NBA MVP Ladder: Nikola Jokic Has Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo Beat
Some people don't enjoy choppering in for NBA MVP checkups throughout the season. This exercise is not for them.
Taking stock of the MVP race every so often, if not almost ad nauseam, is actually important. Cases for candidates are fluid, shapeshifting amid the ebbs and flows of a looong season.
Certain years see an inarguable favorite emerge from the onset. This isn't one of those seasons. It doesn't even feel like the 2020-21 campaign, when Nikola Jokic became a borderline lock by the time February rolled around.
Between relentless streams of entries into the league's health and safety protocols and the roster inconsistencies incumbent of them, the MVP field is far from settled. Right now, this has the makings of a landscape that will foment debate and serial head-scratching until the final weeks, maybe days, of the season.
Like any other MVP ladder, this pecking order represents a snapshot in time. It is what my ballot would look like if the season ended right this second—and an explanation of why it appears this way.
5. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls
DeMar DeRozan's late-career punch is a masterclass in defying expectations without undergoing transformative changes.
Most panned the Chicago Bulls' offseason aggression as consignment to mediocrity. They instead sit atop the East, in no small part because of the guy they supposedly didn't need.
DeRozan is averaging 26.4 points and 4.7 assists on nearly 58 true shooting. His 35.1 percent clip from deep is a pleasant surprise; more important is the steadiness and unflappability he provides in the half court.
His cadence off the dribble is surgical, and he doesn't commit turnovers. He's been one of the more reliable passers out of the pick-and-roll for a few years, and his volume at the charity stripe has withstood the de-emphasis of gimmicky whistles. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid have racked up more shooting fouls inside the arc, according to PBP Stats.
Nobody on this ladder has more crunch-time clout than DeRozan this season. His resume spans game-winners—plural—and absurd efficiency. He leads the league in clutch win probability added by a cosmic margin, per Inpredictable.
Climbing this ladder will be a matter of stamina. Can DeRozan and the Bulls keep this up? Even if they do, he'll be hard-pressed to leapfrog players with superior defensive impacts.
To his credit, though, the Bulls allow fewer points per possession with him on the court. It is just the third time in his career that DeRozan's team improves defensively when he plays. And while he's not directly responsible, his mid-range makes and foul-line trips ensure Chicago can get itself set, as The Athletic's Seth Partnow explained.
Honorable Mentions: 10(T). Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies/Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns; 9. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; 8. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks 7. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; 6. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
4. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Kevin Durant's MVP credentials are not a luxury for the Brooklyn Nets. They are a necessity.
It's almost an unfathomable case under the circumstances. He's not supposed to be this indispensable. The Nets have two other superstars who should water down the importance of any one name. Emphasis on should.
Brooklyn opted to soldier on without Kyrie Irving after he refused to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and only recently, in the face of rampant absences, reversed its stance and welcomed him back as a part-time player. Harden, meanwhile, spent the first part of the season in an every-other-night malaise.
All of which has left Durant averaging over 37 minutes per game, his most since 2013-14. His response to this dramatic uptick is atypical of a 33-year-old not yet two seasons into his return from a devastating Achilles injury: He leads the league in scoring and is posting the highest assist rate of his career.
Little about Durant's game has changed. If anything, the premise of his usage is more difficult. He has never reached the rim less, and he's notching the third-lowest free-throw-attempt rate of his career.
It doesn't matter. Durant's outside efficiency remains otherworldly. More than 60 percent of his field-goal attempts come from mid-range, a career high, and he's shooting 57 percent on twos outside 14 feet, another personal best. Pretty much every advanced metric loves him. Times infinity.
Brooklyn may be a fringe title favorite, but without Durant, it wouldn't have a championship prayer.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo's dominance has never manifested in such hushed tones. He isn't a megastar forgotten, but you wouldn't realize he's averaging 28.5 points, 11.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.5 blocks on 61.6 true shooting when taking in the day-to-day MVP discourse.
