Fresh NBA MVP Rankings: Can Jokic, Durant or Giannis Catch the GOAT Shooter?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 20, 2021

Fresh NBA MVP Rankings: Can Jokic, Durant or Giannis Catch the GOAT Shooter?

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Roughly a third of the way into 2021-22, the serious candidates for NBA MVP are separating themselves from the rest of the pack.

    Think about that for a second. We're talking about the league's absolute top tier, populated entirely by apex athletes. The very best of the best. And four of them have been so much better than the rest (the other six in this case, just to give us a round number of 10) that even considering anyone outside that exclusive quartet feels ridiculous.

    Things can change with so much season left to play, but if someone outside our top four of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic were to somehow wind up winning the award, it'd register as a genuine shocker.

    The criteria for MVP are the same here as in the actual voting, which is to say...nobody's sure what they really are! Some mixture of team success, individual production and the ever-fuzzy "narrative" play into these rankings, but there's no precise way to weigh those considerations.

    Here's where things stand just over two months into the year.


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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    10. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

    Volume has to matter, and Butler lands on the edge of our top 10 because he's logged fewer games than anyone else on the list. When he's played, he's been phenomenal, averaging 22.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists.

    He continues to compensate for his lack of a three-point shot (19.4 percent on the season; yikes!) by bullying his way into the lane and drawing contact. He's averaging more free throws per game this season than last. The league's crackdown on cheap foul-baiting moves hasn't affected him. He earns his trips to the line.

    It's also worth noting that several catch-all metrics love Butler this season. He's fourth in Dunks and Threes' Estimated Plus/Minus and fifth in Basketball Reference's Value Over Replacement Player (VORP).


    9. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

    None of Embiid's teammates can get him the ball in the post, and the guy who was probably the per-minute MVP last season is having a down year by his standards. Of course, when a down year includes 24.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and a career-best 4.3 assists per game, it speaks volumes.

    The Sixers turn into the Washington Generals when Embiid sits, losing 10.0 points per 100 possessions from their net rating. They've dumped eight of the 11 games he's missed. The Heat, for comparison's sake, have actually been better when Butler is on the bench.


    8. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

    Mitchell is posting career highs in both usage rate and points per shot attempt, and the driving factor in the best season of his career has been improved finishing near the basket. He's always had one of the league's prettiest and most varied finishing packages, and he's now converting those slick scoops and off-time layups at high rates. He's on pace to smash his previous season highs by hitting 66 percent of his shots at the rim and 50 percent of his short mid-rangers.

    Playing for a Jazz team that has been hotter than any other over the last couple of weeks, Mitchell sits at No. 7 in EPM and No. 13 in FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR Wins Above Replacement.


    7. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

    Still just 23, Young is on pace to set new personal highs in Player Efficiency Rating and assist rate, with that second stat currently tops in the league.

    Though quieter whistles have cost the Hawks' point guard a handful of cheap free throws per game, he's compensated by draining 38.3 percent of his triples and knocking down over half of his two-point attempts. The result is a higher scoring average (27.0 points per game) than last year and an effective field-goal percentage of 52.8 percent that would mark a new career high.

    Only Curry, Jokic and Antetokounmpo outpace him in offensive box plus/minus, and the Hawks are an absurd 16.3 points per 100 possessions better on offense when he plays.


    6. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns

    On track to lead the league in assists for the fifth time in his career, Paul's offensive orchestration, particularly in the clutch, has been key to Phoenix thriving in Devin Booker's absence. Maybe CP3's 14.5 points per game don't leap off the stat sheet, but he's had no trouble scoring with the game hanging in the balance.

    His plus-60 plus/minus in close-and-late situations is tops in the league, and he's shooting an ungodly 60.9 percent in the clutch. Phoenix, as a result, is 12-1 in games where the score is within five points in the last five minutes.

