Expert NBA MVP Rankings: Who's Up, Who's Down with Less Than a Week Left?April 5, 2022
Expert NBA MVP Rankings: Who's Up, Who's Down with Less Than a Week Left?
Typically, the end of the NBA regular season brings with it a truckload of clarity on the MVP race. Enough games have been played and narratives spun for a near-infallible consensus pick to emerge.
So much for that.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic long ago turned this year's MVP debate into a jumbled and exhaustive haze of vacillating opinions and split hairs. Nothing has changed. It has been nearly one month since we last chitchatted about the MVP field, and a new favorite is seemingly crowned after each game one of these three plays.
Deliberating between the three is an inexact science. So much so it's not science all. "You can't go wrong with any of them" is the least sexy take of all time. It's also the unfiltered truth.
And yet, in this space, there can be only one winner. Accepting and carrying out the burden of choice is inherent of any good MVP ladder. That obligation will not be skirted here.
Nor will it be avoided elsewhere. The back of the MVP ballot is equally as agonizing. A deluge of injuries and worthwhile candidates force us to carp and quibble and nitpick and subtilize throughout the top five. It is a process befitting the wild ride that has been this MVP race and also a matter over which I'm still losing sleep.
Finally, and as always, this MVP hierarchy continues to represent a snapshot, aiming only to look at who should win the Maurice Podoloff Trophy if the season ended right now. In a race this achingly close, there is still time for things to change.
5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Previous Ranking: 5
Luka Doncic's MVP candidacy is predominantly packaged as a midseason push. It is actually more wire-to-wire than advertised.
Sure, he has ascended to a higher plane of existence since the middle of January, averaging nearly 32 points and nine assists per game while drilling 53.4 percent of his twos and 39.9 percent of his threes. But the rut in which he began the year ended well before he went supernova. That's been his default setting since around the start of November.
And even if his more recent uptick is buoying his consideration, so what? This isn't some fleeting stretch or phase. When all's said and done, "since the middle of January" will amount to approximately half the friggin' season.
Pitting him against DeMar DeRozan and Ja Morant, like we did last time, no longer makes much sense. Morant won't have nearly enough playing time under his belt after his latest right knee injury. DeRozan's efficiency has dipped in recent weeks, and the Chicago Bulls are getting hammered during his minutes.
Stephen Curry's case wasn't receiving enough love, as we also discussed last time. But the games he has and will continue to miss with a sprained left foot invariably cost him. Jayson Tatum's stock is the midseason turnaround so many believe Doncic's to be.
Awarding fifth place to anyone else would actually feel sort of icky by this point. Perhaps that's overstating the legitimacy of the alternatives. But Doncic's continued offensive exploits have coincided—and fueled—the Dallas Mavericks' rise to top-three contention in the Western Conference. And that, in turn, cements his spot here.
Honorable Mentions: 10. Trae Young; 9. Jayson Tatum; 8. Ja Morant; 7. DeMar DeRozan; 6. Stephen Curry
4. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Previous Ranking: 8
Nothing speaks to the riveting irregularity of this year's MVP race than Devin Booker making his inaugural top-five appearance with barely one week left in the regular season.
Injuries have to some extent paved the way for him. Stephen Curry (2,211) and Ja Morant (1,862) have each logged enough minutes to justify top-five consideration. So has Kevin Durant (1,866). But Booker (2,277) is going to finish substantially ahead of them all—particularly Steph and Ja, who have both probably played their last dose of regular-season basketball.
Booker also just so happens to headline the NBA-best Phoenix Suns. That has to matter. Does he rate this highly if Chris Paul never missed time with a right thumb injury? Maybe not. Paul is more responsible for giving the Suns offense its shape and structure and previously climbed as high as fourth in this exercise.
Here's the thing: Paul's injury happened. It has to be part of the calculus. Booker will close the season having logged a least a couple of hundred minutes more, and the central role he played keeping the Suns on their seemingly perpetual roll without CP3 absolutely matters.
Phoenix is outpacing opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions when Booker goes solo, and he has needed to anchor one-star units far more often (1,912 possessions) than CP3 (1,471 possessions). Remove all this from the equation, and Booker's top-five staying power hardly moves. The "Who's more important to the Suns' success: D-Book or CP3?" debate persisted long before now.
Paul's case, availability aside, is more convenient to make. That's not the same as saying Booker doesn't have one. The application of his stardom is indispensable to Phoenix's makeup. Paul dominates the ball by design but also necessity. Booker's movement away from it and general capacity to play off more domineering forces are almost superstar anomalies. He then pairs that scalability with the shot-making and passing necessary to captain the show on his own.
And to that end, not enough collective attention is paid to Booker's playmaking for others. His passes have routinely registered as among the most valuable in the league. This year is no different.
Among 500-plus players who have tallied at least 50 minutes, Booker ranks third—and first among non-point guards—in assist-to-pass-percentage adjusted, which is the percentage of passes by a player that turn into assists, free-throw assists or secondary assists. He leads the entire NBA in this category since exiting health and safety protocols last month.
Simplified even further, Booker is averaging about 27 points and five assists while downing more than 50 percent of his twos and 37 percent of his threes for what should be the title favorite. He doesn't have enough to juice to displace the three bigwigs in front of him, but his top-five argument is neither new nor conditional. It is battle-tested and universal.
3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Previous Ranking: 2
"If it happens, great," Joel Embiid said of winning MVP after dropping 44 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers. "If it doesn't, I don't know what I have to do. I'll feel like they hate me. I feel like the standard for guys in Philly or for me is different than everyone else."
