Saturday, March 25

NBA MVP Rankings: Giannis Antetokounmpo should be getting more love, but it’s Nikola Jokic’s award to lose

We’re just about a month out from the close of the 2022-23 regular season, and the MVP race is still up in the air — or at least I think it should be. According to Caesars odds, Nikola Jokic is the runaway favorite to win his third straight, which hasn’t happened since Larry Bird in the mid-1980s. I do think he’ll win. But it shouldn’t be a lock at this point. 

Below are my top-five MVP rankings entering play on Wednesday, March 8. 

1. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

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Caesars has Jokic listed as a -400 favorite. Joel Embiid is currently second at +425. That gap reflects a runaway race, and while I do think Jokic is and should be the favorite, I don’t think it’s that clear. 

That said, the season Jokic is having is incredible. I’m going to keep point this out because it’s crazy: he has shot at least 50 percent from the field in every game but one this season. Think about that. And this is not a lob-catching, conservative scorer. The only reason this guy passes up a shot is because he’s getting someone else an even better one. 

Jokic remains at the top of virtually every catch-all advanced metric. The Nuggets, who are an absurd 27 points worse per 100 possessions when Jokic leaves the floor, are tied for the most wins in the league and have all but locked up the West’s No. 1 seed. The man is averaging a triple-double on 40-percent 3-point shooting and 70-percent true shooting. It goes without saying that nobody in history has ever put up those numbers. 

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Last season, Jokic got a lot of MVP love for the job he did in keeping Denver, which finished as a 48-win No. 6 seed, competitive despite the absences of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. This season, Giannis has Milwaukee sitting with the best record in the league despite Khris Middleton playing just 22 games at a level far below his normal standard. 

Giannis has gone for 30-plus in three of his four games since the All-Star break. He had 33 and 15 rebounds against the Nets, the league-leading eighth time this season he’s put up a 30-15 line. He’s been dialed in of late at the free-throw line, where he’s 35 for 43 (81 percent) over his last three games. If he maintains his current numbers, Giannis would go down one of five players in history to average at least 30 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, and he’s a top-shelf defender for a top-shelf defense on top of that. 

Bottom line: The Bucks have the best record in the league despite arguably their second-best player more or less registering as a non-factor on the season as a whole. The lack of co-stars was a major argument in Jokic’s favor last season, and Denver only finished as a six seed. 

Even with the presence of Jrue Holiday, who has been great and from an on-off standpoint actually means more to the Bucks than Giannis per 100 possessions, shouldn’t this narrative be an equally powerful factor for Giannis’ case as it was for Jokic’s when we’re talking about the best team in the league missing an All-Star for most of the season? 

3. Joel Embiid, 76ers

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Embiid (+425) is slightly above Giannis (+600) as an MVP candidate according to Caesar’s odds, but remember, those odds reflect the way bets have been placed to date, and thus, how the books would most benefit in terms of encouraging, or discouraging, future bets, which is to say the odds board isn’t always synonymous with a ranking of candidates. 

Indeed, I have Embiid slightly below Antetokounmpo despite the slight odds discrepancy. It’s a hair-splitting argument. The Sixers have endured a lot of injuries and Embiid, along with a lot of help from James Harden, has seen the Sixers through them all as the league’s leading scorer (tied with Luka Doncic) and a defensive anchor for a top-eight unit that performs at top-five rate with Embiid on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. 

With Embiid on the court, the Sixers are outscoring opponents by 7.8 points per 100 possessions, per CTG. When he goes off, they fall by 9.2 points per 100. For reference, the Bucks fall by 6.9 points per 100 when Giannis sits, per CTG. 

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Go look at all the advanced metrics, the RAPTORS, VORP, PER, WS, BPM, pretty much any of them, and you’re going to see three names at or near the top of all of them: Jokic, Embiid and Doncic. That’s not an accident. Doncic is tied with Embiid as the league’s leading scorer and is working with less, in terms of a supporting cast, than any of the other top MVP candidates. 

The Mavericks are hovering at the play-in line and have struggled of late. They have not seen a a jolt in terms of pure wins and losses since the Kyrie Irving addition. It all adds up to the Doncic MVP flame starting to burn out. 

Doncic is not going to win this award. But he has been absolutely awesome this year. When he’s on the court as the lone star, meaning prior to Kyrie Irving’s arrival and now when Irving is on the bench, Dallas performs at the best offensive clip in the league, per CTG. Prior to Irving’s arrival, when Doncic sat, the Mavericks performed at the statistical clip of the worst offense in the league. 

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For much of the year, Tatum has had the “best player on the best team” argument in his favor. The Celtics have slipped some, and as the Bucks move toward the best record in the league, Antetokounmpo’s case, particularly, strengthens over Tatum. 

You have to factor advanced metrics in a balanced way, but in an MVP race involving players of this caliber, it’s not nothing that Tatum isn’t anywhere near the top of any of of them. Should the fact that he has what is at least the deepest, and probably the best, supporting cast of any of the top candidates work against him? Different voters feel differently about that. But I suspect Tatum hasn’t been quite great enough, relative to this star-studded field, for the amount of help he has to not factor in the vote. 

I feel stupid saying this because Tatum is so great and is having such a great season, but for my money, it just doesn’t quite measure up with the other guys on this list. Just like All-Star and All-NBA selections, the competition and standards have never been higher for MVP. The talent pool is just so deep. Production is off the charts all over the place. 

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