    One of the key reasons Russell Westbrook won the 2016-17 MVP was his NBA-high 247 clutch points. Though clutch play tends to fluctuate year to year, Russ' impact on winning that season was undeniable. And if the "valuable" part of the MVP criteria means anything, we have to give special attention to Paul, who's been so instrumental in turning close games in his teams' favor.


    5. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

    Non-stretch centers don't get MVP voters' dander up, but Gobert is about as exciting as an old-school big can be. He leads the league in win shares, defensive rebound rate and true shooting percentage while continuing to be the most intimidating rim-protector in the game. Among players who've defended at least 150 shots inside six feet, Gobert stands apart from the crowd. He's holding opponents to a league-best 43.0 percent conversion rate on those shots

    Just as importantly, offensive players often don't even try to attack at close range when Gobert plays, opting instead for tougher mid-rangers.

    Patrick Beverley knows how to harass a ball-handler (and, usually, foul him), but he clearly has no idea what a great team defender actually looks like. Gobert is the biggest reason Utah—not the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns or Milwaukee Bucks—now owns the NBA's top net rating.

4. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    As Kevin Durant piles up the minutes and continues to carry the Brooklyn Nets with little help, you can feel the groundswell of support for his MVP candidacy.

    He's the league's leading scorer and ranks among the top five in box plus/minus and RAPTOR WAR. If he finished the season with something like the averages he owns at the moment while holding steady in the advanced metrics department, he could win MVP without much argument. But you could say the exact same thing about the three players ranked ahead of him.

    We've already hammered the size of the gap between the top four and everyone else, but the other key aspect to this race is that among those four players, it's ridiculously tough to split hairs. And the last thing you want to do in a situation like this is denigrate a guy who is playing at an MVP level. Again: KD is performing well enough to deserve the award. It's just that the other three guys are, too.

    So: Remember how Durant ranked fifth in those two catch-alls? Well, Curry, Jokic and Giannis are all ahead of him. And while that trio occupies the top three spots in EPM, Durant is a relatively distant eighth.

    In terms of on-off impact, Durant's gaudy net-rating boost to the Nets (plus-11.8) is also fourth among our top four.

    If you're persuaded that Durant has less help than Jokic, or that he more fundamentally defines the way his team plays than Curry, or that he somehow makes a greater two-way impact than Antetokounmpo, those aren't the wildest thoughts in the world. Except for that last one, maybe.

    Brooklyn, with Kyrie Irving missing in action and James Harden underperforming, would be sunk without KD. The guy is an all-timer, perhaps the purest scorer who has ever lived. Nobody's disputing any of that.

    But you've got to make tough choices here, and Durant lands fourth in a tightly bunched top four.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Giannis Antetokounmpo is on pace to post his fourth straight season with averages of at least 27.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists. That's kind of a big deal because only four players in history have ever done that in just one season, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the 1976.

    Historical trends shouldn't necessarily weigh a ton in single-season MVP debates, but Antetokounmpo's consistent status as a statistical outlier at least puts a thumb on the scale. His production has breadth and depth no other player has ever matched.

    Add to that his status as the undisputed best defender among our top four, and it might start to seem strange that he only checks in at No. 3.

    Unappealing as it is to make a case against a player this dominant, the justification for Antetokounmpo landing here is that he has more high-usage helpers than the two players ahead of him. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are both two-way studs, and the former is actually the Milwaukee Bucks' preferred closer. Middleton has taken almost twice as many clutch shots per game and hit them at a higher clip this year than Antetokounmpo.

    It's true that the Bucks often don't need someone to bring them home down the stretch because Antetokounmpo secured the result earlier in the game, but it's fair to ask a true MVP to handle every situation.

    Yes, I'm aware of how stupid it sounds to question Giannis' high-leverage work after he hung 50 on the Suns in a title-clinching, legacy-defining masterpiece. And if anyone is a "true MVP," the guy who already has two trophies doesn't need to do or say much to prove he's one of them.

