know that till you coach a guy. I’ve been very impressed with him.”
2. GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO
Milwaukee Bucks, Forward
Don’t tell Giannis Antetokounmpo that his 2023 season was a failure. A reporter made the mistake of bringing up the F-word to Giannis moments after the Milwaukee Bucks became the sixth No. 1 seed to lose in the first round of the playoffs.
“It’s not a failure,” Giannis said after the Bucks were eliminated by the eighth-seeded Miami Heat in five games. “It’s steps towards success,” he continued. “There’s always steps to it. Michael Jordan played 15 years. He won six championships. The other nine years, he was a failure? (No.) So why do you ask me that question? It’s the wrong question.
“There’s no failure in sports. There’s good days, bad days. Some days you’re able to be successful. Some days you’re not. Some days it’s your turn. Some days it’s not your turn. And that’s what sports is about. You don’t always win. Some other people are going to win. And this year, somebody else is going to win. Simple as that.”
The Greek Freak had another superlative individual season. He finished third in the MVP voting — averaging 31.1 points, 11.8 rebounds, 5.7 assists — and led the Bucks to the best overall record in the NBA. Despite an outstanding regular season, Giannis’ 2023 season will be defined by his team’s stunning collapse in the first round.
Giannis has reached a point in his career that anything less than a championship is considered a failure. And that’s ok. It comes with the territory. The two-time MVP will undoubtedly use the Miami series as fuel for next season.
And now, the No. 1 player in the world. Drum roll please . . .
1. NIKOLA JOKIC
Denver Nuggets, Center
How good was Nikola Jokic in the 2023 NBA playoffs? Just ask Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
“I know how great Jokic is,” LeBron said after his L.A. Lakers were swept 4-0 by Jokic and the top-seeded Nuggets in the Western Conference finals.
“There are certain guys in this league that play the game a certain way, a certain way that I like to play the game as well, and he’s one of them,” LeBron said. “Where you are always off balance when you are guarding a player like that, because of his ability to score, rebound, shoot. He sees plays before they happen. There’s not many guys in our league like that.You already knew you was going against a beast once the series started… Everybody gets cracked up into his stats, but I don’t think a lot of people talk about this part of his game. Maybe it’s not talked about because a lot of people don’t understand it. But I do. He’s special.”
“I always knew how great he was,” Durant said after his Phoenix Suns squad were beaten 4-2 by the Nuggets in the conference semifinals. “Jokic is a all-time great,” Durant continued. “He’ll go down as one of the all-time great centers that ever touched a basketball. He went out there and did what he was supposed to do.”
The media narrative around Jokic’s historic eighth season in the NBA was that he was “stat padding” and his triple-doubles were not organic. This false narrative was one of the biggest reasons why Jokic was denied an opportunity to win his third consecutive regular-season MVP trophy, an award that went to Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.
Only three players in the league history won three straight MVPs: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Larry Bird. Some members of the media didn’t think Jokic belonged in that elite group. That’s an opinion that can be debated and litigated for hours, weeks, months, and years. There is no right or wrong answer. What can’t be debated was how Jokic performed during the 2023 NBA playoffs.
Jokic put up eye-popping stats in the Nuggets’ 4-2 series win over the Suns, averaging 34.5 points, 13.2 rebounds, and 10.3 assists in 38.5 minutes.
He pulled off another impressive triple-double feat in the conference finals against the Lakers as he averaged 27.8 points, 14.5 rebounds, and 11.8 assists. He swished two off-balance 3-pointers over the best defensive center in the world, Anthony Davis, as the shot clock was running out. That’s when the Lakers knew it wasn’t going to be their day — or their series.
“Even when you guard him for one of the best possessions you think you can guard him, he puts the ball behind his head, Larry Bird style, and shoots it 50 feet in the air and it goes in,” LeBron said. “He did it 4-5 times this series.”
When Jokic was asked about those off-balance threes, he replied, “I’ve been off balance my whole life. It’s kind of normal for me.”
Joel Huerto is the editor and publisher of OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.