Was the 2021-22 NBA MVP Race the Greatest of All Time?
NBA

Was the 2021-22 NBA MVP Race the Greatest of All Time?

What do averages of 29.9 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists with a 63.3 true shooting percentage get you in the NBA these days?

We won’t officially know until the NBA decides to spring it on us sometime between TNT’s latest segment of Who He Play For and the burgeoning feud between Kevin Durant and Charles Barkley, but all that stat line and a mountain of cheese curds will get Giannis Antetokounmpo – reigning NBA Finals MVP, two-time league MVP, extremely diversified investor – is a third-place finish in this season’s MVP balloting behind likely winner Nikola Jokic and presumed No. 2 Joel Embiid.

Those box score averages have only been matched once in NBA history over the course of a season, when Oscar Robertson put up a smooth 30.8/12.5/11.4 line in his second year of a Hall of Fame career. 

Surely that got him an MVP trophy, right? You’d think, but the Big O finished third behind Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain – a consolation prize he’d receive frequently over the years. It took until 1963-64 for Robertson to win his first – and only – MVP.

No one’s going to shed a tear for the Greek Freak, who will have enough hardware to fill the Acropolis by the time he calls it quits. In many other seasons, Antetokounmpo would have cruised to his third MVP trophy, but not in this one. So it got us wondering – how often would the 2021-22 seasons of Giannis and Embiid be MVP-worthy? 

How often would each member of this incredibly deep top three have won basketball’s biggest awards?

Let’s start here with some basic counting stats. Jokic (48.7), Antetokounmpo (47.3) and Embiid (46.5) all averaged at least 46.5 points/rebounds/assists this season. 

If you’ve been hanging out with Calvin Ridley and placing any wagers in the first round of the playoffs, you’ll routinely notice the P/R/A over/unders for these three in the low 50s. With good reason! Jokic led the trio by getting to 50 P/R/A in 33 of his 74 games. Giannis cleared *56* P/R/A in three of his last five Finals games last season, and got to 50 P/R/A in 26 of his 67 games this season. Embiid hit 50 in 25 of his 68 contests.

We haven’t seen three players top 46.5 P/R/A in a single season since Chamberlain, Rick Barry and Robertson did it in 1966-67. 

Now, these counting stats aren’t always the be all, end all – that’s how we wound up with Russell Westbrook as an MVP, after all – but add a little more context and it’s pretty clear how incredible these three 7-footers really were.

Let’s take a look at some more advanced numbers, courtesy of Basketball Reference. We’ll start with PER (Player Efficiency Rating), a scale that sums up a player’s positive accomplishments, subtracts their negatives, and returns a per-minute rating of their performance.

PER seasons among MVP winners

Remember: Those guys all won the award.

Now let’s do another chart and see if Jokic’s, Embiid’s or Giannis’ 2021-22 season can sneak in.

PER seasons among MVP winners and our 2021-22 trio

OK! Three bump into the best top-10 MVP seasons. And three of the top-14 PER seasons when you include non-MVPs – three Wilt seasons from the early 60s and MJ’s 1989-90 campaign round out the top 14.

PER certainly isn’t the only measurement of historical dominance out there. Let’s take a look at win shares per 48 minutes, which estimates a player’s contribution in terms of wins on a per-minute basis. 

There’s a little more edge to the history side here, but all three would still finish in the top half of this historical list if they were to win MVP.

Top WS/48 Seasons for MVP winners & Our Trio of MVP Frontrunners

PlayerTeamSeasonWS Per 48
Kareem Abdul-JabbarMIL1971-72.340
Kareem Abdul-JabbarMIL1970-71.326
LeBron JamesMIA2012-13.322
Michael JordanCHI1990-91.321
LeBron JamesCLE2008-09.318
Stephen CurryGSW2015-16.318
Michael JordanCHI1995-96.317
Michael Jordan CHI1987-88.308
Nikola Jokic DEN2020-21.301
LeBron JamesCLE2009-10.299
12. Nikola JokicDEN2021-22.296
19. Giannis AntetokounmpoMIL2021-22.281
32. Joel EmbiidPHI2021-22.252

Box plus-minus (BPM) is a box score-based metric that attempts to estimate a player’s contribution when he’s on the court. It’s a rate state that doesn’t take into account playing time, unlike VORP (value over replacement player), which we’ll get to in a bit. If a player is plus-10.0, that means his team is 10 points better per 100 possessions with that player on the floor than they’d be with average production from someone else. One downside here: Possession data is only available since 1973-74, so some of those Kareem, Robertson, Wilt and Russell seasons aren’t included.

Even still, since ‘73-74, there had only been nine seasons where a player posted a box plus-minus of 11.0 – until 2021-22. 

Here we’ll take a look at those top nine BPM seasons from MVP winners – and see where our three MVP candidates would fit in.

