Pick a stat, any stat. It’s time to stop joking about Nikola Jokic’s MVP campaign.
Jokic’s 2020-’21 campaign is the stuff of basketball geekery. According to Basketball Reference’s VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), Jokic is running away with the trophy. Dial up the Win Shares (an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player), and the lead Jokic (9.5) has on second-place Giannis Antetokounmpo (6.9) is equivalent to the gap between Antetokoummpo and No. 16 Enes Kanter.
There’s still value in winning, right?
Prefer ESPN’s PER? There’s Jokic, again, sitting No. 1 ahead of Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, whose recent knee injury knocks him down a rung or two in the MVP debate.
What about 538’s RAPTOR WAR calculation? If big men went the way of the dinosaur, how come the Joker’s best individual season ever is the stuff of analytic darlings?
Or maybe you’d prefer Jamal Murray’s favorite stat: Box Plus/Minus. When I asked Murray late Friday night about Joker’s MVP candidacy following Denver’s pulsating fourth-quarter comeback against Chicago, he was incredulous at the question.
“Yes, yes, absolutely,” Murray said bluntly. “… He’s dominating his matchup every single night. … He’s averaging like a triple-double on 50/40/90. All these stats of BPM, I don’t even know what those mean, but he’s leading everybody in that.”
When Basketball Reference explains its BPM algorithm, it offers a scale to help contextualize the number. Plus-6.0 is an All-NBA season. Plus-8.0 is an MVP season. Plus-10.0 is an all-time season (think peak Jordan or LeBron). Through 41 games, Jokic is at plus-11.8. Antetokounmpo is second at 8.8.
Jokic’s individual numbers – career-highs of 27.0 points, 11.2 rebounds, 8.6 assists on absurd efficiency – have laid the groundwork for his historic season.
Show me the stat that calculates how good a player has to be for Murray to pass the ball out of a mismatch.
“He’s just so amazing,” Murray said. “… Sometimes, I’ll have a matchup, I’m like, I’ve got Bismack Biyombo on me, and he’s got somebody else, and I’m like, ‘Ahh, go ahead, Big Fella.’ He’s just one of those guys that’s just so dominant, and you can give him the ball every single time.”
What was once a legitimate argument – that Denver’s middling record wasn’t good enough for an MVP – no longer holds water. The red-hot Nuggets have won eight of nine and are a half-game back of the Clippers for the No. 4 seed in the West. Plus, if you still think the Nuggets’ overall record (25-16) should disqualify Jokic, then take Lillard out, too. Lillard’s herculean effort has the injury-ravaged Blazers tied with the Nuggets in the West.
For Jokic to actually win and convince voters (myself included) that he’s the Most Valuable Player, not only do the Nuggets need to keep climbing in the West, but he might need to do the only thing he hates more than wind sprints: sell himself.
Lakers wing Kyle Kuzma, the NBA’s foremost expert on all things MVP, rocked the boat recently by claiming LeBron James should have “at least” eight Maurice Podoloff trophies.
When asked about the remark, James, who suffered an ankle injury Saturday, admitted he felt snubbed in the past.
“I should have more than four, I believe,” he told reporters.
Should the fact that James has been the best player in the world for the past 15 years – yet doesn’t have as much individual hardware as he feels he deserves – factor into this year’s conversation? Should last season’s championship run in the Bubble have any bearing on this year’s race?
“It would mean an unbelievable thing for me, especially at this point in my career,” James said.
Good luck getting Joker to say anything of the sort.
When I prefaced a question to him about the MVP, including the phrase “I know you don’t necessarily care that much about it,” Jokic flipped faster than he takes a ball out of bounds.
“Who said I don’t care?” Jokic said, pausing for dramatic effect. When I sheepishly answered I didn’t think he cared about individual awards, Jokic broke into a hearty smile.
“I just wanted to see your reaction,” he said.
Jokic’s marketing campaign is about as unconventional as his game is. For him to win, voters will need to look beyond the superficial impressions made by his appearance and ask themselves if any other players impact winning more than he does this season.
And if they do, they might come to the same conclusion as NBA Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo, who texted The Denver Post after Jokic passed him this week for the franchise’s all-time lead in double-doubles.
“I am so happy to see Nikola passing me,” he wrote. “As they said: ‘Every record is supposed to be broken.’ Nikola is having a MVP year. Why Not?”
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