Why Can't NBA Awards Voters See the Obvious MVP Front-Runner?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured Columnist IVDecember 19, 2022

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 18: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets after the game against the Charlotte Hornets on December 18, 2022 at the Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Nikola Jokić is having one of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history. For the third season in a row. As the two-time reigning MVP.

And yet, prior to Sunday's 40-point, 27-rebound, 10-assist triple-double (no typos there), he'd received, at best, minimal MVP buzz for this season.

In the first edition of ESPN's MVP straw poll, published late last week, Jokić finished fifth and only received one first-place vote. There are still four players with shorter betting odds on FanDuel's Sportsbook. He hasn't been first on NBA.com's MVP Ladder once all season.

But he's still dominating in every way he did in 2020-21 and 2021-22. In some ways, he's even gotten better.

bomani @bomani_jones

just wanna throw out a quick reminder the two-time reigning mvp is playing just as well this year as he has the last two seasons.

After his "not since Wilt Chamberlain" triple-double (an increasingly common descriptor for Jokić), he's averaging 25.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 9.0 assists in just 32.9 minutes per game (27.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists per 75 possessions).

With the return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. (who's been back on the injured list since November 23), Jokić's scoring and rebounding rates are slightly down, but he's had a number of reminder performances of late.

StatMuse @statmuse

Jokic last 5 games: <br><br>40 PTS | 27 REB | 10 AST<br>25 PTS | 11 REB | 8 AST<br>43 PTS | 14 REB | 8 AST <br>31 PTS | 12 REB | 14 AST <br>33 PTS | 10 REB | 9 AST<br><br>Building a strong MVP case. <a href="https://t.co/w3OXKPBbXo">pic.twitter.com/w3OXKPBbXo</a>

And before he started stacking those games up, Jokić was distributing to teammates and converting the shots he did take at career-best levels.

In what could now be characterized as an off night for the big man, Jokić went 13-of-26 from the field for his 40 points against the Charlotte Hornets. And that somehow dropped his true shooting percentage to 69.2.

He's on track to have the best true shooting percentage of all time for a season in which a player put up at least 15 shots per game. And the rest of the top 10 on that list is inhabited by Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Charles Barkley, Adrian Dantley, Anthony Davis (if he maintains his current level of play) and Jokić's 2021-22.

Had enough? Too bad, the 2022-23 resume doesn't end there.

  • Jokić leads (by pretty wide margins) the NBA in Basketball Reference's box plus/minus and FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR (two of the internet's more popular catch-all metrics that endeavor to encapsulate all or most of a player's contributions into one number).
  • The Denver Nuggets are plus-11.1 points per 100 possessions with Jokić on the floor and minus-15.9 when he's off, giving him a plus-27.0 net rating swing that, you guessed it, leads the league.
  • Jokić is plus-205 in raw plus-minus, a mark that trails only Jayson Tatum's plus-216, despite the fact that Jokić has played three fewer games.
  • Basketball Reference's MVP Tracker ("based on a model built using previous voting results") pegs Jokić as the eventual 2022-23 winner.

With the exception of raw plus-minus, Jokić was in the same spots in all of those leaderboards prior to Sunday. The big performance only solidified his positions. So why, with such an absurdly strong case to win a third straight MVP, have so many people seemingly been intent on handing anyone else the MVP?

Well, for one thing, it's early. In ESPN's first edition of the 2021-22 MVP straw poll, Jokić was fourth. Of course, he went on to win the award. In what sometimes turns into a war of attrition, Jokić has a strong record of availability. Coming into 2022-23, he'd averaged 75.3 appearances per season. If that continues along with his remarkably consistent production, analysts and fans will be forced to acknowledge Jokić's presence in the MVP debate.

But he'll still have to overcome the bigger reason for the mass disregard of this campaign: good old-fashioned voter fatigue, which came for plenty of legends before Jokić.

bomani @bomani_jones

fwiw, they do it to everyone. could argue they did it to giannis. did it to lebron in '11 (though there was other stuff). jordan in '93 (though chuck had a case). did it to kareem.<br><br>didn't do it to bird in '86, but kiiiinda did it to him in '87? <a href="https://t.co/CIqTgiXDV9">https://t.co/CIqTgiXDV9</a>

HBO's Bomani Jones certainly has a point. Giannis Antetokounmpo's production didn't drop much after his second MVP (though it's not hard to argue Jokić's case that year). In 2010-11, LeBron James comfortably led the NBA in box plus/minus, but Derrick Rose stole the honor as his Chicago Bulls finished first in the East. Charles Barkley's Phoenix Suns finished first in the West in 1992-93, but Michael Jordan was undoubtedly the better and more productive individual player. The same logic won out in 1972-73, when Dave Cowens beat Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose numbers were simply better.

The common thread through all of the above is a potential MVP threepeat cut off by someone on a team with a better record. The underlying, often unsaid, factor there is that voters and fans simply don't want to add to a club that currently has just three members.

Right now, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird are the only players in league history to win three straight MVPs. There's an idea that giving a third straight to Jokić will act as a tacit endorsement of him being on the same level of those three.

The problem with the above is that it's not called "the best player on the best team" award, even if that's how it's often framed (now and through history). It's also not called the "most valuable player who's already won a championship" award. It's the [insert given season] Most Valuable Player, and under a plain-language analysis, Jokić has one of the strongest cases in the league.

If rewarding Jokić puts him in the company of Russell, Wilt and Bird, so be it. As we were reminded on Sunday, we should at least be used to the comparisons between Jokić and Chamberlain.