With just two weeks left in the season, the NBA’s MVP race is heating up and according to the latest straw poll, it’s still a two-horse affair.
And it is hard to argue that Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic have not been the two most valuable players this season when looking at the numbers.
But the numbers only tell half of the story.
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Regardless of whether it is fair or not, the MVP race is not just about numbers – it is narrative-driven.
And some of the other contenders have the more compelling narrative.
Here, foxsports.com.au looks at the top five MVP candidates, what their numbers say of their chances and how their storylines could influence the final vote.
Stats line (per game): 26.3 points, 13.6 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 0.9 blocks, 1.4 steals
Win-loss record when not playing: 2-5
Next best teammate (per game): 14.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 0.6 blocks, 1.1 steals
No MPJ, no Murray … no worries
The narrative for Jokic is simple – he is consistently carrying Denver on his back and without the team’s two other biggest weapons.
Michael Porter Jr. has been virtually sidelined for the entire season alongside Jamal Murray, meaning opposition defences know shutting down Jokic is the key to stopping the Nuggets.
The only problem? No-one seems to have worked out how to do that just yet. Jokic ranks 10th in points, eighth in assists and second in rebounds (per game) and is the only player in the league to place in the top 10 in all three categories.
What’s more, no other Nugget outside of Jokic is averaging over 15 points per game, further proving just how much of a burden the Serbian is carrying.
“He’s led this team to where they are without having the second and third-leading scorer … I think he’s your clear-cut MVP,” Stan van Gundy said earlier in the year.
It is almost expected of Jokic to know that he will carry the Nuggets without complaint and that in itself can work against him.
Everyone loves a more captivating narrative to get behind and what Jokic is doing is not necessarily surprising, although teammate Austin Rivers says it should get a whole lot more respect.
“Everybody always complains about guys like that who get the ball that much, but they don’t realize how hard it is to have that on your shoulders every night,” Rivers said.
“That man, he plays every single night with the weight of carrying us on his shoulders. Every night. And that’s not a burden that most guys can take. There’s like three of four guys in the league that can do that. “
Michael Wilbon though questioned whether Jokic could be in “danger” of missing out on the MVP honor should the Nuggets finish in the play-in tournament.
“That is the danger right now for the Joker,” ESPN’s ‘NBA Countdown’.
“He might still wind up in the play-in. You can’t be the MVP. I know it’s not his fault he’s missing his second and third-best players all or most of the season. “
Denver should be avoiding that fate though with Minnesota dropping a few crucial games recently.
Stats line (per game): 29.9 points, 11.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.4 blocks, 1.2 steals
Win-loss record when not playing: 5-8
Next best teammate (per game): 17.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.1 blocks, 1.7 steals
Kept the Sixers stabilized as Simmons saga raged on
Joel Embiid’s work off the court this season has been just as valuable as that on it. While teammate Ben Simmons was engaged in a bitter standoff with the Sixers organization, Embiid had to choose every single one of his words carefully.
One slip-up could have sparked a media firestorm and only further cheapened the Australian’s trade value. But as Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix said earlier in the week, Embiid fought those temptations to keep the Sixers afloat.
“He told me he came dangerously close to popping off and saying whatever he wanted to say and what part of him really felt,” Mannix said on ‘The Bill Simmons Podcast’.
“But how he was able to keep it together, I think is as important as anything, for why Philadelphia is in this position right now with James Harden and with a chance to win the championship.”
Chris Broussard, meanwhile, on Fox Sports’ ‘First Things First’ said the Sixers “could have easily gone into a mental and emotional funk” as the Simmons saga dragged on.
“Embiid made sure they didn’t do that,” Broussard added.
“I don’t think that’s a factor because it affected the play on the court.”
Kendrick Perkins called Embiid the “no-brainer” for the MVP award, considering how he has dominated on the court in the spite of the Simmons distraction.
“Embiid should be the frontrunner because usually when you’re the runner-up like he was last year, you have an ultimate shot at going the next year to get what you deserve, and he’s having a better season,” Perkins said.
“Look Ben Simmons quit on him at the beginning of the season. Joel Embiid came up and said I can’t worry about him (Simmons) no more, I got to be ready to go to war with the guys that I have in the locker room, and he did just that and in great fashion.
“You take all that in one pot and what he has done, with his body of work on the court and leading his team, I think it’s a no-brainer that he (Embiid) should win the MVP this year.”
Stats line (per game): 29.9 points, 11.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.5 blocks, 1.0 steals
Win-loss record when not playing: 6-7
Next best teammate (per game): 20.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.1 blocks, 1.1 steals
The Finals MVP who still isn’t getting the respect he deserves
At this point, it is a two-horse race for MVP between Jokic and Embiid. But Antetokounmpo should certainly be at least be in the discussion after yet another dominant season.
