John Hollinger is the “Senior NBA Columnist” for The Athletic and he did a bunch of things before that.
He created a basketball website called “Alleyoop.” He was the sports editor at OregonLive.com. He worked at Sports Illustrated.
He published the original “Pro Basketball Prospectus” and a few more after that. He was an NBA writer and analyst for ESPN.
Along the way he managed to create advanced NBA statistics the same way Bill James created advanced stats for the diamond.
Such a hardwood thinker, the Memphis Grizzlies hired him as their VP of basketball operations.
Imagine that, a sportswriter who moved into the front office.
Yet, while Hollinger’s career path might make a wonderful autobiography, it’s the stats he has created — the all-encompassing Player Efficiency Rating, perhaps, most of all — that will be his greatest legacy.
I can’t begin to tell you how PER is tabulated, but I can tell you this:
The all-time top-five PERs belong to Michael Jordan (27.91), LeBron James (27.44), Anthony Davis (27.34), Shaquille O’Neal (26.43) and David Robinson (26.18). The next five belong to Wilt Chamberlain (26.13), Bob Pettit (25.34), Kevin Durant (25.22), Chris Paul (24.98) and James Harden (24.80).
The way the stat works, a fictitious “average” NBA player’s PER will forever be 15.
The single-season all-time PER belongs to Giannis Antekounmpo: 31.86, last season.
Wilt owns three of the top seven. Jordan claims the fourth, sixth, 12th and 13th all-time single-season PERs and LeBron the fifth, eighth, 14th and 17th.
It’s clearly weighted toward high scoring, high usage players, who dominate their teams. That’s why you’ve got to go deeper to find any Showtime Lakers, any of their contemporary Celtic rivals, or any Celtic who played for Red Auerbach back when Boston won it all every season.
So it’s not perfect, but it’s not bad either, and the guy at the top this season is carrying a 31.38 and some of the more famous names below him include Antetokounmpo, LeBron, Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Damien Lillard, Luka Doncic, Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving.
Hollinger also invented EWA, or estimated wins added and, wouldn’t you know it, the same guy leading PER also leads EWA and yet it’s the Grand Canyon between him and the next guy that’s so mind-blowing.
Leonard is the next guy, No. 2 at 5.6 and the mind-blowing thing is, while 18 others are within 1.8 of Leonard’s 5.6 EWA, 1.8 is also the difference between Leonard and the one guy he’s looking up at, at 7.4
That guy was just the 44th pick in the 2015 NBA draft, is a 6-11, 284-pound Serb, plays for Denver and even with all that information you probably still can’t name him.
It’s Nicola Jokic.
For 6-11, Jokic appears extraordinarily ordinary. He doesn’t look to be that athletic standing still, nor in motion. His game is learned skill, innate feel, clever subtlety and amazing hands.
Sunday, against Utah, Jokic went for 47 points, making 17 of 26 shots and all four of his 3-point attempts, but it was his points in the paint that were so much fun to watch.
It doesn’t matter how off balance or strained the attempt might be, from near the basket, his hands will find a way to get the ball through the net.
His back to the basket, he wants contact from his backing defender, because it’s then that much easier to spin off that defender’s shoulder and create a layup or dunk.
Against the Jazz, that defender tended to be two-time NBA defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert.
But scoring’s just one thing Jokic can do.
Wilt, 53 seasons ago, 1967-68, set the record for assists per game by a center. Wilt’s number was 8.6 which happens to b Jokic’s number right now, a pretty gaudy figure alongside his 26.8 scoring average and 11.8 rebounding average.
Watching Jokic play is so satisfying, because who’s ever heard of a 6-11 center bringing the ball up the court, yet he does it all the time.
He has the low-post moves of a traditional back-to-the-basket center, he’s made himself a dependable 3-point shooter — 38.4 percent this season — but it’s his Bird-esque court vision that’s most stunning.
We’ve heard of point guards forever. Occasionally, you’ll hear the term “point forward.” Jokic may be the first legit “point center” in NBA history.
If the shot clock’s running down, he’s got that unchallengeable, off-one-foot jumper Dirk Nowitzki created down pat, too.
Last season’s NBA bubble became a Jokic showcase.
He’d clearly used the pandemic-forced five months off to get into better playing shape than he exhibited the first 65 games of the season, a factor that helped push the Nuggets into the Western Conference finals.
This season, he’s better.
A lot better.
Mike Singer covers the Nuggets for the Denver Post. In a recent tweet, he quoted Jokic’s teammate, Monte Morris, a fourth-year guard out of Iowa State.
“Like I told him two, three games ago after the game,” Singer quoted Morris. “I just said, ‘Everybody talking about the Durants and LeBrons, Giannises. We’re playing with a Hall of Famer right here.’ I just wanted him to know that.”
It ain’t New York, Chicago, Boston or Los Angeles. Only Denver. Yet, no Knick, Bull, Celtic, Laker, nor Clipper is doing there what Jokic is doing where he’s playing.
If you can, watch.
You’ll enjoy it.