NBA MVP Ladder: Do Giannis and Joel Embiid Have Chance to Catch Nikola Jokic?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 26, 2022

NBA MVP Ladder: Do Giannis and Joel Embiid Have Chance to Catch Nikola Jokic?

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    John Fisher/Getty Images

    Updates to midseason NBA MVP ladders don't always include shakeups near the top. This is not one of those times.

    Familiar faces are once again peppered throughout the top five, but continuity is not an assurance anyone enjoys. More importantly, the league's Maurice Podoloff Trophy does not have an overwhelmingly likely next owner.

    Anyone in the top five—and, perhaps, the top seven—has a feasible chance to bag the Association's foremost individual honor. That's not something we can always say more than halfway through the season.

    This is shaping up to be a race that, assuming relatively good health across the board, will come down to the 11th hour. And we should all want to inject that degree of MVP jockeying directly into every single one of our veins.

    Just like last time, this pecking order represents a snapshot in time and looks at who should win it all if the season ended right now. At the risk of stepping on the toes of everything discussed in the first edition, we will not focus on laying foundational arguments for repeat candidates. Newcomers will get that treatment. Mostly, though, we'll be highlighting recent developments and explaining away any dips or ascensions.

5. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Previous Ranking: 5

    DeMar DeRozan's reappearance at No. 5 is not without controversy. A fresh entry into this exercise follows, which meant this spot came down to him or Kevin Durant.

    Fast forward a couple of weeks, and this would be a non-issue. Durant will have missed much more time with his sprained left MCL, and the lack of availability racked up is bound to boot him from the tippy top of this discussion. Temporarily.

    He isn't there yet. He has one more appearance than the No. 3 candidate to follow at this writing. You cannot make an MVP ladder, at this moment, without accounting for KD. But he has missed enough time to split hairs, and DeRozan is playing well enough to splice away.

    Though the Chicago Bulls' point differential with him on the floor tilts in the wrong direction over the past couple of weeks, he's not at fault for the reversal. The team has been decimated by injuries on the perimeter, and on most nights, DeRozan is the steadying offensive maestro keeping them afloat.

    DeRozan's case actually gained momentum in the Bulls' Monday night win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. He didn't play, and Chicago proceeded to almost blow a 28-point lead during a fourth-quarter meltdown. His value to the offensive structure cannot be overstated. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only everyday player averaging more points in the final frame, and DeRozan continues to lead the entire league in clutch win probability added by a comically, cosmically sized margin, according to Inpredictable.

    Durant will have time to reenter the running if the Brooklyn Nets don't slow-play his return. LeBron James, Trae Young and Ja Morant are all names to watch, as well. And for those who care, I'm getting incredibly, uncomfortably, close to uncorking a recklessly optimistic stance on where Chris Paul belongs within this race.

    Next Up: 10. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies; 9. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; 8. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns; 7. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks; 6. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Previous Ranking: 2


    Huge chunks of me want to indulge my inner and outer hipster and stick Stephen Curry back up toward the top. There is no hyperbolizing his indispensability to the Golden State Warriors. The very idea of what he does gives the offense its shape and structure and ceiling and, frankly, soul.

    Still, the Warriors rank 27th in points scored per possession over the past two-ish months. That's not on Curry; they have remained above average on the more glamorous end of the floor during this stretch when he has played. But he is struggling by his own lofty, interstellar standards.

    Since the last MVP check-in, Curry is shooting below 50 percent on twos and under 32 percent from deep—efficiency that remains part of a larger slump. Sliding him to No. 4 isn't an insult. If anything, it nods to how his value endures even when he's not playing with one-of-one precision.

    It is probably only a matter of time before Curry trends upward. He won't continue shooting so unlike himself forever, and Golden State isn't exactly a billboard for good health at the moment.

    Granted, if Steph's non-Stephness continues, the Warriors may want to consider futzing and fiddling with his substituting patterns or try empowering him even more. His offensive touches aren't down a ton during the team's offensive plunge, but they are, in fact, down.

3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Previous Ranking: 6

    Playing-time politics kept Joel Embiid outside the top five our first time around. They will do no such thing now.

