B/R NBA Staff: Are We Sure Nikola Jokic Should Be MVP?

Bleacher Report NBA StaffFeatured ColumnistApril 22, 2022

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic during Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco, Saturday, April 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

ICYMI, the internet is none too pleased by Nikola Jokic's playoff performance so far, as his Nuggets have flailed to a 0-3 series deficit to the Warriors. Many prominent tweet-senders are calling for a referendum. Shall we engage? Yes, sorry, but yes.

To be clear, our staff collectively voted Jokic for MVP. Three postseason games do not change the reality of his regular-season production. But still, Jokic is presumed to be The Most Valuable NBA Basketball Player, one of the most prestigious awards a human athlete can receive. Plenty of evidence says he's absolutely worthy. Still...there's a "but" coming from fans and analysts across the league. 

So we checked in with six of our voters to see if anyone's having second thoughts.


1. Nikola Jokic won our popular MVP vote, but it was close. If there was ever any doubt in your mind, what exactly was that doubt? And is that doubt manifesting in this series vs. the Warriors?

Eric Pincus: The fundamental issue with the MVP award is its very definition. Is the Most Valuable Player supposed to represent the best player in the NBA? Or is it the player who is the most important to his team? The doubt is in the lack of specificity in the criteria.

Take Nikola Jokic off the Denver Nuggets and that's a lottery team (specifically with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. out with injury). How did the Memphis Grizzlies fare without Ja Morant? Quite well. Morant is one of the best players in the NBA, but he's not carrying his squad like Jokic is in Denver.

If anything, the playoff series against the Golden State Warriors confirms that Jokic is the MVP, but ONLY if you're using the second criterion. Otherwise no, Jokic is not the best player in the NBA–brilliant as he might be.

Greg Swartz: The only doubt surrounding Jokic's MVP case was the worthiness of Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo as well. There were plenty of deserving candidates (with Luka Doncic also sneaking in at the end), so I felt it was important to factor in Denver's rash of injuries and the fact that Jokic still made the Nuggets look like an elite NBA team when he was on the floor without much help. 

It's not like Jokic is having a bad series vs. the Warriors (29.3 points, 13.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.0 blocks), but Golden State is the hottest and healthiest team in basketball right now. His performance with Denver down 0-3 hasn't made me rethink my vote.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Andy Bailey: There was no doubt. And frankly, what's happening against the Warriors should probably validate anyone who voted for Jokic. It's never been more clear that he's playing with a supporting cast that isn't playoff-caliber. That's not really his teammates' fault either. None of them were signed to play the roles they're currently pigeonholed in. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., both out with injuries, are solid second and third options. Will Barton and Aaron Gordon are better suited to being fourth and fifth starters. And that's become painfully obvious against the firepower of the Warriors.

Sherrod Blakely: Jokic is a statistical dream come true: a big man who can bang in the paint, knock down threes and still manage to get his teammates involved in the role of playmaker. 

But I'm not convinced Jokic makes his teammates that much better, which should be a given when you are the NBA's best player. I know the Nuggets have had a slew of injuries. That can't be ignored. But his available teammates have not elevated their play significantly this season with Jokic. He still seems to struggle at times determining when he needs to take over and when he needs to try to get others involved.

That's why I had him third in my B/R MVP vote. 

Sean Highkin: I voted for Jokic in our poll. The biggest argument against him in my view was the Nuggets' low seed, but that was mitigated by Denver's second-best player being out for the whole season and its third-best player playing only nine games before having back surgery. And if you look at the Nuggets' actual record rather than just their seed, they finished only three games behind the Bucks and Sixers. It's not like they won 10 fewer games than those teams. And what success they did have was entirely due to Jokic. As for whether the series against the Warriors has made me second-guess Jokic's candidacy, the answer is no because it's a regular-season award and what happens in the playoffs has no bearing on what happened in the regular season.

Dan Favale: Any doubt, for me, was rooted in the strength of the cases for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid rather than Jokic himself. Embiid navigated the Sixers through a star-sized absence himself, and Giannis ferried more responsibility on defense than either of them while expanding his passing and shot-making arsenal. 

