MVP Debate Misses a Better Story: The NBA Has Never Been This Stacked at the Top

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistApril 3, 2022

CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 20: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34, Nikola Jokic #15 and Luka Doncic #77 of Team LeBron talk during the NBA 75 Group Photo as part of the 2022 NBA All Star Weekend on February 20, 2022 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE via Getty Images)
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For the last few weeks, it feels like social media is flooded with "he's the best player in the world" on a nightly basis. If the Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers or Milwaukee Bucks are in action, you can count on waves of MVP arguments and talking points.

The thing about the NBA right now is that the leader in the clubhouse (assuming there can even be one) in either debate can change every night.

Nikola Jokic is on pace for the best single-season mark of all time in both box plus/minus, or BPM—a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player's contribution to the team when that player is on the court—and player efficiency rating.

Giannis is a two-time MVP and the reigning Finals MVP and is on track for the second-best single-season PER ever.

At 30.1 points per 75 possessions for his career, Joel Embiid trails only Michael Jordan (30.3) on that list.

All three are playing above the typical MVP level. No, seriously.

The average MVP season from 1973-74 to 2020-21 (26.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.3 blocks per 75 possessions, with a plus-5.5 relative true shooting percentage and an 8.6 BPM) doesn't measure up to what Jokic, Giannis and Embiid are doing.

  • Jokic: 29.4 points, 15.1 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.0 blocks per 75 possessions, 66.1 TS%
  • Antetokounmpo: 33.0 points, 12.8 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.6 blocks per 75 possessions, 63.5 TS%
  • Embiid: 33.5 points, 12.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.6 blocks per 75 possessions, 61.0 TS%

There have been five seasons in NBA history in which a player averaged at least 29 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, one block and one steal per 75 possessions with a 60-plus true shooting percentage. Those three bulleted above and two others from Giannis (2018-19 and 2019-20) are the only campaigns on the list.

And those average MVP numbers aren't much better (if at all) than what we've seen from this season's next group of stars.

Luka Doncic is averaging 28.1 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.6 assists, for crying out loud. It'll be his third 28-8-8 season, which is already second all-time. Only Oscar Robertson (five) has more.

Kevin Durant is averaging 29.6 points with a 63.2 TS%. That's the seventh-best TS% in a 29 point-per-game season ever (just behind the 63.5 of 2021-22 Giannis and 2013-14 Durant).

Despite a down shooting year (by his standards), the Golden State Warriors still have a point differential around that of a 65-win team when Stephen Curry plays (compared to that of a 28-win team when he doesn't).

Then, of course, you have 37-year-old LeBron James, who's in the middle of the oldest 30-point-per game season in NBA history by a whopping five years (Michael Jordan and Curry were 32 when they eclipsed 30 per game in 1995-96 and 2020-21, respectively).

And beyond those seven, you have Jimmy Butler, Ja Morant, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum, James Harden, Donovan Mitchell and Anthony Davis, to name a few, who could conceivably be the best player in any individual playoff series (most of the above already have that feather in their caps). Heck, even Los Angeles Clippers forwards Paul George and Kawhi Leonard might be tossed into that mix before we're done with this postseason.

On a night-to-night basis, we're potentially in for conversation-dominating performances from a dozen or more players.

But it's the three big men who are completely annihilating the NBA. And instead of celebrating an all-time great top three or what may be the deepest talent pool in league history, we're often drawing digital battle lines when reacting to individual games.

Earlier this week, much of the adulation went toward Jokic, who won ESPN's latest MVP straw poll before going for 37 points (on 15-of-19 shooting) 13 rebounds and nine assists in a road win over the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday.

Joel Rush @JoelRushNBA

Bones Hyland on MVP Nikola Jokic praising him after tonight's #Nuggets' win: "First of all, he is the best player in the leauge. With a guy like Jok, I learn from him every single day. His habits, the stuff he does on a daily basis. I just want to keep learning from him." 1/x https://t.co/JQ3Iqey5x4

In the same week, Giannis dropped 40 and had a win-sealing block of Embiid against the Sixers. And, as if that wasn't enough, he outdueled Kevin Durant, scored 44 points, hit a three to send the game to overtime and drilled two free throws that proved to be the ultimate difference in his very next game.

Haralabos Voulgaris @haralabob

Giannis is the best all around player in the game and I don't think its particularly close.

Embiid, meanwhile, is just averaging a ho-hum 32.5 points and 10.3 free throws in 33.6 minutes per game since Christmas. He's gotten to at least 30 points in 29 of his 42 games over that stretch.


“[Joel Embiid’s] the best player in the game of basketball. … If Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin Durant had a baby guess what, it would be Joel Embiid that came out." —@KendrickPerkins https://t.co/VExk9vlExD

Zeroing in on just one of the above feels borderline impossible, though it's easy to see why we try.

These conversations draw attention. They inflame passions. They stoke the "eye test vs. stats" debate. Everyone wants to be right. And the arguments are almost unwinnable because, in the end, everyone might actually be right.

During the league's play-by-play statistical era (which dates back to 1996-97), our efforts to measure what happens on an NBA court exponentially intensified. And while new numbers and technology (like tracking cameras) have undoubtedly deepened our understanding of the game, there's simply no way to eliminate subjectivity entirely.

It's difficult (maybe even impossible) to make a statistical argument for anyone but Jokic to win the MVP in 2021-22. But if you're the kind of observer who wants a bigger sample, Giannis winning a title is a more than fair way to break the tie between him and Jokic in BPM over the last four seasons.

But does that mean you know that either one is better at basketball than Embiid? Would either beat him in one-on-one? Would either beat him in a series? What if their supporting casts were identical? Well, there's no way to make that happen outside of some kind of simulation, so what are we even doing here?

Is there a single, incontrovertible way to decide who's best? The answer, of course, is no.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't debate it. That's fun (assuming everyone approaches the debate in the right spirit). But let's also talk about how unbelievable the overall talent in the NBA is right now.

Jokic, Giannis and Embiid are all on track to be all-time greats. Like, top 10-15 ever is within their reach, and that's not hyperbole. Jokic is currently second all time in career BPM. Giannis is 16th. And if he had enough career minutes, Embiid would be 17th.

And you wouldn't have to go far to find reasonable minds who don't consider any of those three to be the best player in the world right now. At various times this season, there were MVP arguments for Durant, Curry, Morant, Luka, Tatum and Booker.

StatMuse @statmuse

Each MVP case in one sentence Jokic: Only 1 in top 10 PPG/RPG/APG Giannis: Top 3 PPG & DPOY candidate Embiid: Leads in 30p games Tatum: Leads in +/- Book: Top scorer on best team Luka: Best H2H record vs other 6 Ja: First guard to lead in paint points Which is most compelling? https://t.co/GagApp7hfe

The strength (or weakness) of those arguments is probably a topic for another article. It's the fact that those players are somehow on the second tier right now that's notable (or, that you can make a reasonable argument to expand the first tier to five or six players).

The NBA is absolutely loaded right now, particularly at the very top of the league. And while there may not be a definitive way to prove this (the amount of talent someone has is subjective), it sure feels like we're in the middle of the game's most talent-rich era.

When you think about its various forms of expansion, it's not hard to understand why.

The talent pool from which the league now draws touches every corner of the globe. The three MVP front-runners are from Serbia, Greece and Cameroon. And the philosophical expansion that has encouraged players at every position to possess every skill has helped too.

All of this isn't to say that the NBA should embrace the "participation award" era. One individual player will be crowned 2021-22 MVP. But there's really no way to identify one basketball player as the world's single best.

And that's a great place for the game to be.