This seems over-the-top. It could also be totally correct. Such is the state of this MVP race. The margin of separation at the very top is almost impossible to detect. And from carrying the Sixers before and after the James Harden trade to averaging 32.1 points on unreal efficiency since our last MVP ladder, Embiid is doing his damnedest to turn in the strongest case possible.
Mission accomplished. Slotting him at No. 3 is a decision that makes me ache. He would win MVP if this were most other seasons.
Relevant: It isn't most other seasons. It's this one. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic exist. Someone needs to finish third. And Embiid, to me, profiles as the logical choice.
Harden's arrival winds up hurting his case. Players should not be penalized for having elite running mates, but the Sixers acquired the mother of all reinforcements. Harden has underwhelmed since joining the fold. He has also streamlined Embiid's offensive role to include less self-creation.
More than half of his baskets are coming off assists for the season, and that share has climbed to nearly 60 percent since Harden's debut. Giannis, specifically, is responsible for a much greater portion of his hoops. Jokic's share of assisted makes has hovered around Embiid's level since the deadline, and he shoulders more responsibility overall as his team's primary creator.
As Bleacher Report's Bryan Toporek also pointed out on Twitter: "The Sixers fumbling almost every opportunity for a statement win over the past month—and their best win (over Miami) coming without Embiid and Harden—definitely didn’t help Embiid’s case recently.
These are minor points of division. But trivialities must influence the final result when the debate is this close. Embiid is a casualty of this granularity. That doesn't make it wrong. And it most certainly doesn't warrant playing the "Media doesn't love me" card.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Previous Ranking: 3
Stretches of this year's MVP race have been framed as Joel Embiid vs. Nikola Jokic alone. Even as it's become a consensus tricycle, prevailing sentiment has still tilted toward Embiid vs. Jokic, with Giannis Antetokounmpo hovering a split hair or less behind them.
Maybe that was the case once upon a time. It isn't anymore.
Failing voter fatigue for a two-time MVP, Giannis is the bigger threat to unseating Jokic. Making the Embiid-over-Giannis case with any sort of definity now actually verges on impossible. Kitchen-sink metrics render their candidacies indistinguishable:
|Player||EPM Rank||LEBRON Rank||RAPTOR Rank||TPA Rank||Luck Adjusted RAPM Rank||VORP Rank|
More traditional counting stats don't sway the needle in Embiid's favor, either. He is juuust barely averaging more points and blocks. Giannis has him decidedly beat in the assists department.
Their defensive impacts are, quite fittingly, difficult to parse. Any separation comes down to a matter of taste: Do you value the back-line communicator (Embiid) over positional flexibility and off-ball chaos (Giannis) or vice versa?
Giving Embiid the inferior-supporting-cast bump is fine. He kept the Sixers afloat amid the absence of an established co-star. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton offer Giannis big-time safety nets.
Still, the scope of Giannis' role isn't any easier than Embiid's just because he has the better supporting cast (at the tippy top of the roster). He is the Milwaukee Bucks' defensive everything, and more importantly, his offensive role bears an extra layer of dynamism.
Giannis has not only improved his mid-range shooting and off-the-dribble counters but expanded his playmaking portfolio in the half-court. He ranks in the top 10 of both passing efficiency and passing creation quality, as well as seventh in total offensive load percentage, according to BBall Index.
Differentiation doesn't always equate to additional value. In this case, if we're being honest, it does.
1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Previous Ranking: 1
Select talking heads who exist to drive engagement at all costs will maintain Nikola Jokic's MVP case has indisputably wholesale flaws. Feel free to let them go about playing characters in a scripted series without offering a meaningful reaction.
Inauthenticity is part of certain job descriptions these days. If it weren't, peddlers of Jokic-is-not-the-MVP stances would devote less time to poking holes in his credentials and focus more on propping up the alternative choices for whom they're endorsing.
Matters of preference come into play here. Favor Giannis Antetokounmpo or Joel Embiid over Jokic? That's fine. Especially if you can back it up. But let's not pretend Jokic's MVP resume has literal, actual holes beyond the level of competition he faces.
Harping on the Denver Nuggets' place in the standings is the most egregious form of made-for-clicks duplicity. They're the No. 5 seed at this writing. Big whoop. Move past it. Denver is on pace to win about one game fewer than Milwaukee and Philadelphia...while missing two of its three most important players for essentially the entire season.
The Nuggets have turned in a much worse record against winning teams (16-25) than the Bucks (21-23) and the Sixers (25-22). That's a fair, albeit ambiguous, sticking point. Denver is also outscoring opponents by more points per 100 possessions with Jokic (plus-8.6) than Milwaukee with Giannis (plus-7.9) and Philly with Embiid (plus-7.5).
Do with all of this what you will. There are no perfect arguments. Unimpeachable consensus is a myth. But Jokic isn't leading the league in just about every popular catch-all metric by mistake. He ranks first in EPM, TPA, VORP, LEBRON and RAPTOR, and he's second in Luck Adjusted RAPM.
This isn't a grand conspiracy by the computers. Jokic's performance is patently unfathomable. He is averaging 26.8 points and 8.0 assists while knocking down 65.9 percent of his twos—and has been clearing 30 and seven, respectively, since our last MVP meetup.
What-about-the-playoffs truthers need to take a seat. There may (and, truthfully, are) more valuable players in a postseason series. The MVP is a regular-season award. And right now, much like last season, it is Jokic's to lose.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Monday'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.