2022 NBA Playoff MVP Rankings: Giannis, Tatum, CP3, Steph Headline Stacked Field
Superhero smart alecks will see the headline and be quick to point out "But the NBA playoffs doesn't have an MVP award!"
First off: Thank you all for your service. And secondly, consider this our plea for the Association to institute a postseason MVP, one that's separate from the Finals MVP, an award handed out based upon a singular series rather than the entire playoffs.
Rankings will be based on everything we've seen so far. Players must have appeared in at least four games to be eligible. (Sorry, Devin Booker.) And to answer the question you no doubt have: Yes, candidates from eliminated squads can make the inaugural cut.
Brace yourself for some surprise inclusions. Small samples lend themselves to unexpected developments, so while many of the usual suspects populate this imaginary-yet-should-be-real-life exercise, standout non-stars will absolutely be crashing the party—in the best possible way.
10. Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies
Desmond Bane was the best player in the Memphis Grizzlies-Minnesota Timberwolves series.
Think about that.
Like, really think about it.
In a series with Most Improved Player Ja Morant, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards, Desmond Bane was the best player. Whoa.
Spare us all the rebukes that cite the "simplicity" of his role. Almost 90 percent of his made buckets have come off assists. Whoop-de-doo. He's averaging more points than Ja and KAT (23.5) while hitting 48.2 percent of his 9.3 three-point attempts per game. It doesn't matter how your shots are generated when you're this efficient on this volume.
Nobody in Wolves-Grizz has been as reliably valuable on offense. Stars have vanished for possessions at a time, struggled in fourth quarters or gone through the motions all series. Bane's scoring has been a constant. And so has his supplementary ball-handling. He is second on the Grizzlies in pick-and-roll initiation and averaging 1.46 per possession—the third-best mark among everyone who has finished at least 20 such plays.
Oh, and Bane has also ratcheted up his defense, playing an instrumental role in slowing down Edwards and D'Angelo Russell. Minnesota as a team is averaging just 0.92 points per possession whenever he spends part of a play guarding one of them.
Honorable Mentions: Mikal Bridges, Jaylen Brown, Luka Doncic, Anthony Edwards, Draymond Green, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Jordan Poole, Pascal Siakam and Karl-Anthony Towns.
9. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Joel Embiid almost found himself on the outside looking in of this celebratory hypothetical after two consecutive blah performances against the Toronto Raptors during Games 4 and 5, both of which were losses for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Fortunately, he dropped 33 points on efficient shooting (12-of-18) and a parade of free throws in a series-clinching, disaster-skirting Game 6 victory. And then poof! An easier decision was born. (His status for future ladders is now in doubt after suffering an orbital fracture that'll cost him some time in the second round.)
To be fair: Embiid probably would've cracked this list regardless. He deserves some leeway for playing through a torn ligament in his right thumb, was breathtakingly great in Games 2 and 3 and has a hallmark game-winning three, drained on the road, under his belt.
Putting him any higher doesn't sit right. Yet. His three-point clip has plummeted below 20 percent, and as the first round progressed, he didn't look nearly as dominant on the defensive end until the middle of Game 6. The Raptors wrapped the series shooting 73.5 percent against him at the rim, a bottom-three mark among everyone who has contested at least 20 close-range looks.
Once more, with feeling: Embiid is playing injured. That matters. And it says a lot about his peak that he's still among the postseason's most irreplaceable stars despite, at times, operating below it.
8. Jalen Brunson, Dallas Mavericks
Slotting Jalen Brunson inside the top 10 instead of Luka Doncic isn't tenable. The latter has returned from a calf strain and hit some gargantuan shots. He will probably cook at increasingly higher temperatures as the playoffs soldier on.
Brunson is the correct player from the Mavs to plop onto the postseason-MVP hierarchy in the interim. He gave Dallas an offensive lifeline while Doncic was sidelined through its first three games and continued his offensive onslaught once his, ahem, co-star rejoined the fold.
It isn't just that Brunson has averaged 27.8 points and 4.2 assists. It's the method and efficiency by which he's compiled his lines.
