Entering the 2022-23 NBA season, the greatest factor working against Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic winning the MVP award had little to do with what he’s capable of doing on the court. His greatest rival is simply voter fatigue.
Are MVP Voters Already Bored of Jokic?
NBA statistics perennially become more complex in the ways that they measure player impact, and Jokic continues to be at or near the top of just about every traditional and new wave statistic available while also keeping Denver near the top of the NBA standings. But he seemed to lag behind in one as-of-yet unquantifiable category that has always played a role in MVP discussions – “narrative.”
MVP voters, historically, simply get bored sometimes. Jokic has won two straight MVP awards, and his competition continues to increase. Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, who Jokic has edged for the award the last two seasons, continues to be a formidable and deserving threat. Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Memphis’ Ja Morant, and Dallas’ Luka Doncic have all ascended this season from All-Star level to true superstars capable of carrying their teams to a championship run.
A Third Straight MVP Would Put Jokic in Elite Company
Jokic winning a third straight award also has some historic implications. Only Bill Russell, Larry Bird, and Wilt Chamberlain have won the MVP award three straight years. MVP voters tend to view themselves rightly or wrongly as guardians of the game’s history and legends. Although no one is debating Jokic’s greatness at this point, giving him an award that puts him in an elite club that not even Michael Jordan is a member of might be a bridge too far. That, combined with a desire to potentially anoint one of the many other exciting young stars with his first MVP award are undoubtedly working against Jokic in that hard-to-define “narrative” category.
That reasoning is flawed, however, and Denver coach Michael Malone said as much. Malone had a to-the-point reaction when asked about voter fatigue potentially working against Jokic. “It’s lazy,” he told Mike Singer of the Denver Post.
How Important Is It to “Look the Part”?
Many Jokic detractors over the years have lamented the way defenders build his case around advanced stats. For all of Jokic’s brilliance, he doesn’t play the game in a particularly athletic way. He’s methodical and doesn’t look the part the way a player like, say, Embiid does. Embiid is quicker, more agile, and plays the center position in a way that aesthetically looks closer to the way we’ve been trained over the years to watch dominant centers play.
But stats aside, Jokic has become an eye test player too. On this season’s Christmas Day games, the NBA was blessed with its young stars taking turns putting on a show. Embiid started things off, with 35 points and 8 rebounds in a win over New York. Doncic had 32 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists in a win over the Lakers. Tatum scored 41 points with 7 rebounds and 3 steals in a blowout win over the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. Morant had 36 points with 7 rebounds and 8 assists in a loss to Golden State.
Then, right there to close off the evening, the defending MVP scored 41 points with 15 rebounds and 15 assists in a come-from-behind win over Phoenix.
One day of games doesn’t make an MVP case, of course, but on the league’s marquee day, Jokic out-performed every other star trying to unseat him as this year’s recipient. He’s also propelled Denver to the top of the Western Conference standings (in a neck-and-neck battle with Memphis for first place).
It’s Impossible to Deny Jokic’s Value
And, most notably, his lack of a narrative has actually become his narrative of late. In December, The New York Times asked, “How is Nikola Jokic this good again?” The Ringer’s Michael Pina pointed out that, along with dominating virtually every counting and advanced individual stat, no player makes his teammates perform better than Jokic does. Aaron Gordon is having a career year. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is shooting an absurd 11 percent better from three-point range this season than his already very good 36 percent career average. Every role player the Nuggets have retrofitted around him this season has fit in seamlessly.
The steady reckoning with the fact that Jokic is a generational talent has certainly helped his chances with voters, and oddsmakers have also taken notice. As recently as December, Jokic was only on the fringes of the top five in the MVP race according to some futures odds. Doncic and Tatum were thought to be the top two contenders last month. Jokic has rapidly climbed, though, and is now the favorite in NBA futures odds, slightly ahead of Doncic.
As long as he stays healthy, there’s no reason to doubt Jokic’s production. And now that what seemed like a lack of a narrative early in the season has morphed into a strong one – the chance to see a player accomplish something that hasn’t been done since the 1980s – Jokic is looking like an increasingly strong bet to win the 2023 MVP award.
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