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Stat of the Week: Nikola Jokić is now leading the MVP race

Have we seen a shift in voter perception for who should win the 2021-22 NBA MVP award from Joel Embiid to Nikola Jokić?

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

We are 66 games into the Denver Nuggets regular season, and life is more eventful than ever for Nikola Jokić.

Leading the Nuggets to win after win while also pulling double duty as a new father, there’s no doubt that Jokić is simply exhausted. The Nuggets are about to finish up their first stretch of four games in five nights since January 31st to February 4th of 2017, when the Nuggets played on the 31st, the 1st, the 3rd, and the 4th. Denver went 1-3 in that stretch, which included two blowout losses.

Now, the Nuggets are testing themselves late in the year that has already seen Denver tested several times over. With Jamal Murray yet to play a single minute and Michael Porter Jr. sidelined just minutes into the ninth game of the season, the Nuggets have been shorthanded from the very start. Their second and third best players have been absent for a long time, and though the Nuggets had done some great things, this stretch of four games in five nights was set to be a potential pitfall for the ongoing playoff race.

Lo and behold, the Nuggets have survived it so far, led by Jokić to a 3-0 record with one more contest to come tonight:

There are some events that can be a struggle to capture in merely words. What Jokić has accomplished in the last three games has never been achieved in recorded NBA history. The complete list of players to score a combined 116 points, grab 45 rebounds, and dish out 31 assists over a three-game span is quite literally just Jokić. Wilt Chamberlain is really close, but he never quite reached that combined assist total (in recorded history).

The significance of Jokić outpacing Wilt should not be lost on anyone. Wilt is the king of counting stats. He grabbed rebounds for breakfast, scored whenever he wanted, and decided to create assists for his teammates whenever anyone criticized him for not passing enough. The fact that Jokić, in an era with fewer possessions per game and players that actually rest during games, has a span of games that outpace Wilt f****** Chamberlain is completely nuts.

Jokić is changing the game as a playmaking center. He’s breaking several analytics models with his holistic impact all over the court. Very few players have ever come close to matching what he’s doing in his prime from a statistical standpoint, and he has crashed and taken the lead in the MVP race as a result.

For a long time, Joel Embiid has been seen as the de facto MVP nationally. Embiid leads all MVP candidates in odds on DraftKings at -145, with Nikola Jokić having the second best odds at +170. Initially, the buzz was all about Stephen Curry, but Steph’s drop-off combined with an incredible scoring streak from Embiid placed him firmly in the driver’s seat to take home the individual hardware. Embiid certainly has the profile of an MVP too, leading the Sixers to (currently) a top 3 seed in the Eastern Conference while scoring and rebounding in such a physically dominant manner. It was difficult to foresee anyone coming into contact with his level of impact this year.

And yet, both Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo have stuck around. Giannis is actually scoring at a more prolific rate than Embiid right now, and his all-around impact is as close to matching Jokić statistically as anyone in the NBA. Giannis impacts the game at such a high level in an ever-growing number of categories, and though his passing may not be at the level of Jokić and his post repertoire may not be at the level of Embiid, he’s at an ‘A’ level in more categories than either guy. He’s the best defender of the bunch and has the proven track record of a 50-point game in the NBA Finals. He’s damn good.

The below tweet from StatMuse a few days ago stirred up a bundle of controversy though, when Jokić, Giannis, and Embiid were pitted against each other in a wide variety of statistical categories. As can be seen, Jokić performed pretty well, outpacing both Giannis and Embiid in the vast majority of stats.

From the basic counting stats to the advanced numbers to some catch-all metrics, Jokić seems to have a commanding lead on the numbers side of things. The MVP isn’t won solely by who has the best stats. If it were, Jokić would be a shoo-in.

There may also be some changes to the above list given how great all three of the above guys are. For example Jokić and Giannis are now basically tied for the highest PER in NBA history at 32.6, while Giannis and Embiid are now basically tied at 29.7 points per game. Every game seems to bring a new stat line of epic proportions from the trio, meaning some record or another is being broken fairly frequently.

Still, what’s clear as day is the number of ways Jokić is impacting the game has risen to unprecedented levels. The number of individual plays he has made to save the game for the Nuggets on both the offensive and defensive end of the floor is just silly. He has three game-saving blocks at the buzzer on defense, a game-winning cross court assist to Aaron Gordon, and he scored 30 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to stage an impossible comeback against the Pelicans last Sunday. The plays he’s making are winning plays, and they’re putting the league on notice.

After Monday’s 30-point triple-double, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Jokić should win MVP this year.

After Wednesday’s 38-point, 18-rebound, 7-assist masterpiece against the Sacramento Kings, interim head coach Alvin Gentry also called him the MVP.

Jokić is winning over opposing players, coaches, and fans with his most recent dominance. He’s been great all season, but with the Nuggets now having won 12 of their last 14 games, it has become harder to discern between Jokić, Giannis, and Embiid with regard to team record. All are within two wins and one loss of each other, and one guy has experienced far more significant absences than the other two.

Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. have missed a combined 123 out of 132 possible games played between them this season. Murray averaged over 21 points per game on over 59% true shooting last season, while Porter averaged 19 points per game on an absurd 66% true shooting. Both players have been missed dearly, and there have been several times this season where the Nuggets have struggled to space the floor around Jokić as a result.

In the end, their absences just haven’t slowed down Jokić’s individual greatness. He’s working harder on the glass, working harder defensively, and staying aggressive as a scorer and playmaker. That has been the only way for the Nuggets to stay afloat for much of the year, and there have been few respites for Jokić as a result. He hasn’t complained though, and in the toughest stretch of Jokić’s season from a rest standpoint, the Serbian center has played the very best basketball of his career. It’s incredible to watch.

Will Jokić end up winning MVP? Maybe. The next week or so of the NBA calendar will go a long way toward deciding the award with Embiid and Jokić both in the national spotlight tonight. Embiid, James Harden, and the Sixers are going against Ben Simmons’ Brooklyn Nets, though Simmons will merely be standing on the sideline being harassed by Sixers fans. Jokić will play his fourth game in five nights immediately after against the Golden State Warriors. Giannis and the Bucks will also face the Warriors on Saturday night on national TV.

Then on Monday, the main event. Jokić vs Embiid, Nuggets vs Sixers in Philly. it’s going to be an absolute circus, and the winner may take home top odds for the MVP trophy.

Whatever happens, the next few weeks will be some of the most exciting, interesting, and intense weeks for Nuggets fans. The Nuggets are stilling trying to hold onto their playoff spot for dear life, while Jokić makes a run at a second MVP and the prospects of Murray and Porter returning to the court become more real prior to the playoffs. Outcomes are completely up in the air.

Let’s see what happens.

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