Nikola Jokic Deserves Better Than a Default MVP
Look at the whole picture – the draft spot, the position he plays, his something-less-than-ripped physique, and the forgotten time zone that his franchise calls home – and there’s only one conclusion a reasonable person could come to.
Nikola Jokic isn’t supposed to win the NBA MVP.
He started the season well down the list of top candidates, behind two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Anthony Davis, Steph Curry, James Harden and Kevin Durant. Even though Jokic made his case to climb over those names quickly, he’s spent most of this 72-game season behind Joel Embiid and LeBron James as the frontrunner to be named the league’s MVP.
All that changed in mid-March. Embiid went down with a knee injury March 12 that knocked him out for three weeks. James suffered a high ankle sprain March 20. Embiid returned Saturday – he sat out Sunday’s second leg of a back-to-back – but he’s missed 18 of Philadelphia’s 50 games. LeBron has missed nine and counting, though he’s at least used his downtime to get one step closer to becoming the next Ted Lasso.
Suddenly, the next man up became the man to beat. After hovering at +800 to win MVP as recently as early March, Jokic was -140 at online wagering site FanDuel as of April 6, implying that there’s a 58% chance he’ll take home the award.
In the award’s 65-year history, only one second-round pick (Willis Reed in 1970 – we’ll explore that later) has won it. A center hasn’t taken home the Maurice Podoloff Trophy since Shaquille O’Neal at a time when ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys were battling for the hearts of American teens.
The league has changed significantly in the past decade, and the 3s-and-layups revolution that Daryl Morey’s Houston Rockets kicked into high gear has spread to a point where the space between the rim and the arc is usually as crowded as a midnight pandemic subway ride. Be a bully at the basket (Giannis), a shooting sage with no conscience and no limit to your range (Steph) or an all-around, ageless GOAT candidate (LeBron) and you might find yourself with multiple MVPs in modern hoops.
It’s hard to go into a season picturing someone who isn’t a point guard or one of the NBA’s true physical unicorns walking away with the title of the league’s best player.
Jokic is a throwback in all the best ways while featuring the modern touches that continue to propel the league forward at the same time. It’s easy to see him fitting in with the ’70s Celtics, the Showtime Lakers or the Seven Seconds or Less Suns.
Instead, he’s the lone A-lister on a team that went farther than anyone expected in the bubble and spent the first two months of this season paying the bill for that success. But as Denver gets healthier and incorporates deadline acquisition Aaron Gordon into the fold, a team that looked tired well into the new year has won 14 of 17 to put itself into position for a top-four seed.
The man at the center of it all is putting up a statistical season that hasn’t really been replicated in the history of the league. If you want a glimpse of the real mythical creature wandering around the paint these days, turn on a Nuggets game.
MVP debate makes for a fun topic on First Take, Twitter or your favorite podcast, but in the era since those platforms emerged, the final tally has been anticlimactic.
No runner-up has received more than 25% of the first-place votes since Steve Nash in 2006-07 (he had 44 to winner Dirk Nowitzki’s 83 – third-place finisher Kobe Bryant received two). Perhaps because of the plethora of takes available if you poke around long enough in the greater NBA ecosystem – and the propensity for groupthink to kick in among voters in the Internet era – any midseason uncertainty usually disappears as a dominant narrative emerges by early April.
All it’s going to take to change that is a pandemic-shortened season where rest, motivation and injury have all played heightened roles.
But those factors shouldn’t discount from one of the best individual seasons in NBA history.
Look at Jokic’s basic stats – averages of 26.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 8.6 assists – and it’s obvious he’s had a fantastic season. Throw in his shooting splits – 56.6% overall, 42.7% from 3 and 86.3% from the free-throw line – and it looks even more amazing.
In the chart above that lists every player to average 25-10-5 for a season while shooting 50% from the field, you’ll see that Giannis and Jokic are on pace to join that group as this season winds down. Of the nine completed seasons, six of those players won MVP, two were second, and one finished third.
Narrow it down by 3-point percentage and, with apologies to Wilt/Oscar/Kareem, Bird’s ’84-85 MVP season is the only one that comes close to Jokic’s shooting efficiency.
Speaking of Wilt and another multiple-time MVP, let’s zero in on Jokic’s passing for a second. No center has put up this many assists per game since Chamberlain averaged 8.6 in ’67-68, when he was, shall we say, making a few extra passes to chase both the assist title and his fourth and final MVP (he pulled off the latter, but Robertson won the former).
