The NBA’s 2021-22 MVP race is likely down to three candidates: Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo. You can make a case for any of them to win, but to me, one stands above the other two. Whether that’s how the voting will shake out, it’s hard to say. There’s still just about a month to go. Things could still change. It’s an extremely close race. As of Tuesday, March 15, this is a breakdown of the top three with five names at the bottom who will be fighting for top-five voting status.
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1. Nikola Jokic
How many times can we cite the advanced metrics? It’s almost a joke. The Denver Nuggets big man is No. 1 in PER, VORP, BPM, DBPM, OBPM, WS/48, WS, OWS, RAPTOR WAR, Total RAPTOR, Offensive RAPTOR, and he’s second in DWS and Defensive RAPTOR. Dismiss all these silly-sounding acronyms if you like, but in doing so you’ll be turning away from what has clearly been the best player in the league this season.
Jokic should win MVP. His second straight. Whether he will remains to be seen. The next guy on this list, Joel Embiid, has been awesome in his own right, and the narrative attached to him is a strong one. Left in the lurch by Ben Simmons, he dragged the Philadelphia 76ers into the upper tier of the Eastern Conference even before James Harden arrived. Voters love the story of the superstar who fought the good fight.
Thing is, Jokic has fought the same fight, playing basically the entire season without Denver’s second- and third-best player. The difference is the Denver guys — Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. — haven’t played because of injuries. Simmons hung Embiid out to dry by choice. That feels like a bigger betrayal. Making Embiid’s performance feel a little bit more heroic.
But it hasn’t been. Again, Jokic has played under what are at least equally trying circumstances. I think the Denver supporting cast has been dragged a bit too much in people trying to make this argument, but this is not a team that should be being talked about as a sleeper threat to make some real noise in the West even if Murray and Porter don’t return. And yet, here the Nuggets are with the same number of wins as the Sixers, 41 entering play on Tuesday, including one over Embiid/Harden and the Sixers on Monday night at Philly.
That’s the Jokic effect. Denver is over 19 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor against when he’s off, almost double Embiid’s on-off splits and miles ahead of every other halfway reasonable MVP candidate other than Steph Curry’s plus-15. He’s shooting 57 percent from the floor to Embiid’s 48 percent. He out-rebounds Embiid. Immeasurably out-passes him. He’s been the best player, plain and simple, but I’m not sure that will be enough to get him the award.
2. Joel Embiid
I don’t want to make it seem like I’m disparaging Embiid in any way. He’s been off the charts all season, and his case is obviously built upon a lot more than the narrative of having carried his team through the Simmons drama. He’s top three in almost all those VORP-like acronyms. He’s the league’s leading scorer. He gets to the free-throw line almost at will. He’s a better defender, and at least this year, a better 3-point shooter than Jokic.
Two things that I think matter in swinging some on-the-fence votes to Embiid’s side: the scoring title, and his traditional post game. To the latter — and you’re welcome to argue with me — I think people really like the idea of the old-school-style center, big and physical, posting up, turning and dunking, as a contrast to the 3-point finesse identity of today’s league, and they want to reward that style when it succeeds to this degree.
Thing is, Jokic is darn near as big and powerful as Embiid, and if the Nuggets used him similarly, he’s just about as unstoppable in the post. But he feels more like a perimeter-based center, even though Embiid thrives on a heavy-ish diet of midrange jumpers. If you don’t watch Jokic much, you might think he’s out there whipping passes more than going into mouse-in-the-house punisher mode, but make no mistake, Jokic absolutely overpowers everyone whenever he feels like it.
To the second point of the scoring title, look, we could very well end up splitting hairs in this vote. Something has to swing it. Like a few SAT points between equally qualified Harvard applicants, Embiid winning the scoring title is a big bullet point on the resume. It’s similar to Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double en route to winning the 2017 MVP; he would’ve been the same player had he averaged 9.9 assists instead of 10.4 per game, but the triple-double sounds better. Same as the scoring title. If LeBron James — or Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kevin Durant for that matter — ends up edging out Embiid for the title, as silly as it sounds, it could swing a few votes to Jokic. Or vice versa.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo
This season’s MVP race will largely be defined by one question: “Who’s working with less?” Jokic and Embiid have both played the bulk of their seasons without sidekick stars, and the simple truth is that Giannis is perceived to be playing with a top-tier supporting cast because, well, he is. That’s the biggest reason he’s No. 3 in this race with, if you ask me, almost no chance of winning the award.
Consider that Antetokounmpo’s Bucks are tied in the loss column with Embiid’s 76ers, and Antetokounmpo is scoring two-tenths of one point per game less than Embiid (29.9 to 29.7). Giannis is ahead of Embiid in every single aforementioned advanced stat. Bottom line, we just think he’s playing with more help, because again, he is (even if Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday have both missed some real time), and that’s going to keep him from his third MVP whether you like that rationale or not.
Fighting for top five status
These names could, and likely will, fluctuate over the last month of the season, but in order, here’s who I see having a legit shot at finishing as the 4-5 also-rans behind what is clearly the top three listed above.