Since 1956, the NBA has presented 65 MVP awards. Only twelve recipients won the award in back-to-back seasons. The players who accomplished this incredible feat etched their names, not just among the game’s elite, but into the conversation of the greatest of all time. Hall of Famers like Russell, Chamberlain, and Bird won the award in three consecutive seasons. Greats like Kareem and LeBron solidified their status by winning back-to-back MVPs two separate times. Yet many of the game’s all-time greatest players have never repeated. Julius Erving, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaq, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant are among the names never to repeat as MVP.
Last year’s winner Nikola Jokic, is placing himself in a prime position to not only repeat but carve his case among the elite of the elite. Last year, he completed one of the greatest individual seasons we have ever seen and it is worth a reminder. He finished the season averaging 26.4 PPG, 10.8 RPG, and 8.3 APG. He was one of three players ever to accomplish a season of at least 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists, joining only Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook. Oh, and he is a 285lb center. He also eclipsed 50 career triple-doubles which had never been done by a center since Wilt Chamberlain, although Jokic accomplished it in 287 fewer games.
Furthermore, in possibly the most unique season in NBA history, he was durable enough to play every single game. Although the usual 82 game schedule was condensed by ten, only 11 out of 540 players were able to play in all 72. He was the first MVP since Kobe Bryant’s 2008 season to play in every contest. His statistical numbers were extraordinary but one notion from that season may stand above all. He revived the big man. He was the first center in 18 years to win MVP, and arguably the best center to ever do it, Shaquille O’Neal, said: “Because of you the big man is back.”
Now in 2022, it appears Jokic’s encore might be more impressive. Although he is 0.6 points off his PPG from last year, his efficiency is nearly unmatched this year. He shoots about 18 times a game and with players over 17 attempts, he has the best FG% at 56.1%. The next closest number is Giannis, and he is two percentage points lower at 54.1% with the same amount of attempts. Yes, his points and assists are slightly lower than last year but his averages so far this season are still unparalleled. No player in NBA history has ever eclipsed his current numbers of 25+ points, 13+ rebounds, and 6+ assists in a season. He also increased his rebounding average by nearly four points. It places him as the league’s second-best rebounder. So in short, he is perhaps the league’s most efficient scorer, a top-2 rebounder, and the best passing big ever. What follows might actually be more impressive.
Nikola Jokic’s PER this season is the best the game has ever seen. For those who are unfamiliar, PER measures a player’s efficiency per minute. It formulizes positive accomplishments like points, assists, steals, etc., and also negative aspects like missed shots, fouls, and turnovers. So for example, let us analyze one of the greatest seasons of all time through the lens of PER. In Wilt Chamberlain’s 1962-63 season, he averaged 44.8 PPG and 24.3 RPG on 52.8% shooting from the floor. Those stats will never be seen again yet through the magnifier of PER, Jokic is having a better season in that category. Jokic’s 32.36 PER this season outmatches Chamberlain’s 31.82. In fact, no player in NBA history has surpassed 32 PER for a whole season. In summation, the game of basketball has never witnessed such an efficient force.
Now I will concede to the notion statistics do not always tell the whole story. Often, people who create these statistics have never touched the NBA hardwood nor have first-hand experience of basketball in its purest form. His PER number reveals not that he is having the best season of all time, but the most efficient.
We also must take into consideration the fact the Nuggets are missing two of their max contract players. When Jamal Murray is on the floor, he and Jokic have one of the deadliest pick and roll combinations in the league. When Michael Porter Jr. is on the floor, it gives Jokic an elite deep threat when the paint condenses. He is without the second and third most trusted offensive players on the team, yet the Nuggets are still successful.
When Jokic is on the floor, the Nuggets have a 112.8 offensive rating. To put that in perspective, that would make Denver the second-best offense in the league if they were to obtain that number as a team. He also facilitates a 104 defensive rating for the Nuggets when he is on the court. This would place Denver as the second-best defensive team in the league as well. So by having the second-best offensive and defensive rating, you could consider Denver the best team in the league when he is on the court. Again, statistics do not tell the entire story, but it is evident the Nuggets are an elite team at both ends when he is on the floor.
To disclose full transparency, if you run those same on/off-court numbers for Durant, Giannis, and Curry you will see similar or slightly better numbers. But in this case context matters. Jokic is doing more with less. The Bucks have three players averaging 18+ PPG along with Bobby Portis who has 15.4 PPG. Although Kyrie’s situation is in flux, the Nets roster three of the game’s best talents along with elite shooters like Mills and Harris. Lastly, the Warriors have four players averaging 17+ PPG combined with a perennial DPOY candidate in Draymond Green. Excluding Jokic, the Nuggets have one player averaging 15+ PPG and that is Will Barton. In fact, Jokic leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. There are only five players in the history of the game to accomplish that for a whole season.
Jokic block and the dime— NBA TV (@NBATV) January 8, 2022
The Joker can do it all pic.twitter.com/63TnEJSueS
With that being said, there is still work to be done. It is likely, Jokic cannot coast with these statistics throughout the season and still win MVP. To overtake Curry, Giannis, LeBron, and Durant he will have to improve his already historic numbers but there are other aspects to it as well. He will have to lead the Nuggets to more wins, perform signature moments, and if he can increase his three-ball efficiency it will bolster his scoring numbers.
In this year’s MVP voting, winning might be the most important feature. If Curry, Giannis, LeBron, and Durant lead their teams to significantly more wins than the Nuggets, Jokic likely will not win no matter his numbers. It is essential Denver starts to rack up four or five game-winning streaks to stamp their status among the game’s best teams. More importantly, Denver needs to beat the elite teams. They will face the Lakers, Clippers, Jazz, and the Grizzlies all at home over their next five games. Two of those five games will be broadcast on national television, so it’s vital for Denver to win and Jokic to reveal his unequaled value to the rest of the NBA landscape.
Moreover, he also needs to have “signature” games. Last year, Jokic compiled 50 points and 10 assists in a game versus the Kings and was the first center to do that since Kareem in 1975. 50 point games might seem trivial when you’re competing for a championship, but those efforts will give Jokic the media attention he needs for an MVP. I don’t think he needs multiple 50 points games, but if he had one in conjunction with several other completely dominant games, the national audience will take notice and start to fight on his behalf. It would improve his case dramatically if these signature moments were against elite teams and/or on a national stage.
Even though Jokic is averaging almost 26 a game, those scoring numbers will be outdone by other candidates. It might not be imperative for him to substantially increase his scoring but if he did, it creates more difficulty for voters to ignore him. I think the area he can improve the most would be three-point shooting. Right now, he’s shooting 35.5% from beyond the arc while attempting the most threes of his career at 4.3 per game. In the last ten games, his three-point percentage has been underwhelming at 28.9% which we know he is much better than that. As of late, he increased his efficiency from three by ten percentage points in his last five games, so he could be hitting his stride.
Ultimately, we are witnessing one of the game’s best and most unique talents to grace the NBA stage. He is a true unicorn that will change the game of basketball in a similar way Curry did with the three-point shot. It is starting to manifest itself now, but a flurry of future bigs will come into the league trying to replicate Jokic’s skill set. He brought the value of the big man back and introduced a new way to think about the center position. I fear he will not receive the credit and status he truly deserves without that elusive championship ring, but a second MVP in back-to-back fashion would engrave his name as a true legend and basketball pioneer.