The Joker passed Wilt for the most double-digit assist games in NBA history by a center with his 81st such performance in Denver’s 119-109 win over Orlando on Sunday. It was also Jokic’s sixth career 15-assist game. That’s six more than every other center combined has since the 1985-86 season.
Zoom out a bit to include forwards and Jokic has a chance to finish with the highest assist average for a frontcourt player other than LeBron in NBA history.
Jokic throws 75.3 passes per game, second in the league behind Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis, and averages 21.1 assist points created – behind only point guards Harden, Russell Westbrook, Trae Young, Doncic and Chris Paul.
No center other than Jokic himself has come within 5.4 points of that total since tracking began in 2013-14.
Basketball Reference’s box plus/minus uses box score information, position, and team performance to estimate each player’s contribution in points above league average per 100 possessions played.
The site considers anything above 10.0 to be an all-time great individual season, and Jokic is well past that. He’s currently at 11.50, a total only Giannis, Curry and James have surpassed in the last quarter-century.
Jokic’s box plus/minus lead over second-place Antetokounmpo (8.53) is a gap wider than any between first and second since David Robinson (11.87) and John Stockton (8.01) in 1993-94. The Serbian is easily No. 1 in offensive box plus/minus, but he’s also fifth defensively, sandwiched in between Draymond Green, Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert – the three guys who have combined to win the last four Defensive Player of the Year awards. No one’s going to confuse Jokic’s eye-test impact night to night with what those three consistently bring on the defensive end, but he’s far from a sieve.
Jokic (5.93) also leads the league in value over replacement player (VORP) over second-place Antetokounmpo (4.08) by a wider margin than the gap between Giannis and 17th-place Tobias Harris (2.2).
Embiid’s best advanced stats argument might be in win shares per 48 minutes, which attempts to split up credit for team success to the individuals that accounted for it. He’s at .2886, which would rank fifth overall over the last seven seasons and 22nd all time.
It’s only second in 2020-21, though. Jokic leads the league there as well with a total (.2996) that only James and Curry have surpassed since the days of Jordan.
To win an NBA MVP, you typically have to have one of two factors (or, ideally, both) working for you. Eighteen of the 65 winners have led the league in scoring during their MVP campaign, and another 25 finished in the top five.
Of the 22 who didn’t, 19 were the best player on the team with the league’s best record. Two of those three remaining winners (Abdul-Jabbar and the 1979-80 Lakers and Magic and the ’88-89 Showtimers) had the best record in their conference. The only one that didn’t fit into either box was Nash with the ’05-06 Suns, who finished second in the West.
Jokic isn’t going to finish in the top five in scoring this season, and the Nuggets could wind up anywhere from second in the West to needing to survive a play-in. Either way, if he wins the MVP, Jokic will join Nash on that list of outliers.
Zooming back into this season, one of the few arguments against Jokic is his on-off splits. Not that they’re bad, but perhaps not the dominant on-court difference you’d expect compared to some of his fellow MVP contenders. (All stats below are point differences per 100 possessions and are through April 4).
Player On Court Off Court Total On/Off +/- Embiid +14.2 -0.6 +14.8 James +9.8 -2.0 +11.8 Antetokounmpo +10.4 -0.5 +10.9 Leonard +11.3 +1.5 +9.8 Jokic +7.7 -1.4 +9.1 Doncic +3.7 -1.1 +4.8 Lillard +1.3 -3.1 +4.4 Harden +5.3 +4.6 +0.6
There’s a lot of noise in on/off splits, and much has to do with the level of overall roster talent, depth and injury luck each team is working with (yikes, Portland). For what it’s worth, here’s the total on/off difference for the previous nine MVPs.
Player MVP Season Total On/Off +/- Antetokounmpo 2019-20 +12.8 Antetokounmpo 2018-19 +8.9 Harden 2017-18 +5.3 Westbrook 2016-17 +12.4 Curry 2015-16 +22.6 Curry 2014-15 +18.1 Durant 2013-14 +6.0 James 2012-13 +15.3 James 2011-12 +14.0
Gordon has only been in the Rocky Mountains for four games, but the difference with him on the floor is already startling. The Nuggets have played 90 minutes with Jokic, Gordon, Jamal Murray, Will Barton and Michael Porter Jr. out there together. They’re plus-33.9 per 100 possessions in that span, easily the best in the league to play at least that many minutes.
With a schedule the rest of April that’s full of fringe playoff teams and non-contenders, Denver’s winning percentage should rise – and so should Jokic’s MVP resume.
We’ve covered why Jokic should win the MVP. We’ve covered why, historically speaking, he doesn’t quite fit the standard MVP template and, thus, might not.
