The MVP race looked like one of the most engaging of the last decade, but as other stars faded away, Nikola Jokic has become the clear frontrunner
The NBA has never officially said what the word “valuable” means, so voters and fans have all created their own particular mix of criteria for what it means for a player to be deemed the league’s Most Valuable Player. Historically though, it has meant the best player on one of the league’s best teams. It’s rare for a player to be named MVP if his team is not one of the two best in his conference which inherently limits the number of contenders any given year. Though this season, there are few teams standing out from the pack, and those that have are not defined by a singular star. They either are winning by committee or have a number of stars so it’s hard to pick one over the other. It seemed certain that this would be one of the most engaging MVP races in recent memory, though as the season progresses, it is becoming clear that Nikola Jokic will win the award as other contenders fall out of consideration.
The talent pool in the league is as deep as ever and many of the league’s stars began the season looking like their best selves. From the start, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic both looked phenomenal; LeBron James did what he always does; Kevin Durant looked like his old self after recovering from injury, and Stephen Curry was doing everything he could to keep the Warriors from being irrelevant. James Harden and Jimmy Butler also started playing phenomenally once leaving Houston and returning from injury, respectively. Though as the year has gone on, each of these players has essentially been disqualified from the MVP race after missing too many games. Embiid, James, Durant, Harden, and Butler have all missed, or are in the process of missing, a substantial chunk of games, too many to be legitimately considered for the award even in a season where extended absences are more the rule than the exception.
While Giannis Antetokounmpo, the two-time defending MVP, has played very well this year, he has not always lived up to the outsized standards set by him the last two seasons. Also, as much as anything that happens on the court, narrative determines who wins the award. Voters presumably get bored by the idea of voting for a previous winner and look for a new storyline to honor. This is not the only reason why no one has won three consecutive MVP awards since Larry Bird did so from 1984-86, but it’s a major factor. All of this has combined to make the MVP race a one-man contest, with the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic competing against no one but himself. As long as Jokic can continue to play at the same standard he has throughout the season thus far, the award will most likely be his.
Nikola Jokic’s MVP case is about more than everyone else getting hurt
There may be some naysayers who view Jokic’s near-inevitable winning MVP as a matter of luck as if he fell backward into it because of other player’s lack of availability. But regardless of if every star player in the league had been fully healthy all year, Nikola Jokic would likely still win MVP and certainly deserve it. What will determine how his MVP season is viewed historically, far more than the injuries to his contemporaries, is how far he takes the Nuggets in the postseason. While the MVP is a regular-season award, what happens in the postseason colors how its recipient is viewed. No one would say Giannis Antetokounmpo did not deserve to win MVP the last two seasons, but the Bucks’ failure to reach the Finals either year raised a lot of questions that one would assume his regular-season accolades would have answered.
The specter of LeBron James also lies in wait. It’s long been conceded that if the MVP award simply went to the best player in the NBA, that LeBron would have won about 10 or so by now. Since rejoining the Cavaliers in 2014 though, LeBron has not consistently taken the regular season too seriously, choosing to prioritize having his body ready for the postseason instead. Even though he is not a legitimate contender in the MVP race, he and the Lakers are still presumptive favorites to come out of the Western Conference — assuming he and Davis are both healthy. Even if Jokic does win MVP, a dominant showing by LeBron in the postseason could easily overshadow whatever preceded it. In 2015-16, Stephen Curry put in one of the greatest seasons ever, becoming the first player to ever win MVP unanimously, and yet that achievement is mostly mentioned as a meme in light of what happened a few months later when the Warriors blew a 3-1 Finals lead. No one wants to relive what happened to Dirk Nowitzki in 2007: accepting an MVP trophy after being eliminated from the postseason, having to defend their claim to an award they already received.
While the injuries to so many other stars make the conversation around the MVP race uninteresting, Nikola Jokic will make a more than deserving MVP. Jokic has been one of the best players in the NBA for a few years yet somehow still managed to take a massive leap this season, posting career highs in practically every category. Yet Jokic is not only putting up bigger numbers than in the past, he’s also doing it more efficiently than before. He’s averaging six more points than his previous career-high, shooting over 40 percent from 3 for the first time, and garnering more assists than ever. It’s not rare for a player to improve as they enter their prime, but it is rare for a player already as great as Jokic to improve as much as he has this season. All the rough edges in his game have been smoothed down so that it’s now nearly impossible for opponents to find any flaw or weakness to exploit.
The one other underwhelming aspect of Jokic’s MVP candidacy is the lack of a compelling narrative for him this season. He has improved, yes, but rather than introducing a set of new skills to his arsenal, he’s refined what was already so lethal. Also, the Nuggets have not been able to set themselves apart from their Western Conference rivals, consistently finding themselves in the middle of the playoff pack, same as last season. It’s not a breakout season. Instead, it’s the fulfillment of a promising player’s potential. At least, until he adds some more wrinkles to his game next year.
One can imagine this year’s MVP race as a marathon, with several major stars starting hot before fading away, and others starting so far behind that all their sprinting cannot close the initial gap. This has left Jokic standing alone as the playoffs near and the proverbial finish line comes into sight. He will certainly have earned the award, having looked like the best player in the NBA more consistently than anyone else this season. Now the question is whether he will be able to look like an MVP when the postseason arrives and if he will be able to lead the Nuggets to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, cementing his singular place among the league’s current crop of superstars.