A relatively slow start and a revolving door of availability from the Milwaukee Bucks is probably suppressing his case. Whatever the excuse, it isn't good enough. Giannis is headlining what could very well be the title favorite—a reigning champ that, rather quietly, has cobbled together a top-seven offense and top-nine defense despite missing key players at every turn, including the extensive absence of Brook Lopez (back).
To that end, Milwaukee's roster dynamics should be elevating Giannis' recognition. Without Lopez in the rotation, he is sponging up even more reps at center. Over 40 percent of his possessions have come at the 5. His previous career high, set last season, was 12 percent.
The Bucks are straight annihilating opponents during these stretches. Giannis-at-center lineups are a plus-11.5 points per 100 possessions and feature a top-shelf defense. Unlucky opponent three-point shooting may be at play, but their stinginess at the rim is no happy accident. It's the Giannis effect. He's holding players to a 48.2 percent clip at the hoop, the third-best mark among 89 players to contest at least 100 point-blank looks.
Time should only buoy Giannis' standing. He remains a wrecking-ball going downhill yet is more at home than ever working away from the ball. Paired with his defensive responsibility, this amounts to one of the heaviest two-way workloads in existence.
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Though not on par with his usual efficiency, Steph's production still includes only gaga returns: 26.8 points and 6.0 assists on 64.2 true shooting. That this can be interpreted as a down-anything attests to his greatness—and the uniqueness in which it takes form.
No player impacts the game as much purely as a concept. Steph changes the geometry of the floor just by setting foot on it.
He's shooting "only" 38.7 percent from three, but it comes on over 13 attempts per game and one of the 12 lowest three-point shot quality ratings among players who logged at least 500 minutes, per BBall Index.
Maintaining above-average efficiency relative to the rest of the league on that blend of volume and contextual difficulty is ridiculous. And it opens up the rest of the offense. He ranks fourth in BBall Index's passing creation quality, and the Golden State Warriors' effective field-goal percentage with Steph in the lineup jumps by seven points—the NBA's single highest on-off spike.
That impact mirrors his imprint on the Warriors' overall performance. Their net rating with him improves by 21.8 points per 100 possessions. Among everyone to tally at least 150 minutes this season, just one player has turned in a larger swing.
Worshiping his gravity may verge on a cliche, but Steph's magnetic pull is the basis for everything the Warriors do—essentiality that doesn't uplift so much as entirely conceive their championship contention.
1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Sticking Nikola Jokic atop the MVP hierarchy is too often considered an over-correction for his supporting cast. Other candidates should not be penalized if their team's second- and third-most important players have and/or will spend most of the season on the sidelines, and the Denver Nuggets, dangerously close to play-in territory, don't boast the vitals of a contender.
To what extent Jokic should be rewarded for his solo-star operation is a matter of debate. But his candidacy cannot be diluted or dismissed by it.
Jokic's numbers, for starters, are brain-bending regardless of the environment. He's averaging 25.8 points, 14.2 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 1.4 steals on 63.4 true shooting—real "this is not a typo" stuff. The terms of his role are absolute. He leads all players in touches per game and ranks fifth among all players with at least 100 minutes under their belt in total offensive load percentage, a measure of how much someone directly contributes to a possession through shooting, creation, passing and turnovers, according to BBall Index.
Opinions of Jokic's defense vary. Wildly. The workload he ferries is inarguable. Denver uses him in aggressive pick-and-roll coverages, he ranks seventh in shots contested at the basket per game, and he has spent more time guarding No. 1 options than anyone else on this list, per BBall Index.
There are degrees to Jokic's value—levels that supersede the absences of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. The Nuggets are outscoring opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor and getting blasted by 14.1 whenever he's not. That 22.9-point swing is the largest among any player who has logged at least 150 minutes.
This, then, is not a star who represents the difference between mediocrity and a lottery ticket. This is a reigning MVP, playing like a repeat MVP, single-handedly sparing Denver from the bottom of the barrel while fueling whatever title equity its roster has left.