Top BPM Seasons for MVP winners & Our Trio (Since 1973-74)

PlayerTeamSeasonBPM
Nikola JokicDEN2021-2213.7
LeBron JamesCLE2008-0913.2
Michael JordanCHI1987-8813.0
Nikola JokicDEN2020-2112.1
Michael JordanCHI1990-9112.0
Stephen CurryGSW2015-1611.9
LeBron James CLE2009-1011.8
LeBron JamesCLE2012-1311.7
Giannis AntetokounmpoMIL2019-2011.5
Giannis AntetokounmpoMIL2021-2211.2
Russell WestbrookOKC2016-1711.1
23. Joel EmbiidPHI2021-229.2

OK, two would-be top-10 finishes among MVP winners along with an Embiid season that would rank among the top half.

One more: Let’s check VORP, which is similar to BPM but measures how valuable a player is relative to a replacement-level (minus-2.0) player. 

Top VORP Seasons for MVP winners & Our Trio (Since 1973-74)

PlayerTeamSeasonVORP
Michael JordanCHI1987-8812.5
LeBron JamesCLE2008-0911.8
Michael JordanCHI1990-9110.8
LeBron JamesCLE2009-1010.3
Kevin GarnettMIN2003-0410.0
LeBron JamesMIA2012-139.9
Nikola JokicDEN2021-229.8
Michael JordanCHI1995-969.8
Kevin DurantOKC2013-149.6
Stephen CurryGSW2015-169.5
29. Giannis AntetokounmpoMIL2021-227.4
39. Joel EmbiidPHI2021-226.5

What do these numbers all mean? Well, for one, it seems like Antetokounmpo has a pretty good case to be second behind Jokic in the actual MVP race this season when he’ll likely finish third.

How many times would all three of our guys have been good enough to win the MVP? Let’s sort them into categories:

Tough to Top

  • 1971-72 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (34.8 PPG, 16.6 RPG, 4.6 APG, .340 WS/48, 29.9 PER)
  • 1970-71 Kareem (31.7, 16.0, 3.3, .326, 29.0)
  • 2012-13 LeBron James (26.8, 8.0, 7.3, .322, 31.6)
  • 1990-91 Michael Jordan (31.5, 6.0, 5.5, .321 31.6)
  • 2015-16 Steph Curry (30.1, 5.4, 6.7, .318, 31.5)
  • 2008-09 LeBron (28.4, 7.6, 7.2, .318, 31.7)
  • 1995-96 MJ (30.4, 6.6, 4.3, .317, 29.4)
  • 1987-88 MJ (35.0, 5.5, 5.9, .308, 31.7)
  • 2020-21 Nikola Jokic (26.4, 10.8, 8.3, .301, 31.3)
  • 2009-10 LeBron (29.7, 7.3, 8.6, .299, 31.1)
  • 2011-12 LeBron (27.1, 7.9, 6.2, .298, 30.7)
  • 2013-14 Kevin Durant (32.0, 7.4, 5.5, .295, 29.8)
  • 2018-19 Giannis Antetokoumpo (27.7, 12.5, 5.9, .292, 30.9)
  • 2019-20 Giannis (29.5, 13.6, 5.6, .279, 31.9)
  • 1966-67 Wilt Chamberlain (24.1, 24.2, 7.8, .285, 26.5)
  • 1999-2000 Shaquille O’Neal (29.7, 13.6, 3.8, .283, 30.6)

Up for Debate

  • 1976-77 Kareem (26.1, 13.3, 3.9, .283, 27.8)
  • 2017-18 James Harden (30.4, 5.4, 8.3, .289, 29.8)
  • 2003-04 Kevin Garnett (24.2, 13.9, 5.0, .272, 29.4)
  • 1963-64 Oscar Robertson (31.4, 9.9, 11.0, .278, 27.6)
  • 1991-92 MJ (30.1, 6.4, 6.1, .274, 27.7)
  • 1994-95 David Robinson (27.6, 10.8, 2.9, .273, 29.1)

You could reasonably give the award to 2021-22 Jokic, Giannis or Embiid in every other season since Bob Pettit became the league’s first MVP in 1955-56. Some final reminders of the numbers for our three contenders:

  • Jokic: 27.1 PPG, 13.8 RPG, 7.9 APG, .296 WS/48, 32.8 PER
  • Embiid: 30.6 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 4.2 APG, .252 WS/48, 31.2 PER
  • Giannis: 29.9 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 5.8 APG, .281 WS/48, 32.1 PER

Combine the counting stats and the advanced numbers and you’re looking at three guys who were better than the three MVP seasons apiece of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Moses Malone. Better than five Russell MVPs, three Wilts, and three Kareems. Better than two Duncans, two Malones, two Nashes and a Kobe. 

We’ve had recent seasons in which Paul George, Blake Griffin and Carmelo Anthony finished in the top three in MVP voting. Those guys have had outstanding careers and are arguably Hall of Famers, but their place toward the top has been pretty indicative of the lack of depth in some recent races for the NBA’s top individual honor.

That wasn’t a problem this season. Jokic will likely walk away with his second straight trophy, but this was truly an all-time trio at the top.


Graphic design by Matt Sisneros.