This is to say, there wasn't one right answer. There were three. And the Nuggets getting pummeled by the Warriors doesn't change that sentiment. If anything, their performance against Golden State in a three-game snapshot makes it even more impressive that Jokic was able to keep them afloat without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.


2. There's a great quote out there along these lines: stats might not see what's in front of them, but they see everything. Over 82 games, yeah, we could all use some help from stats. And the stats were overwhelmingly in Jokic's favor this season. With Jokic on the floor this regular season, the Nuggets outscored opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions. That's better than Giannis (8.0) or Embiid (7.9). But did those numbers still miss some context?

Eric Pincus: For a significant chunk of the season, Joel Embiid was playing next to a former MVP in James Harden. The Sixers have emerging star Tyrese Maxey and talented veteran Tobias Harris. Embiid is extremely valuable to Philadelphia, but not nearly as valuable as Jokic is to his depleted Nuggets squad.

Similarly, Giannis Antetokounmpo has Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton (pre-injury) and a well-constructed, championship roster alongside him. Embiid and Antetokounmpo are arguably better players than Jokic, so if the award is based on best overall, then Jokic's stats don't tell the entire story.

Aaron Gash/Associated Press

Greg Swartz: The difference between Jokic sitting and Antetokounmpo or Embiid sitting is that Milwaukee and Philly both had All-Stars who could take over games for stretches. Even before the Sixers traded for James Harden, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris are better than anyone Jokic had by his side this season. The Bucks could have easily had three All-Stars (with Jrue Holiday being deserving). No player did more with less than Jokic this season. That's value.

Andy Bailey: Yes, the missing context there is that Jokic pulled that off with a supporting cast inferior to those of Giannis and Embiid. Take away the team leader in wins over replacement player from all three of those teams, and this is what you're left with.

  • Bucks: 17.8

  • 76ers: 17.3

  • Nuggets: 6.8

Jokic getting this team to 48 wins and avoiding the play-in tournament was a remarkable feat. His basic numbers (27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists, with a 66.1 true shooting percentage) more than warranted a second MVP, but it was Denver winning Jokic's minutes so thoroughly that should've sealed it for everyone.

Sherrod Blakely: The numbers posted by Jokic this season are indeed impressive, but the league MVP award should be about more than just stats by an individual player. Jokic impacts winning, for sure. But his play doesn't significantly move the needle the way some other MVP candidates (Embiid, Antetokounmpo, DeMar DeRozan, for example) have this season. 

The argument that he has played with below-average talent is a fair one to make. But at some point, using that as an explanation for why he should be placed above others starts to sound more like an excuse to justify giving him the greatest individual honor while leading a team that just avoided being in the play-in game and looks as though it's on the verge of yet another quick playoff exit. 

Sean Highkin: You can't base an entire argument for someone winning MVP on one stat like that, but I don't like this line that's being pushed by Jokic's detractors that his case is only being based on "advanced" numbers. 

Dan Favale: Some might argue that Jokic actually had the deeper supporting cast. Which is, honestly, hysterical. The Bucks are shallow, but Giannis still had two genuine co-stars. Tyrese Maxey was better for the Sixers than any of Denver's No. 2 options this season, and they eventually landed a supposed-to-still-be-a-megastar in James Harden who ever so slightly streamlined Embiid's offensive role.

Perhaps there is something to the quality of those minutes. The Nuggets didn't have a great record against winning teams. Jokic could have, theoretically, fattened up his on-off differential versus inferior squads. But the Nuggets still posted a positive net rating with him on the floor this season in games against every single top-five team in the West. Go ahead and cite injuries if you must—Draymond Green missed all of Golden State's tilts vs. Denver—but you can only play who's in front of you and docking Jokic for the timing behind other teams' absences is flat-out stupid.


3. Should MVP voters have discretion to anticipate how a player will perform in the postseason? Kinda kidding. But just for kicks...let's call it "expected postseason impact"—if "expected postseason impact" were part of the criteria, would your vote have been different?

Eric Pincus: Absolutely. The award is based specifically on the regular season. The Nuggets were never going deep into the 2021-22 playoffs, barring their opponents suffering significant injuries. Denver has a very solid basketball team, but without Murray and Porter Jr., it is nowhere near the caliber of the competition—outside of Jokic.