Let’s finish by talking about why he will win it, which we can pretty easily do by dismissing the (insanely talented) other contenders.
Embiid/James: The two clubhouse leaders as of the All-Star break have taken a little too much time to heal to stay at the top of this race. The only player to win MVP while missing 13 or more games is Bill Walton (he played in 58 of 82) in 1977-78. Embiid is already past that mark, and James will surpass it during the Lakers’ current seven-game road trip. In a shortened season, that’s too much.
Antetokounmpo: Giannis’ biggest enemy is himself. Statistically, he’s right in line with his previous two MVP seasons. The problem is – fairly or unfairly – no one wants to vote for the same player three times in a row unless there’s no other logical choice. Bird was the last guy to do it three straight seasons from 1983-84 to ’85-86 (and he obliterated everyone in VORP, WS/48 and box plus/minus in that third one). Giannis is the eighth star to go back-to-back since then. But the Bucks won 75% of their games the last two seasons. They’d have to be historically great for voters to give Giannis a serious look at No. 3 in a row, and as they sit third in the East, they just aren’t.
Lillard: Aside from Jokic, you could make a legitimate case that no player has meant more to his team night to night this season than Lillard. The Blazers are capital-T Terrible defensively, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic have missed a good chunk of the season, and Dame has put Portland on his back to the tune of some of the sickest clutch stats in NBA history. He’s in the 50/40/100 club (54.8% on 2s/43.6% on 3s) during games that are within two possessions in the last five minutes or OT and, yes, that includes a perfect 46-for-46 at the line. He leads the league in points in the clutch, when the game is late and close (last two minutes of a four-point game) and when the game is on the line (final 24 seconds of a one-possession game).
The Blazers’ 30-19 record is somewhat of a mirage – they had a negative point differential until beating the Thunder by 48 on Saturday – but they’ve also weathered the storm. A team with their profile screams regression, but with McCollum and Nurkic healthy, they may be able to go on a run. For now, though, Lillard’s having a legendary season on a team that’s, statistically, barely a playoff club. In a crowded field, that’s going to be tough to overcome.
Harden: Perhaps the most interesting case on this list, and the last realistic one. Doncic didn’t take enough of a leap from last season and Leonard, for all of his clear contributions toward winning, doesn’t come close statistically to the other frontrunners.
Harden has been a walking triple-double ever since Durant most recently went down, averaging 26.3 points, 9.1 boards and 10.5 assists as the Nets have gone 21-4 over the past two months. But he’s dealing with a hamstring injury and, perhaps most importantly, no one has ever won the MVP while switching teams in the middle of a season. Even though his trade from the Rockets seems well in the rear-view mirror at this point, it wasn’t! It happened in 2021! He still forced his way out of Houston and the Rockets went from perennial contenders to shameless, hardcore tankers. Fair or not, that narrative will cost him potential votes by the end of the season.
Remember how we teased that Reed was the only second-round pick to be named the NBA’s MVP? Well, things were a bit different in 1964. The draft contained the option to pick players within 50 miles of your home market prior to the actual selections.
Oh yeah, and there were only nine teams. Reed technically came off the board with the first pick of the second round – eighth overall after two pre-draft territorial picks.
Forty players went ahead of Jokic in the 2014 draft. All 30 teams, including his own, passed on him once. Nate Duncan, a respected NBA mind and salary-cap expert, had this to say after watching Jokic play at the Nike Hoop Summit two months before that draft.
“it really is hard to see him surviving on the interior in the NBA. … Perhaps this sounds harsh, but Jokic is being talked up as an NBA prospect and it is hard to see how he gets there unless he can really improve his athleticism. Given how his body looks, that does not seem to be in the offing even if he does hit the weights.”
That’s not to pick on Nate, as that was obviously an opinion many NBA folks had back then. He was partially right, anyway. Jokic never made the complete physical transformation most figured he’d need to in order to be part of an NBA rotation.
Instead, he made the most of his unique combination of size, vision, shot-making and creativity. What he’s not is what most second-round picks are: total washouts, career overseas players, NBA rotation cogs or, occasionally, solid starters. He’s also not what a select few have become: All-Stars and potential playoff difference-makers.
Jokic is what no one saw coming: a superstar who’s having one of the best statistical seasons the NBA has ever seen. In a league that’s as talent-rich as ever, he’s caught some breaks in the most interesting MVP race since iPods were a novelty. But that shouldn’t take away from what he’s rightfully earning as this season winds down.
He’s the MVP.
Design by Matt Sisneros. Data modeling provided by Matt Scott.