    This season, both Jokic and Curry have produced better on-off splits and superior catch-all rankings. We're separating greatest from greater at this point, so that stuff has to matter.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Point: Nikola Jokic's Denver Nuggets are far and away the worst-performing team of any player on this list.

    Counterpoint: What the #$*% else do you want him to do about it?

    Jokic is statistically destroying his peers across the board. He is first among all NBA players in EPM, Box Plus/Minus, on-off differential and RAPTOR WAR—by a comically large margin in almost all cases. He leads the Nuggets in points, rebounds, assists, true shooting percentage and usage rate.

    No one in history has produced a single-season PER above 32.0. Jokic is currently sitting at 34.3.

    Far from a hot take, it is instead an evidence-based and indisputable point of fact that, based on all those acronyms and numbers above, Jokic is having the greatest individual season the NBA has ever seen.

    So...second? Really? How?

    In the end, to rank Jokic anywhere but No. 1 requires two beliefs. First, that there is more to being an MVP than statistical dominance, no matter how head-spinningly dominant said stats might be. And second, that there is greater value in producing for a team playing at a high level than there is in producing that same value for one that isn't.

    This is all a little touchy-feely and maybe too dismissive of the numbers. It certainly minimizes the fact that Jokic's top two teammates, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., are out. If they'd both been healthy all year, Denver surely would have won a handful of extra games and, probably, put Jokic in the driver's seat here.

    It makes my stomach hurt to do this. But if the point of playing games is to win them, shouldn't the very best player do that more often?

    This is just agonizing. Jokic is great. Can we award four MVPs? What about just two?

1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    We just spilled a lake's worth of digital ink chronicling Jokic's case as the statistical MVP, which means we have to rely on something other than pure numbers to explain Stephen Curry's placement here.

    First, though, we kind of have to cover those digits.

    Curry is averaging 26.9 points, 6.1 assists and 5.5 rebounds while taking and making more threes than anyone else in the league. This is normal. If he finishes the year atop both the attempts and makes lists, it'll be the seventh time he's done so in his career.

    Second in EPM, second in RAPTOR WAR, third in VORP and trailing only Jokic (among our top four) in on-off differential, it's not like Curry's stats-based case is wanting. But like we said, they don't quite do the job on their own.

    The best way to convey the part of Curry's MVP bid that puts him over the top might be to ask a question: What happens when he doesn't have the ball?

    The short answer is unbridled, defense-warping, pants-wetting panic.

    First, a fact: Curry is a destroyer when he has the rock. Opponents pick him up at half court, and we do mean "opponents" in the plural sense. Teams routinely deploy more than one defender to get the ball out of his hands. But even when they achieve that, they're only trading one bad situation for another.

    That second situation, Curry off the ball, is where the magic happens.

    He's the truest example of a perpetual motion machine in existence; the guy never stops moving. And with every step he takes—whether sprinting from one corner to another, jetting around a curl screen or repositioning himself to get the ball back after surrendering itthe defense never once prioritizes anything above its attention to him.

    This makes Curry the league's greatest enabler of teammates.

    He is spacing incarnate, sure, but Curry is probably also the most effective screen-setter in the game. When he sets one on the ball, both defenders abandon everything to stick with him. Result: layup.

    When he sets one off the ball, it drags multiple defenders out of position, opening lanes for teammates to cut. This is from last year, but good luck finding someone else who can trigger easy dunks just by setting a back screen near the elbow. Sometimes, all Curry has to do is run near a teammate and, like a magnet, every defender in the area follows him.

    What other player allows for diabolically complex actions like this?

    In a team sport, being valuable isn't just about what an individual does for himself. It has to also include a component of what the individual does for the collective. Curry creates value for a Warriors team that looks like a title favorite in ways no one else could. He defines the way they play, and he makes that style work. Substitute anyone else in the league for him, and the Warriors are worse.

    The chase for the three-point record produced some rough shooting nights. Don't let that distract from the fact that Curry remains this season's most important and impactful player.


    Stats courtesy of, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through Friday, Dec. 17. Salary info via Spotrac.