Greg Swartz: No, this is a regular-season award and always has been. It's impossible to come up with a realistic postseason impact when we can't account for matchups, injuries, etc., beforehand. Barely anyone expected the Nuggets to beat a loaded Warriors team.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Andy Bailey: It's fair to include some anticipation of the playoffs, and it seems like some voters already do. Not having any set, defined criteria for MVP can cause some issues, but it does allow for this kind of leeway. 

I suppose the next question is how to define "expected postseason impact." Does Embiid get more credit than Jokic because his healthy Sixers are matched up against a Raptors team that doesn't have a reasonable option to guard him inside, while the unhealthy Nuggets have to play a title contender with perhaps the best defender of this generation?

Given the discourse we've seen so far, color me skeptical everyone would answer questions like that honestly.

Sherrod Blakely: That's a fun, but really dangerous, way to vote. Because if that's how we did it, would James Harden have made a top-five list, like, ever? I do think there should be another set of awards that takes into account how players perform in the postseason. We can call it the Robert Horry Award, which would take into account what players do in the postseason only, recognizing the time of year when every game matters so much more than the previous 82 regular-season tilts. 

Sean Highkin: If we were factoring in how we expect the playoffs to go, I would have leaned toward Giannis because the Bucks were my pick to repeat as champions before Khris Middleton's injury. But it's a regular-season award. It already feels like the regular season doesn't matter, so I don't like the idea of further devaluing it by punishing someone's candidacy for what we think will happen in the playoffs.

Dan Favale: My answer definitely might've changed if expected postseason impact were part of the equation. More so than anyone else, Giannis is the guy I want if I'm tasked with winning any given postseason game or series.


4. Would you be in favor of the NBA shifting its calendar to let voters include playoff performance in the criteria for the award? Or would recency bias just force us to call the best player on the title team the MVP?

Eric Pincus: Regular-season awards are regular-season awards. You're not going to name a Defensive Player of the Year off a strong playoff series. Bad teams, some decimated by injury, are going to have All-NBA players. Should we retroactively name All-Stars based on postseason performance? The system may not be perfect, but the postseason is something entirely different than the regular season. 

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Greg Swartz: The voting is fine the way it is. This is a regular-season award, as are all the major awards outside of NBA Finals MVP. It can be unfortunate/uncomfortable to name an MVP after an early playoff exit or disappointing performance (see Dirk Nowitzki in 2006-07), but that's part of the process. We shouldn't let a few weeks overshadow six months of data.

Andy Bailey: The NBA has been handing out MVP awards since 1956. Changing now, after 66 years, seems like an overreaction to recent cases of the MVP's team being unhealthy against a Finals contender.

Some have suggested a compromise of sorts with the introduction of a Playoffs MVP. But as the question sort of assumes, that would generally go to the best player on the Finals winner, too. Handing out an MVP and Finals MVP already accomplishes what we may be after here. The key might be stronger emphasis on the latter from fans and the media.

Sherrod Blakely: You hit the nail on the head, right there. The player who led his team to a first-round upset but whose team gets trounced in the second round would get no love if we went with a postseason inclusion into the award process. That's why I think we should have not only a playoff MVP (Robert Horry Award) that's different than NBA Finals MVP, but also an All-NBA playoff first and second team. 

Sean Highkin: Don't they already have a Finals MVP award for that?

Dan Favale: I personally wouldn't be in favor of seeing the MVP race spill into the postseason. It definitely runs the risk of being warped by recency bias, and it would also dilute the meaning of Finals MVP.

With that said, it might not be a bad idea overall to have actual criteria in place for the award. Part of what makes the MVP race so divisive is its ambiguity. Should overall team record matter? Is isolating the players' minutes on the court more important? How much court time should you see to meet the consideration threshold? Should your value be impacted if you're playing with another star or two? Boosted because your team was missing a star or two? Etc., etc., etc.


5. If Jokic isn't your MVP, who is? And what would you call Jokic instead, if the word "most" or "best" had to come first?