    Embiid has now appeared in roughly as many games as Kevin Durant and is within sniffing distance of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic. More to the point, his availability no longer matters. His dominance would demand top-five consideration even if he missed slightly more time.

    Averages of 28.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.4 blocks speak for themselves. But the context of his role is lost for words. He is now the quarterback of both the Philadelphia 76ers' offense and defense, a workload that can be effectively ferried by maaaybe three or four players in total.

    Career-high usage is partnered with personal-best scoring and assist totals. His true shooting percentage is rivaling his all-time high despite the uptick in responsibility. Embiid can still suffer from doing-too-much syndrome, but his decision-making in the half court and out of double-teams is better, and he's not turning over the ball at an especially high clip. The extent to which he forces things is also very often borne from necessity.

    This is a version of Embiid now routinely directing traffic on and away from the ball. Philly's offense, and its supporting cast, are appreciably better for it. And commanding even more defensive attention has done little to impact Embiid's play-finishing. He's knocking down 40 percent of his above-the-break threes and back to downing mid-range jumpers at an above-average rate, per Cleaning The Glass. His 58.8 percent shooting on drives ranks fifth among everyone with at least 50 field-goal attempts in those situations.

    That Embiid shoulders this much offensive responsibility while anchoring Philly's defense is mind-boggling, even by his standards. Antetokounmpo and Jokic profile as the only two players with comparably heavy collective burdens—which is fitting, because...

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Previous Ranking: 3

    Will Giannis Antetokounmpo ever stop refining his game on such visceral levels? Like, minor improvements, sure. I get it. But this is Year 9 for him. He has two MVPs. And a Finals MVP. And a title. At some point he has to cease meaningfully, measurably expanding his game.


    Who the hell knows.

    Giannis' numbers are the same as ever. This is to say, they're not of this world. Watching him, though, you can tell he's revamped the way he plays. The Milwaukee Bucks have needed him to soak up more reps at center, and he's not only obliged, but thrived.

    Upping the frequency with which he must protect the hoop has, apparently, only buoyed his effectiveness. Opponents are shooting 47 percent against him at the rim—the best mark among anyone contesting at least five point-blank opportunities per game across multiple appearances. And yeah, he remains a terror when he has the license to roam.

    Equally, if not more, impressive: There is no "non-shooter" better at toggling between on- and off-ball usage. Giannis still puts indescribable pressure on defenses when attacking, but he's never been deployed more often as the screener in pick-and-rolls. The passes he's making look more complicated and deliberate, and they result in higher-quality shots for teammates.

    It all amounts to an offensive role that doesn't garner enough recognition for its centrality. Among all players who have logged at least 100 minutes, only Luka Doncic and Trae Young own higher offensive load percentages, which measures how much someone directly contributes to a possession through shooting, creation, passing and turnovers, according to BBall Index.

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Previous Ranking: 1

    BuT ThE dEnVeR nUgGeTs DoN't EvEn HaVe A tOp-FiVe ReCoRd iN tHe WeSt.

    I truly, unequivocally, unapologetically do not give a crap.

    If you'd like me to yet again cite how well the Nuggets fare when Nikola Jokic is on the court or his league-best net rating swing, well, there you go. I could also just reiterate that he's averaging 26.1 points and 7.8 assists on career-best true shooting for a Denver squad missing two of its three top players. There's also the fact that he notched a 49-point triple-double while throwing a defies-the-laws-of-physics pass to Aaron Gordon to tee up a Jan. 19 victory over the L.A. Clippers, and that, somehow, it was all very normal.

    Let's go ahead and simplify this even further, though.

    Pick a catch-all metric. Any catch-all metric. Nikola Jokic probably tops it. He is first in estimated plus-minus from dunks and threes, first in LEBRON from BBall Index, first in luck adjusted RAPM from NBA Shot Charts, first in every overarching category of RAPTOR from FiveThirtyEight and first in total points added from NBA Math.

    Kitchen-sink stats are not the end-all of MVP discussions. Jokic has not left Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid or Stephen Curry in the dust. But this does not happen by accident.

    Last year's MVP is so far this year's MVP,  and the Nuggets' record is good enough to acknowledge as much—thanks to Jokic himself.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Tuesday's games. Salary information via Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.