The NBA’s MVP Race Has No Wrong Answer. Here’s Mine. (2023)

On Thursday, I revealed my NBA awards ballot for the 2022-23 season, covering almost every honor that media members are asked to vote on. It was fun. I hope everyone—especially Knicks fans, who, to a person, were over the moon about Immanuel Quickley finishing second for Sixth Man of the Year—enjoyed it. Not included in that column, though, were my thoughts on this year’s Most Valuable Player debate.

With two days left in the regular season, the result of this year’s highly competitive MVP race is still unknowable, which is fun. Most of the discussions up to this point? Not so much. Despite relentless, crusty narratives that disparage each candidate by dissecting the same negative talking points ad nauseam, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo—all born within 11 months of one another—have had incredible seasons that are more than deserving of basketball’s most prominent individual award. Only one player can win it, though.

Every voter dives into this process with their own criteria. I put quite a bit of weight on the word “valuable” when interpreting how a superstar increases their team’s win total. Pretty much all past performance is irrelevant. We’re here to evaluate one 82-game stretch, based on all sorts of numbers (advanced, basic, catchall, on-off, etc.) and a season’s worth of film study.

From there, Nikola Jokic earned my vote for a variety of reasons. The first is that he not only wins (Denver has been in first place since December 20), but when he plays, he raises his team unlike any other player, with the Nuggets obliterating everything in their path. The Nuggets outscore opponents by 12.8 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the court, which is the highest number in the league. Overall, he’s plus-645, which is 164 points higher than any non-Nugget. Denver has outscored its opponents by at least 10 points in 41 games with Jokic on the floor. (The next-highest total from this season is Milwaukee with Brook Lopez, at 35 games.)

Jokic’s net plus-minus is a league-best plus-23.2 points per 100 possessions. When he won MVP two years ago, it was plus-6.4. When he won last year, it was plus-16.4. (Embiid currently ranks 10th at plus-11.3, and Antetokounmpo is 29th at plus-6.8.) These figures help explain why Jokic ranks so highly in most catchall metrics. He’s first in estimated plus-minus, RAPTOR, win shares, VORP, box plus-minus, DARKO, LEBRON, and luck-adjusted RAPM. (Jokic ranks third in ESPN’s real plus-minus, behind Embiid and Jayson Tatum.)

His impact is overwhelming. So are his individual numbers. Jokic is averaging 24.8 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 9.8 assists per game, with a league-high 29 triple-doubles and zero All-Star teammates. He not only leads the NBA in true shooting percentage, but is on track to finish with the highest average in NBA history among all players who’ve taken at least 1,000 shots. It’s unprecedented but not that big of a surprise when you consider he had a 44-game streak of scoring 10 or more points on at least 50 percent shooting. You guessed it: That’s another NBA record. (For those curious: Wilt Chamberlain’s personal best came over a 22-game span in 1966. And in 1979, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made it to 24.)

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Name any random part of basketball, and Jokic is highly efficient at it: post-ups, catch-and-shoot jumpers, putbacks, pick-and-rolls, and iso ball, anywhere, anytime, and against anyone. On over 350 tries, Jokic is shooting an incomprehensible 62.9 percent in the nonrestricted area of the paint. To put that degree of difficulty into basic terms, according to Second Spectrum, the average player would shoot only 40.7 percent on the floaters Jokic tries.

I wanted to highlight some of his scoring numbers first, just because they tend to be an understandable afterthought when discussing what primarily makes him so singular. Jokic’s decision-making separates him from every other candidate. It’s also what makes him the center of Denver’s universe and one of the most creative, effective, and willing setup men the NBA has ever seen.

While some MVPs are a hurricane, battering defenses into submission with indomitable force, Jokic is the eye of the storm. His worst damage is often done at the exact moment defenders believe they’re in the clear, be it with constant off-ball movement, give-and-goes, cuts, screens, or no-look frozen ropes that smack wide-open teammates square in the pocket.

As the main draw behind his carefully curated (and sometimes a bit too forbearing) shot selection, Jokic’s passing elevates his team to a height no othercan reach. Denver’s offensive rating with Jokic on the floor is a season-high 124.3, which is over five points above the first-place Kings. When he’s not on the floor, the Nuggets generate 102.3 points per 100 possessions, which is about six points beneath the league-worst Hornets. That gap is the league’s widest by a significant margin.