Eric Pincus: Jokic is the most important player to his team. He's brilliant, but he's not the best player in the NBA. If, for clarity's sake, the award were divided into two—Jokic would be well-deserving for the team-based accolade.

Greg Swartz: Jokic is still my MVP, but Embiid was a close second after leading the NBA in scoring and putting up with the Ben Simmons drama while guiding Philly to the No. 4 seed in the East. Embiid is also the better defender, which matters, but Jokic was the most valuable to his team this season, which is what the award is supposed to reflect. Antetokounmpo is the best overall player in the NBA, but he wasn't the most valuable this season.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Andy Bailey: Jokic was and is the rightful MVP. No one in their right mind would've picked his injury-plagued Nuggets over the Warriors in this series, but that doesn't change what he did during the season.

When Jokic was on the floor, Denver had a point differential around that of a 62-win team, compared to that of an 18-win team without him.

Sherrod Blakely: In my B/R vote for league MVP, Jokic was third behind Embiid and Antetokounmpo. And if I were to include the playoffs, that would still be my top three. As I see Jokic, I would say he's the best player on a bad team, joining the likes of Washington's Bradley Beal and Portland's Damian Lillard.

Sean Highkin: My No. 2 choice was Giannis, who was arguably even better this year than he was in his two MVP-winning years, and the Bucks finished with the same record as Embiid's Sixers despite being without Brook Lopez for most of the year. If we had to give Jokic a different award, something along the lines of "most impactful" would make sense given how short-handed Denver was all year while still winning 48 games.

Dan Favale: Giannis was my runner-up. The combined workload he shoulders on both ends is absolutely wild, and despite his functional limitations on offense, the all-encompassing energy with which he plays is uplifting in ways we've never seen.

Alternatively, Jokic could be called the “most valuable regular season player” if talking heads and Twitter eggs are that upset by what the Warriors are doing to a short-handed Nuggets team.


6. Have these MVP referendum conversations lost the plot? If you're staunchly opposed to this line of questioning, why?

Eric Pincus: Universal acceptance of the same MVP is rare. Not everyone will agree on who is the best overall player, or who is the most important to their team. It's embarrassing when the one chosen, like Dirk Nowitzki in 2007, is bounced early in the playoffs. This may be where we're headed.

But remember it's a regular-season award with a vague definition.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Greg Swartz: As soon as the final seconds tick off the regular-season clock, nothing should matter when it comes to picking regular-season awards. Voter fatigue and the return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. next season will likely end Jokic's MVP reign (assuming he wins this year), but for now, we need to end the debate.

Jokic is the deserving MVP this season, no matter what happens in the playoffs.

Andy Bailey: Yes, the conversation has lost the plot, gone off the rails, become disingenuous. You name it. But this line of questioning is fair. Not because there's a ton of merit to the increasingly louder Jokic detractors, but because their arguments (such as they are) need to be countered.

And this is a much better forum than electronically yelling at default avatars on Twitter.

Sherrod Blakely: I'm not opposed to these conversations. In fact, I am encouraged by them more than anything else. Fans, voters and the media are trying to make sense of this basketball Venn diagram that examines a player's statistical impact, how well the team wins and intangibles such as market size, likeability and talent (or lack of talent) surrounding them. 

Sean Highkin: This year's MVP discourse has cemented in my mind that I'm glad I don't actually vote on it, and if the league ever offered me a ballot I would turn it down. Even the most contentious MVP debates of the past decade (Derrick Rose's 2011 win and Russell Westbrook's 2017 win) weren't as toxic as this one, filled with bad-faith arguments for why anybody who didn't vote for your preferred guy has some sort of agenda.

Dan Favale: This entire debate has lost the plot a trillion different times. If you want to debate the MVP results, go right ahead. But don't be disingenuous and aimless about it.

In other words: Wins. Are. Not. A. Player. Stat. Too many games are lost or turned around when stars are off the floor. We can't penalize them for stretches over which they quite literally have no control.

Don't bother playing the “But the Nuggets finished sixth in the West!” card. It's dumb. Denver won three fewer games than the Bucks and Sixers. Like, what are we even doing? By all means, question the voting process and results if you must. Just do it coherently.