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Nikola Jokic Just Dominated 1 of the Strongest MVP Fields Ever

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJune 8, 2021

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) brings the ball up court in the second half during an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Friday, May 7, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

For months, there seemed to be a cabal of talking heads hellbent on giving the 2021 NBA MVP to anyone but the clearest choice—even though he had distanced himself from the pack since as far back as mid-January.

Nikola Jokic, who finished the season with absurd averages of 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 threes, was in the conversation for MVP all season. And while there were pushes for Joel Embiid, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard and even Chris Paul, the Denver Nuggets' Serbian point center was officially announced as the MVP on Tuesday.

NBA on TNT @NBAonTNT

Nikola Jokic thanks his team after becoming the first #KiaMVP in @nuggets history 🙏 https://t.co/jTzXoOlB0n

There's no nitpicking this case. Box plus/minus pegs Jokic's campaign as the ninth-best since 1973-74 (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 was well above average in two-point percentage, three-point percentage and free-throw percentage. He trailed only Curry in "the number of extra points added by True Shot Attempts made above league average."

Despite prolonged absences of both Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray, Jokic's team finished third in the ever-brutal Western Conference. And, unlike just about every other candidate (genuine or contrived) in the race, Jokic played in all 72 games.

He's not the MVP for winning a war of attrition, though. Sure, it's fine to add that anecdote to the analysis, but it shouldn't be much more than that. On a game-by-game basis, Jokic was the best player in the league in the regular season. And in this particular regular season, that's really saying something.

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If you take every MVP campaign since 1973-74 (as far back as complete box scores are tracked), and find the average production per 36 minutes, you're left with this lofty stat line:

  • 25.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.3 blocks, 0.8 threes, 58.9 true-shooting percentage, 21.9 game score ("...a rough measure of a player's productivity for a single game)

There are 18 players with marks over 20 in game score per 36 minutes this season. Thirteen are at 21.9 or higher. Jokic finished this season at 26.5, just behind Joel Embiid's league-leading 26.6 (as you'll see, one of the only catchalls in which Jokic doesn't lead the league).

Yes, pace is up. The increased volume of three-point attempts from all over the league has also contributed to some statistical inflation. But that shouldn't be an excuse to dismiss today's stars. The active players putting up these gaudy numbers deserve some credit.

Now, regardless of size or position, possessing the full gamut of basketball skills is preferred. Thirty years ago, a player like Jokic likely would've been asked to spend all game fighting in the trenches with other bigs. Post-ups, jump hooks and rebounds would've been his primary concerns.

Today, despite being 6'11" and not the game's most fleet-of-foot player, Jokic is trusted to essentially play point guard on offense. And even in this skill- and talent-laden era, he has managed to produce at a level no one else does.

Andy Bailey @AndrewDBailey

If you sort every NBA player w/ 500+ MIN in 2020-21 by the AVERAGE OF THEIR RANKS in 10 catch-alls (Box +/-, RAPTOR, Estimated +/-, LEBRON and Game Score per 36 minutes, as well as cumulative versions of each), this is the top 30... https://t.co/Z3AEA7Uy79

There may be better scorers, though Curry, Kevin Durant and Zion Williamson are the only players who match or exceed Jokic's 2020-21 marks for points per 75 possessions and true-shooting percentage. There may be better passers, though Jokic is top-10 in assists per 75 possessions and hands out his dimes with a flavor all his own. There are certainly more productive rebounders, though Jokic trails only Rudy Gobert among double-digit rebounders in contested rebounding percentage.

But no one combines every skill at the level Jokic does. He wasn't just the only player to average at least 26 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists with a 60-plus true-shooting percentage this season—he's the only player who's ever done it.

He's long been a plus player on both ends of the floor too. He's not just piling up numbers on offense. Catchall metrics from Basketball Reference, Dunks & Threes, Basketball Index and FiveThirtyEight all identified Jokic as a positive-impact defender in 2020-21.

He'll never be mistaken for a lockdown perimeter player (nor would most bigs), but quick hands, generally being in the right place, ending possessions with defensive rebounds and just being flat-out large all help.

Of course, none of this is meant to disparage the cases of others in the league. Had Embiid played a bit more (he appeared in 51 games) his candidacy would've been stronger. Curry's team missing the playoffs is probably what doomed him. Both had bigger impacts on their teams' raw plus-minus.

Jokic's triumph is about Jokic.

Seven years ago, ESPN famously played a Taco Bell ad while the Nuggets spent their No. 41 pick on the 2021 MVP.

The Association @association

Nikola Jokic was picked 41st... during a Taco Bell commercial. Now, he’s the MVP 🏆 https://t.co/NueEkIjQKT

"Actually, though, I was sleeping when the Nuggets drafted me," Jokic later wrote in The Players' Tribune. "My brother had celebrations and champagne, and he called to tell me. I picked up the phone, but I really wasn't listening. I just told him, 'Come on, man, I'm sleeping.' Then I hung up. So I heard the next morning."

When the broadcast returned from the break, Rece Davis spent about 15 seconds on the selection.

"Nikola Jokic from Serbia, going to Denver," Davis said. "He also joins Jusuf Nurkic, from Bosnia-Herzegovina. So, Denver going with the international players."

For many, that was Jokic's introduction to the league. Less than a decade later, he's the recipient of the game's most prestigious individual award. And he takes it home in the same year that Embiid had his best individual campaign. He did it with Curry returning close to his form from the 73-win season.

He secured the award with past MVPs like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Giannis Antetokounmpo still in the league and performing at a high level.

The NBA is as talent-rich as it's ever been. And Jokic is its Most Valuable Player.

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