Jokic is a center by name, but, in reality, he operates without positional designation. He brings the ball up the court, flies off pin-downs, initiates pick-and-rolls, and faces up from 20 feet. Despite meriting the most touches, Jokic’s average time of possession is just 4.4 minutes per game, which is less than half of Luka Doncic’s league-leading time.

Denver has a completely different personality without Jokic. Its assist rate goes from 70.8 to 57.8 when he’s not around. When he is around, players cut harder, knowing and trusting that their efforts will be rewarded. Jokic doesn’t pad stats, either. He delivers the ball based on where defenders are standing and which way they’re leaning, knowing it’ll eventually generate a good shot.

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When you see a list of the most passes thrown by a single player in any game this season, Jokic’s name appears eight times in the top 15, per Second Spectrum. And in a heliocentric era that has forced some offenses to adopt a formulaic style as they hunt efficient shots, the Nuggets don’t have that problem. Their unpredictability is downright lethal. Jokic somehow ranks 32nd in usage rate, below Paolo Banchero, Kyle Kuzma, and Keldon Johnson; he’s about 10 percentage points below Embiid and Antetokounmpo.

Not all of Jokic’s game is covered in sugar, of course. His help defense is, at times, entirely abstract. He isn’t a rim protector, and—for a few reasons, including the desperate need to stay out of foul trouble—he has forced the Nuggets to settle on a demanding scheme against pick-and-rolls, wherein Jokic spends a lot of time up at the screen and out of the paint while a low man picks up his assignment on their way toward the hoop.

Denver does what it can to mitigate the layup lines that are encouraged by Jokic’s presence (opponents make 71.8 percent of their shots at the rim when he’s on the floor). They rebound, get back in transition, and rarely send opponents to the free throw line. Some advanced numbers—but far from all—label him as one of the best defenders in the league. They should be ignored.

Jokic is indeed flawed on that end. But labeling him as a full-blown liability goes one step too far. This is a large man with fast hands who fills space and is acceptable at executing the necessary strategy he’s asked to function in. He ranks eighth in deflections and has more steals than De’Aaron Fox and Jrue Holiday.

Most telling: Denver’s defensive rating is 111.5 when Jokic is on the court, which is a figure only four teams can look down on: the Celtics, Grizzlies, Bucks, and Cavaliers. It also has nothing to do with Denver’s weak bench or the shoddy lineups Michael Malone has played more than he probably should. Instead, it reflects how the Nuggets perform when Jokic is in the game. Athletic imperfections notwithstanding, it’s hard to argue against a bottom-line number when grading an individual’s impact, good or bad.

Jokic’s rigidity is a bigger issue come the playoffs. There’s a lot of stuff the Nuggets can’t do—like, say, switch—and it strains teammates who are constantly in rotation. All in all, Denver’s defensive approach is more like a ringing car alarm than a brick wall covered in barbed wire, which is one glaring area where Jokic differs from his main competition for this award.

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Embiid and Giannis are two of the most intimidating stars in basketball history, likely to land on more than one voter’s All-Defensive team. When Embiid is on the floor, only 30.6 percent of opposing shots come at the rim. If he’s not in the game, that frequency vaults up 6.5 percentage points (one of the largest differences in the league this season). Related: In crunch time, Philly’s defensive rating is 84.1 with Embiid, thanks to plays like this one:

The Sixers also force a higher rate of long 2s with Embiid on the court than every team except the Bucks. On that note, Milwaukee allows a minuscule 90.2 points per 100 half-court plays when Antetokounmpo is their center, regularly doing things on that end that belong in a comic strip.

Their physicality is even more pronounced with the ball, where similarities between Embiid and Giannis are hard to ignore. Both are score-first bingers who are forever happy to go one-on-one. They rank fourth and fifth in isolations per game, according to Second Spectrum, and first and second in total free throw attempts.

