Nikola Jokic’s MVP Case Is Stronger than You Think

While the NBA’s MVP has no criteria (and I guess this is a good thing), there’s definitely a set of underlying themes that circulate the ballots every season. There are countless examples from which to draw online. You’ve got those who prefer “the best player on the best team.” Some treat the premise of “value” literally, and support the player with the largest effect on his team’s win percentage. There’s even an originality component every once in a while. This post quotes an staff member stating his support for Russell Westbrook as the 2017 MVP for the sole reason that he’d never seen a player average a triple-double before. This means a lot of contradicting opinions are represented in the voting results (and I guess this is also a good thing), which speaks volumes to the historicity of Nikola Jokic’s current run.

Jokic is on pace to three-peat

Regardless of your opinion, the safest bet to win the MVP right now is Nikola Jokic. Every major sportsbook has his odds in the -310 to -375 range, with the next-best odds belonging to Joel Embiid via Caesars Sportsbook at +375. Polls drawn from current and past voters all seem to be overwhelmingly in Jokic’s favor. While we’ve had not-so-competitive MVP races in recent memory (Stephen Curry in 2016 and Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2020), Jokic stands out as having narrowed out the competition in the previous two seasons; and as historical fans know, voter fatigue is a real thing. People don’t want to see the same player win the award over and over again. Refreshment is, well… refreshing!

What else should be working against Jokic’s favor? He’s not a traditionally aesthetic athlete. Most of his prowess on the court is cerebral and decision-making. He’s a slow-footed, nonchalant-looking, formerly-chunky, foreign big man in an era that’s empowered the shot-creating guard and point forward unlike any point in NBA history. Like I said, to put this into a historical perspective is seriously mind-numbing. I almost forgot the league-wide consensus that the talent pool is supposedly the most top-heavy in… ever? What’s going on!

Jokic is the best player on the best team

I just lied to you, because technically, that’s not true. While you can take “liberty” with what best means, no one’s going to dismiss the idea that the best team has the highest winning percentage. That’s the Milwaukee Bucks at the time I’m writing this. So far all the ‘best player on the best team” proponents out there, get ready to rally for the Greek Freak’s third MVP in five years. If you’re a sucker for things like point differential (which are likely better indicators of team quality but arguably extend beyond the scope of the MVP), Donovan Mitchell could reasonably be your pick. And if you’re banking on a few decimals swaying one way or the other, Jayson Tatum could snag that title by the end of the year. 

The Nuggets are certainly very good, and arguably the best team in their conference. (Memphis edges them out in point differential.) But not definitively by any measure. So why am I saying Jokic is the best player on the best team? Let’s reframe what it means to be on the best team for a second. (Trigger warning: I am about to emphasize the Player in Most Valuable Player.) People who say team record or point differential shouldn’t be factored into an individual award have a point, because those top-line measures are the products of supporting casts, coaches, other staff members, travel schedules, and then maybe the star has a share in there. So instead of looking at overall team efficacy, how about team efficacy only when each player is on the floor?1

Player Team Net On-Court Net
Nikola Jokic 4.4 13.6
Joel Embiid 3.7 9.0
Jayson Tatum 5.7 8.3
Giannis Antetokounmpo 3.8 7.0

W-O-W!!! While I won’t concede this as a catch-all remedy to contextualizing team record, Jokic is doing laps around the other candidates! For a little extra flavor in there, consider that Jokic is also leading the NBA in on-off differential (+24.4 per 100). The next-best player on any team that’s not the Nuggets (avoid collinearity) is Jaren Jackson Jr., who barely has half (+12.8) of what Jokic’s differential is! Again, this isn’t meant to end any conversation, rather spice it up a little bit. But when you look at winning from this perspective, it’s hard to argue that one name and one name alone doesn’t absolutely pop of the page!

Jokic is the darling of analytics darlings

Every year, it seems like Jokic’s BPM, his EPM, his RAPTOR, and his (insert acronym here) jumps to yet another unconceivable level. I’ve said many times before, as someone who’s studied these metrics with some intensity, that they do a fairly-good job at ballparking value for the vast majority of players. While acknowledging their imperfections, discussing modeling biases and techniques, and working through the analytics analytically is wonderful for evaluating players, that’s not the purpose of the MVP. Let’s straight-up compare Jokic’s ranks among the other MVP candidates.2

Player BPM Rank LEBRON Rank RAPTOR Rank
Nikola Jokic 1 3 1
Joel Embiid 4 4 4
Jayson Tatum 10 5 11
Giannis Antetokounmpo 14 2 14

Wait, hold on… Jokic is third in LEBRON? That doesn’t sound right… If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re right! While all the other ranks are among all players this season, Jokic’s ranks are among all player-seasons in history! While LEBRON and RAPTOR are hybrid metrics that (in full form) only have a decade’s worth of information, BPM goes all the way back to the shot clock (1955)! While this isn’t necessarily to say he’s definitively having the greatest regular season ever, let’s take some time to let those numbers simmer in our heads.

What doesn’t count in the MVP

There are exactly two points that have been made historically in MVP talks that I want to address, because they explicitly violate the premise of the MVP, not because I think they’re fallacious or illogical. So if you’re an Embiid or Tatum stan who’d like to white-knight on their behalf in the comments, I recommend checking back to the next two bullet points for a guide on which criteria I consider irrevocably irrelevant:

  • Playoff translation: Bam Adebayo was recently quoted for saying Rudy Gobert shouldn’t have won DPOY because his game didn’t work well in the Playoffs. This is irrelevant. The MVP is a regular-season award, blah blah blah… But seriously! Take it seriously if you care enough to rip people in the comments!
  • Voter fatigue: Here’s one way to think about voter fatigue. By not choosing a player because they’d previous won the award, you are by definition taking previous seasons into account. The MVP (and all awards like it) are exclusive to the one regular season. (For example, the upcoming 2023 MVP will only be considering the 2022-23 regular season.)

With that all said, those are the main points I wanted to hit to try to explain the historicity of Nikola Jokic’s run for his third consecutive MVP, and it’s looking like it’s going to happen! I’d love to talk about it in the comments with people who disagree (or people who agree who have other points not referenced in this post), so have a go at it!

  1. Data from Basketball-Reference.
  2. Data from BBall-Index, FiveThirtyEight, and Thinking Basketball.

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