There are only so many ways the numbers can say something before the rest of the world starts to catch on.
As the Denver Nuggets were roasting the Milwaukee Bucks in a 136-100 blowout victory on Sunday evening, a part of me was saying “same ol’ Nuggets, and same ol’ Joker.” The Nuggets were playing an incredible game on the road, winning their fifth game in a row and 10th of their last 13. The Nuggets have started to play their best basketball...right when the NFL playoffs are underway. Nikola Jokić was tossing dimes like Patrick Mahomes (well, first half Patrick Mahomes) as the Nuggets defeated Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in a silent media forest where zero trees fell.
Well, it’s time to shine a light on the MVP race and how the early season narratives have evolved into midseason storylines. The early leader in the clubhouse (Stephen Curry) is certainly not the leader now. The new entrant into the race (Joel Embiid) isn’t even the best player in the month of January. That would be Nikola Jokić, who has been kicking ass all season and bolstering a beleaguered Nuggets team to the thick of the playoff race without their second and third best players.
Here’s how the MVP race breaks down, beginning with a blind resume:
Here are the biggest takeaways:
- All of these players are putting up incredible numbers, and it can be hard to differentiate between the top tier, but there’s one player that’s putting up more impressive numbers that all the rest right now. It’s Player F.
- Player B has a good case centered around team success, given the wins and the plus-minus data.
- The top scorer in the league volume wise is Player C, but combining volume and efficiency, Player F has also been strong.
If I were voting for a player based off of just these categories, I’d vote for Player F, followed by Player E, and then either Player B or Player C after that.
So, here’s the grand reveal:
- Player A - Kevin Durant
- Player B - Stephen Curry
- Player C - Joel Embiid
- Player D - Ja Morant
- Player E - Giannis Antetokounmpo
- Player F - Nikola Jokić
Unfortunately, the MVP race isn’t conducted on the stat sheet. The narratives are still a big deal, and they’re often built by wins and points per game. On the wins front, Curry’s Golden State Warriors currently have the second best record in the NBA, and Curry’s plus-minus genuinely highlights his impact on that team. He has played the most minutes of any candidate, broke the record for most three-pointers this year, and has helped lead the renaissance for the Warriors.
On the points front, what Joel Embiid is doing as a center is insane. He has scored 25+ points in 17 straight games, and he’s doing it in a variety of ways both as a finesse and power player. There are times where it can be easy to forget that he’s 7’2” or however tall he is, because his post footwork, ball handling, and open court athletics are incredibly fun. Then, if all else fails, he can power his way into the paint for points around the rim or free throws. He’s combining point scoring with great defense, team impact, and helping lead the Sixers to a great record without Ben Simmons.
And you can’t mention incredibly fun without throwing in Ja Morant, who makes a jaw-dropping play every other quarter. His dynamic athleticism and skill level have propelled the Memphis Grizzlies to the third seed in the West. He embodies the best athletic traits of Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, and John Wall, all while blending a modern game with high IQ tendencies.
When Kevin Durant plays, the Brooklyn Nets are really, really good. He was playing the most minutes per game of this group before suffering an MCL sprain, and his overall scoring and playmaking versatility were on full display throughout the year until that point.
When Giannis Antetokounmpo plays, he’s still trying to destroy worlds on both ends of the floor, powering through opponents on both ends for the most part. If needed, he mixes in a more finesse turnaround and pull-up game that saves his body from the brunt of the burden. There’s no player in the NBA that blends offensive and defensive contributions as well as Giannis does on a consistent basis, as evidenced by the NBA Finals last year.
And then, there’s Jokić, the best player in the NBA statistically for multiple years. It seems like the rest of the narratives are starting to creep up to those statistical benchmarks. Though he isn’t the most discussed player in the NBA, it’s generally accepted that he has broached the top tier now that he has won an MVP award. There were some that believed last season might be a fluke, but Jokić has nearly replicated his numbers from season to season if not exceeded his previous benchmarks. Doing so without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. has only deepened the belief that Jokić isn’t “dependent” on anyone for his success, instead driving success for himself and his teammates.
The wins are where Jokić is currently lacking. The Nuggets’ win percentage when Jokić plays is the lowest among the other MVP candidates in the above table. With a five-game winning streak and having won 10 of their last 13 though, the Nuggets are chipping away. The Nuggets have moved up to fifth place in the Western Conference with a 28-21 record, and they have an outside chance to broach the top four in the next few days. Last season, it was generally accepted that as long as Jokić and the Nuggets were able to achieve home court advantage, his MVP candidacy would be taken seriously. This season, Denver is trending in that direction, and reinforcements could potentially be on the way in the form of Murray and Porter toward the end of the season.
As the Nuggets continue their climb, it’s only fair to start treating Jokić’s statistical dominance with the same fervor and intrigue that other candidates have received over the last several months. Initially, it was Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant drawing the most national attention due to their numbers and team success. Lately, it has been Joel Embiid in the limelight due to an insane scoring streak, improved Sixers basketball, and the inevitable drama surrounding the Ben Simmons situations.
Throughout it all, Nikola Jokić has been a metronome. Check out his month-by-month splits:
Though there was a slight efficiency dip in December, it was largely due to injuries sustained to Monte Morris, Will Barton, and Aaron Gordon during that stretch, which compounded Denver’s already injured rotation and made life difficult for Jokić. Other than a few choice games toward the end of December, Jokić has been the model of consistency, posting a negative plus-minus in just 10 games all season, which is tied for the fewest among all MVP candidates with Curry.
No points per game totals below 24.0 in any given month. No rebounds per game totals below 12.9, which would be a career high in it of itself. The assists are the key though, because as the Nuggets have grown used to playing without Murray and then without Porter, Jokić’s assist numbers have seen incremental growth in every month. It’s the sign of good, healthy Nuggets offense when their point center is allowed to facilitate more, and this last month saw Jokić exceed 26 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists, AND 70% true shooting to boot. What a month.
So, Jokić has BEEN here for the entire year. There have been two or three-game stretches where he isn’t in peak form, but he always recovers with a strong performance that leads to wins. Take the last month for example: Jokić hasn’t had a negative plus-minus since January 5th against the Utah Jazz. He had 26 points, 21 rebounds, and 11 assists in that game, but the offense around him struggled to take advantage of the mismatch he generated, and the bench couldn’t make up the difference. That’s often the story of the Nuggets season due to a lack of depth throughout the year, but they’ve adapted and endured, figuring out bench lineups and finally benefitting in the standings.
It’s clear that Jokić drives winning more than any player in the NBA this year. The Nuggets need him to be the do-it-all center he has become, and they need that production every game. Sometimes they need 30+ points. Sometimes it’s 20+ rebounds or 15+ assists. Jokić has delivered, over and over again. He’s had to make it work all season long without his top running mate in Murray and top outside shooter in Porter, facing junk defenses that overload the ball and force tougher reads than ever before. Jokić is still making things happen anyway.
It’s too early to call the MVP race. There’s still plenty of NBA season left to go, just over 40% of the year for the Nuggets in particular. Who knows what will happen with Murray and Porter and if/when they will return to the lineup. In the meantime, the MVP will continue to be debated ad nauseum, most likely with a passing mention of the top candidate in my eyes: Nikola Jokić has been the best player in the regular season for the second year in a row, and once Denver’s record fully catches up to that level of impact, the Joker will be rightfully crowned once again.