The Greek Freak has taken his midrange game to the next level, making him even harder to stop and even still, Antetokounmpo does not seem to be getting the credit he deserves.
“I am feeling like Giannis, I don’t know if he’s there yet, but I think we’re edging there, is becoming the most disrespected superstar of his generation,” Bill Simmons said earlier this month on his podcast.
“You laid out some of the case today for why he should absolutely be thrown into the MVP race in every conversation. He answered every question we had in the Finals last year. He plays hurt, he comes through on the biggest stages, he has iconic plays, he handles his business the right way, he crushes on both ends. He’s the best defensive player in the league. “He’s averaging 30, 11, and 6. He’s carried a team that’s had a lot of moving pieces during the year. he never misses games or really seems to get hurt. He’s a true freak. He’s in the prime of his career. What am I missing? ”
Not much and Simmons is not alone in thinking that either, with Kendrick Perkins warning the NBA is at risk of “getting bored” with Antetokounmpo like it did with LeBron James.
“We’re taking him for granted,” Perkins said ESPN’s ‘NBA Countdown’.
“When you look at his stats and what he does throughout the course of the season, we talk about a guy that goes out there and get you 40, 17 and six assists and a key block towards the end of the game and we’re still talking about the others.
“This is a guy we can put in the MVP conversation every year. What else does Giannis have to prove? The way he is playing, it is like he has to prove everything to the world. ”
Stats line (per game): 26.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.4 blocks, 1.2 steals
Win-loss record when not playing: 8-3
Next best teammate (per game): 17.2 points, 10.1 rebounds, 10.7 assists, 1.1 blocks, 1.8 steals
Top scorer on the top team … and he kept the Suns rising, even after CP3 went down
While some players shy away from putting themselves in the MVP conversation, Devin Booker is the complete opposite.
“Yeah,” the Suns superstar simply replied when asked if his MVP credentials should be given more thought after a season-high 49-point explosion against Denver.
And while Booker is not going to be winning the MVP, he should certainly get credit for the way he has stepped up in Chris Paul’s absence.
In the 13 games since the All-Star break, Booker has averaged 30.3 points, 6.8 assists and 4.4 rebounds while Phoenix has gone 10-3 during that period.
Making Booker’s numbers all the more impressive is the fact Paul missed nine of those games through injury.
He was the clear first option and still Booker found ways to only lift his game when the Suns needed it most and Stephen A. Smith is certainly a fan.
“They’re the best team in basketball,” Smith said ESPN.
“And Devin Booker has been a model of consistency. He’s not scoring 50 one game and two the next. Consistently, 25 points a game, five (rebounds) and five (assists). This is what he does on a night-in, night-out basis and, they just got from the Finals. So everybody knew they were coming.
“Everyone knew they had arrived and still, he showed up this year and has been busting everybody’s living butts. I can’t ignore that. “
He is certainly not in the discussion with Jokic, Embiid and Antetokounmpo but Booker is a top-five candidate.
Stats line (per game): 28.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 0.5 blocks, 1.2 steals
Win-loss record when not playing: 8-9
Next best teammate (per game): 17.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.0 blocks, 1.1 steals
Single-handedly inspired a Mavericks resurgence few saw coming
There are plenty of reasons to build a case for Doncic’s name to be more seriously considered in the MVP race.
Despite a slow start to the season and the disruption of the Kristaps Porzingis trade, Doncic has taken the Mavericks towards third seed in the West while averaging a 28-9-9 stats line.
He also has the best defensive rating among all guards and the best head-to-head record against other MVP contenders.
Plus, like Jokic, Doncic does not have the most consistent supporting cast and yet has put this Dallas team on his back.
“I think Luka Doncic is a dark horse for the MVP,” Jay Williams said ESPN’s ‘Get Up’.
“I know Joel Embiid, I know Nikola Jokic, I know Giannis is in that conversation, but you can actually make a case for Luka in his last 10 games averaging 35, 12 and 10. They have the same record as the Philadelphia 76ers and you talk about how he finishes down the stretch. ”
He is right too. Compared to the Nuggets and 76ers, the Mavericks have a superior record and that comes back to Doncic.
“Dallas and Philly have the exact same record, they have the same amount of wins. So before we start crowning Joel Embiid MVP because he’s been putting up these historic numbers, we’ve just seen what Luke is doing; 40 and 15, done it twice this month, ”Richard Jefferson said on ESPN’s ‘NBA Today’.
“He is playing at another level and if he continues playing like this, before we start saying‘ Philly is number one in this ’they have the exact same record, so if they’re both dominating in the same way, then I think maybe this race can get a little bit closer than what some people think. ”
Working against Doncic though is his slow start to the season, with the Slovenian superstar averaging only 22.5 points per game in October while shooting 42.7 per cent from the field and 23.8 per cent from deep.