It doesn’t feel like it, but we’re nearing the quarter pole of the 2021-22 NBA season. It’s still early, obviously, but some things are at least beginning to take shape. The MVP race is one of them. Entering play on Monday night, in my estimation, the top three is clear, though the order is up for debate.
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Curry, relatively speaking, had an erratic shooting start to his season. Then he got cooking. He’s up to 41 percent from 3 on career-high volume (13.1 attempts per game). Entering play on Monday, Curry is second in the league in scoring, behind Kevin Durant, and is on pace to make more than 415 triples, which would break his own NBA record of 402.
You could argue Curry has not been the league’s best traditional player this season, but his intangible effect on games and his team still seems impossible to properly measure. Either way, he’s been spectacular. He’s already made at least nine 3-pointers four times. That’s almost half the amount of nine-3 games that Damian Lillard and James Harden have in their entire career.
Curry’s gravity is as devastating as ever, his assists are up with more scoring and shooting around him, and even his defense has been really good. With the Warriors owning a league-best 15-2 record entering play on Monday, Curry is the pretty clear early favorite to capture his third MVP trophy.
For my money, Jokic has been the league’s best player so far. He was off the charts in winning the MVP last season, and he’s been better this year in the absence of Jamal Murray and, recently, Michael Porter Jr. Once again, Jokic leads just about every advanced metric, and the ones he doesn’t lead he’s second. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player in the league averaging anything close to Jokic’s 26 points, six assists and 13 rebounds.
Entering Monday, Jokic is shooting 59 percent from the field, 41 percent from 3 and 65 percent from 2 with a 66-plus true-shooting percentage, all absolutely elite marks and career highs by a mile. The Nuggets are outscoring opponents by more than 29 points per 100 possessions when Jokic is on the floor, and 18 of those points are gained on defense. That is not an empty metric. Jokic has been legitimately good on defense this season.
Jokic’s huge-bodied, space-eating presence has always been underrated as people have ragged his defense over the years, but this year he’s moving noticeably better in ball-screen actions, playing at the level when appropriate, retreating to stop lobs, moving his feet one-on-one.
When facing a speed demon like Tyrese Maxey, he’ll drop deep. If a shooter is coming off, he’s often in something of a soft drop, in between a drop and a full double or hedge, not giving the ball-handler a clear decision to pull up or attack the rim, almost the same way a lone defender on a 2-on-1 break will wait as long as he can to commit. This way he can contest shots while still giving himself a chance to stay in front and/or retreat to stop lobs.
The Nuggets have been a top-five defense most of the season, and it’s not a coincidence they’ve dropped with Jokic out for the past two games with a wrist issue, the most recent of which saw Denver surrender a season-high 126 points to Phoenix.
None of this means Jokic is an elite defender by any stretch, just as Curry’s strong defensive metrics don’t say that about him. He’s not a stout rim protector. He lacks athleticism to legitimately guard on the perimeter. But he’s as smart as he is huge. He understands spacing and has a great feel for how to navigate the gray areas of coverage. The time is here for us to stop talking about Jokic as a one-way player.
Durant leads the league in scoring with 56.7/42.7/84.5 split entering Monday. The man is shooting 66 percent from 15-19 feet, per NBA.com. That is such a stupid number, particularly considering that basically every shot he takes is contested, that I don’t know how to do it proper justice. All told, Durant is shooting 58 percent from the midrange, per Cleaning the Glass, by far a career high for what was already arguably the greatest midrange shooter in history.
As James Harden slowly works his way back into old form, Durant is doing everything for Brooklyn. On top of his shooting and scoring, he’s registering a career-high assist rate, per Cleaning the Glass. Top 10 in all the catch-all metrics, Durant continues to be the eye-test champion. He can get any shot he wants. Defense is bordering on irrelevant. Nobody makes scoring look easier. The Nets are a contender, at this point, almost solely because of him.
Dealer’s choice for who’s been better in Chicago, DeRozan or Zach LaVine. I’m going with DeRozan for the simple fact that he’s who the Bulls run offense through when they really need a bucket. And for good reason. DeRozan remains a midrange machine. He is one of the surest bets in the league to get to his spot (the short midrange is the money zone), and once he does, he’s making better than 52 percent of his 10-16-foot jumpers, a career high.
DeRozan is also taking 2.6 3-pointers per game, his highest volume since his final season in Toronto, but this year it doesn’t feel forced. He’s taking them in rhythm and making them at a 37 percent clip, by far a career high. Entering Monday, the Bulls are 23 points per 100 possessions better with DeRozan on the floor, per CTG, double the impact of anyone else on the team (that said, don’t allow LaVine’s minus-10.7 mark to fool you; that’s lineup dependent and small-sample deception).
Reasonable minds could have Jimmy Butler, Paul George or Ja Morant in this spot, but give me Antetokounmpo at the moment. Close your eyes and point to an encapsulating advanced metric and he’ll be top five. Giannis isn’t scoring with quite his normal efficiency, but it’s coming. Giannis hasn’t even played two full games worth of possessions alongside Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, both of whom have missed a lot of time.
As mentioned above, only Jokic is putting up better points-rebounds-assists numbers than Giannis’ 27.8/12.2/5.8, and when you throw in Antetokounmpo’s 1.9 blocks and 1.2 steals per game, he’s in a league of his own. The Bucks, most importantly, are more than 33 points per 100 possessions better with Antetokounmpo on the floor, per CTG.