Rumbling downhill, Antetokounmpo is a sledgehammer smashing through watermelons. Sometimes, the only way to slow him down is with a foul; pain is a nonnegotiable part of this equation. Giannis has scored more points in the paint and on fast breaks than everybody else this season, with over 125 more baskets in the restricted area than the runner-up. The pressure he applies in transition is unmatched and inevitable. If you aren’t disciplined enough to shrink the floor, it’s a bunny. If you are disciplined enough to shrink the floor … it’s probably still a bunny.

It’s almost impossible to take all this, plus 31.1 points per game on 55.3 percent shooting, for granted. But Embiid’s parallel existence as a slightly more efficient, productive, and assertive scorer kinda does just that.

On his way to a second straight scoring title, Embiid has dropped at least 35 points without his field goal percentage dipping below 50 in 28 games this season. That’s historically absurd stuff. And unlike Giannis—who has the season’s worst effective field goal percentage on jumpers out of 138 players who launched at least five per game—Embiid can really shoot. He’s a respectable enough threat behind the 3-point line, but when James Harden spoon-feeds him a menu of 15-footers out of the league’s most imposing pick-and-roll tandem, it’s essentially a layup. You can (theoretically) build a wall and force Antetokounmpo to barrel through it, but the best defense against Embiid is to cross your fingers and hope the shot he’s basically perfected doesn’t go in—whether you double-team him or not.

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Look at this shot chart from the 52-point surgical procedure he completed against Boston earlier this week. Embiid’s quantified shooter impact in that game was 33.8, meaning the average NBA player would return an effective field goal percentage that’s 33.8 percent below what Embiid’s was. My laptop overheated four times while trying to type that sentence. Sometimes there’s literally nothing you can do with this guy.

The only minutes in which the Sixers yield a negative point differential are when Embiid sits, and basically everyone on the team has a higher effective field goal percentage when he’s on the court. In crunch time, Embiid is a season-best plus-99 (Jokic is fifth, and Giannis is tied for 73rd). He’s the two-time runner-up for MVP, having by far the best season of his Hall of Fame career. There’s no objective choice for this award, but it’s objectively not wrong to think Embiid is currently the MVP. Plenty of players, coaches, team executives, and fans do. He’s now the heavy favorite in Las Vegas too.

This isn’t easy. It will be a photo finish, with personal aesthetic preferences breaking the tie. Some voters won’t accept mediocre defense when there are two other options who are incredible on that end. Some will struggle to get past a self-sabotaging jump shot that bears needless bricks. Some appreciate high-volume scoring but love efficiency and selflessness even more. Some value advanced catchall metrics, and others shrug them off. Some really care about surrounding circumstances, injured teammates, on-off measurements, availability, and the simple fact that two of these guys already have two Most Valuable Player trophies and the third has none.

When it comes to Jokic, Embiid, and Giannis, no wrong answer exists. All are big-time winners who allow their franchises to believe a championship is possible. The Nuggets are 48-20 when Jokic plays. The Sixers are 43-23 with Embiid. The Bucks are 47-16 with Antetokounmpo. We’re splitting hairs with razor wire. But only one can win. And for a third year in a row, Big Honey is the MVP.

As for the rest of my ballot, Tatum is averaging 30, nine, and five on a 55-win championship contender. He gets to the line 8.4 times per game, has scored more points than every other player in the league, and provides versatile, All-Defensive-level contributions for a team that ranks third in defensive rating and has outscored opponents by 447 points when he’s on the court. He’s less efficient than the top three candidates, and on nights when his shot falters, he’s fortunate enough to play for a team that has other capable offensive options. But Tatum is also a few years younger than those guys and still on track to have one of the most accomplished careers of his generation.

My last spot goes to Domantas Sabonis, who’s seen one of the most electric offenses in league history constructed around his playmaking and power. If it weren’t for Jokic, Sabonis would be having one of the most unique statistical seasons a center has ever had. Already as the league’s top rebounder, he has more assists than Luka Doncic and Ja Morant. The man is a treasure. And the Kings wouldn’t be anywhere near their best season in almost two decades if not for the way they accentuated his skill set.

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My Official Ballot

1. Nikola Jokic

2. Joel Embiid

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo

4. Jayson Tatum

5. Domantas Sabonis

Honorable mentions: Donovan Mitchell, Luka Doncic, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander


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