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The Nikola Jokic-Chris Paul MVP Debate Isn't Really Close

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2021

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, right, looks to pass the ball as Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, front left, and guard Jamal Murray defend during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

We seemingly get a new addition to the NBA's 2020-21 MVP conversation every week, often contrived out of thin air before disappearing in the wake of another monster performance from Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic.

Earlier this season, James Harden had his moment. More recently, Stephen Curry's bananas scoring streak garnered the attention he deserved, but it's hard to give real MVP consideration to the leader of a .500 team (even if it'd be far worse without him). Prior to a prolonged injury absence, Joel Embiid was the darling of the debate, and he certainly had a real case at that time.

The constant, though, has been Jokic. And as the MVP cases of bigger names come and go, his numbers and impact have been insurmountable, even for the legendary Chris Paul.

Whispers of the Phoenix Suns point guard's candidacy likely predate the proclamation of ESPN's Dave McMenamin on The Lowe Post that he would vote for CP3, but that appears to be the moment the idea entered the national media's ether. And it has gained some steam since then.

"No one has added more value to their team than CP3," Fox Sports 1's Nick Wright said on Wednesday. "He won't win MVP, but he should."

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That night, Jokic scored 24 points in the first quarter of a blowout win over the New York Knicks. Chris Paul went 3-of-11 in a blowout loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Thursday morning, Wright doubled down harder than Mikey did at the blackjack table in Swingers.

"I say this with respect to Jokic, historically speaking, he would be the worst [MVP] we've had in 35 years," Wright said. "Chris Paul wouldn't be. Chris Paul's an all-time great player."

Of course, CP3 is an all-time great player.

He's sixth in NBA history in career box plus/minus (BPM "...is a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player’s contribution to the team when that player is on the court," according to Basketball Reference). He has six of the top 100 single-season BPMs in NBA history. Additionally, his teams have been better with him on the floor in every season but his rookie campaign.

That said, MVP isn't a lifetime achievement award. That's what the Hall of Fame is for. And CP3 will get in there on his first chance, whether he wins an MVP or a championship or not.

Unlike the Hall of Fame, MVP is a single-season honor. And though Paul has had a fantastic year, particularly for someone in an age-35 season, you have to undergo an Olympic-level mental gymnastics routine to get him into the MVP conversation.

He's averaging 16.2 points and 8.8 assists with a league-leading 93.5 free-throw percentage. He's 19th in the league in BPM, and the Suns' net rating (net points per 100 possessions) is a full point better when he plays.

Those are solid numbers. And Paul deserves much of the credit he's gotten for raising Phoenix's ceiling, but you have to ignore the evidence to act like the Suns would've been some hopeless cellar-dweller without him.

Last season, Phoenix was plus-7.6 points per 100 possessions when Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Ricky Rubio were on the floor. This season, the Suns are plus-7.5 with Booker, Ayton and CP3.

Development from Booker, Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and others has a lot to do with Phoenix's rise. The addition of Jae Crowder was no small thing. And there's a reason Monty Williams is receiving Coach of the Year buzz.

Would the Suns have been first or second in the West without Paul? It seems unlikely, but the team was clearly on an upward trajectory. Paul probably accelerated the ascent, but that alone isn't an MVP case.

Jokic, meanwhile, is averaging 26.4 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.4 assists. His team, which has been decimated by injuries and the health and safety protocols, is only three games behind Phoenix in the loss column. He's on track for the eighth best single-season BPM ever, and LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Stephen Curry and David Robinson are the only players above him on that list.

The list of numbers in which Jokic tops Paul in 2020-21 includes, but is not limited to:

  • Points per game (by over 10);
  • Rebounds per game (by more than double);
  • Blocks per game;
  • Field-goal percentage;
  • Three-point percentage;
  • True shooting percentage;
  • BPM (by more than double);
  • Net rating; and
  • Net rating swing

They're tied in steals and threes per game, and CP3 has a 0.4-dime edge in assists per game.

To drive this point home even further, Jokic's 2020-21 numbers buried Paul's in a blind poll released shortly after McMenamin's appearance on The Lowe Post.

In a way, this is unfair to Paul. Jokic is having one of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history. A head-to-head case with almost anyone in the league would go much the same (unless you want to ignore availability and resurrect Embiid's case).

There's a reason why Jokic has been the overwhelming favorite in Basketball Reference's MVP Tracker ("...based on a model built using previous voting results") for months.

Pitting Paul's case (10th in the tracker, by the way) against Thanos-level inevitability almost diminishes the stellar season he's had.

Over this season and last, Paul has worked wonders for his reputation and legacy. He's taken so well to the role of leader and elder statesmen that his pricklier days with the Los Angeles Clippers are starting to be overshadowed.

There is indeed an argument that he was the missing piece Phoenix needed to reach title-contender status. And it would be hard to argue that any other Sun is the team's best player. But there isn't an argument—statistical, narrative or otherwise—to have him over Jokic on the MVP ladder.

If you want to sneak him into your top five, you probably can. Even there, though, he'd have Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Rudy Gobert, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Curry (to name a few) to compete with.

You don't have to base your MVP arguments entirely on numbers, but they're the evidence we have for analysis, and the stats for all of the above are mighty strong.

Ultimately, the story of this MVP shouldn't be where he ranks among all-time greats (even though Jokic is currently third in league history in career BPM), but rather, how good the rest of the field was.

Go through the individual seasons of the players already named. Throw in LeBron James, James Harden and a handful of others if you'd like. The 2020-21 production of the league's stars is outrageous.

That Jokic, a 26-year-old second-round pick, is somehow head and shoulders above everyone is remarkable.

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