If you spend a lot of time watching the Denver Nuggets, you will note a great many things about their superlative big man, Nikola Jokic. You’ll see that he is the best passing center the game has ever seen, that his ability to score in the post is unrivaled by any current NBA player, that he is actually a much better defender than you probably assumed, and that his signature Sombor Shuffle jumper is just as pretty and deadly as Dirk Nowitzki’s one-legged fadeaway ever was. What you will also notice, among all that brilliantly played basketball, is a bunch of little temper tantrums.
If it wasn’t for all the other eye-catching things that Jokic does on a basketball court, the thing he’d be most associated with would be the following sequence: Jokic attempts to grab a rebound or score in the paint; he loses the ball in a way that makes him think he was fouled; the referee does not call a foul; Jokic immediately sprints towards his nearest opponent and just whacks the guy as hard as he can with his big, floppy arms; the referee calls a foul on Jokic, who proceeds to scream at the ref. That exact series of events happens all the time. It happens in regular-season games, playoff games, preseason games, any game of basketball that Nikola Jokic is involved in.
Most of the time, it is easy enough to write off these little fits as a relatively harmless quirk in Jokic’s personality, the one thing about himself that he doesn’t have absolute control over when he’s on the court. It is not so easy to laugh off last night’s iteration of the Jokic Tantrum, which left Markieff Morris so jacked up that a stretcher was brought onto the floor (Morris eventually got up and walked off under his own power):
Yes, sure, Morris’s initial foul was a cheap shot (he was given a Flagrant 2 and ejected from the game), but Jokic’s retaliation was just as dangerous as it was impulsive. Short of throwing a haymaker into a guy’s face or undercutting someone’s dunk attempt, there aren’t many better ways to put someone’s health at serious risk during an NBA game than to throw a body-check into their spine.
Jokic was apologetic after the game, telling reporters that he “felt real bad” about the incident, describing it as a “bad move.” This is also something that Nuggets observers are already quite familiar with: a solemn and reflective Jokic acknowledging that his temper often gets the best of him and that he needs to get better at suppressing his on-court tantrums for the good of the team. It’s a line that Jokic has been using for years now, but not much has actually changed. If Jokic tends to get a pass on all of this, it’s likely down to the fact that his outbursts are totally incongruous with the rest of his big-goofy-Labrador-who-learned-to-play-basketball vibe. It also probably has something to do with the fact that he is white.
Jokic earned his official status as a hothead a long time ago, even before last season’s playoff series against the Suns ended with an ejection. That his temper has yet to materially harm the Nuggets all that much in terms of wins and losses is a testament to his own talent and the quality of the teammates around him. But Jokic will almost surely be suspended for what he did last night, which will leave the Nuggets facing down a stretch of games in which they will be missing Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr. This particular temper tantrum’s going to hurt.