Shooting 52.7 percent on twos as a small guard tasked with getting past or finishing around Rudy Gobert is alpha-type stuff. Brunson's footwork and improvisation in the lane have been a sight to behold. No one is averaging more drives per game, on which he's shooting 52.3 percent. His 25 total assists have also come against just four turnovers(!).
Tougher tests await Brunson in the semifinals. The Phoenix Suns have much better ball containment on the perimeter than Utah and don't get as aimlessly frazzled when put in rotation. Brunson's surgical drives won't go as smoothly or unimpeded, and his capacity to adjust will say a lot about the tear he's currently riding.
None of which changes what he just did to the Jazz. They were vulnerable, with a core circling complete implosion. Brunson nudged them, forcibly, over the edge.
7. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
Brandon Ingram just went up against the third-best defense from the regular season and averaged 27.0 points and 6.2 assists while drilling almost 50 percent of his twos and more than 40 percent of his threes.
That is, unequivocally, superstar behavior.
The New Orleans Pelicans actually won the minutes Ingram played against the Phoenix Suns. Even in a six-game series the Pellies lost by just nine points overall, that's no small feat. He was the only New Orleans starter to finish as a net positive.
Although Ingram's efficiency from the floor dipped in the final two games, his overarching impact on the Pelicans offense seldom wavered. The playmaking jump you've no doubt heard and read about by now has not been hyperbolized for effect. His decision-making is quicker and more deliberate, and he'll make extra-complicated passes after leaving his feet.
Some may treat his 8-of-19 showing in Game 6 as a letdown. I choose to see it as a harbinger of progress. He mitigated an off-shooting night with 11 assists, albeit with six turnovers, versus the raging hellfire that was Phoenix's defense.
Next year's Pelicans are going to be special. They should get Zion Williamson back and have a full season of CJ McCollum. But Ingram's offensive diversification—and defensive energy—is just as critical to elevating their ceiling in what figures to be an impossibly deep Western Conference.
6. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
"Nikola Jokic? On a postseason MVP ladder? After only narrowly avoiding a sweep in the first round? F the spreadsheet geeks, forever and always!
Now feels like a good time to remind everyone that wins are not a player stat. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.
Anyway, yes, the Denver Nuggets lost to the Golden State Warriors in five games. That is clearly on Jokic, and on Jokic alone, and it has absolutely nothing to do with Denver missing two of its three best players, or with Golden State posing a uniquely difficult matchup.
Snark time's over. Jokic's 31.0 points per game currently lead the entire league and came on 63.6 percent shooting inside the arc—an unfathomable number when you consider he was the sole focus of the Warriors defense and tossing up contested floaters and terrifyingly difficult turnarounds.
Laser in on Jokic's shoddy three-point clip (27.8) if you're searching for straws at which you can grasp. He was still an offensive monster. That he averaged 5.8 assists is a minor, potentially monumental, miracle given the defensive pressure he faced and the personnel to which he was sending his passes.
"It's absolutely incredible to play against a guy like that," Draymond Green told reporters of Jokic after Game 5. "Incredible, incredible talent...It's an honor and pleasure to play against someone so talented and so skilled. And usually when you have guys that talented and that skilled, they are a little soft. He's far, far from soft. He's an absolutely incredible player."
Indeed, Jokic always looks like he just ran a mile, at full tilt, through the woods, in the dead of winter. But he just keeps going and going. And though the Nuggets lost, ensuring his postseason-MVP stock will fade as others make deeper runs, he still managed to leave his mark on the playoffs.
5. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
I know what you're thinking: How could a bench reserve crack the top five of this ladder?
By being Stephen Curry, that's how.
Seriously: The four games he spent coming off the bench perfectly encapsulates his appeal in these discussions. It may have been ultra-precautionary, but what other all-time great still inside his MVP window would agree to play four games as a backup, in the damn playoffs, without so much as a whisper or hint that he was completely over, if not entirely against, the process?
There has never been a lower-maintenance superstar than Steph Curry. Flat-out. I'm not sure how much it buoys his place in this exercise, specifically, but it sure as hell helps.
Not that he needs any assistance. For all the attention Jordan Poole received during the Warriors' first three games against the Nuggets, it's Curry who ended up having the steadier, oh-so-obviously better hand. He's now averaging 28.0 points and 5.4 assists while swishing 60 percent of his twos—65.2 percent on drives!—and 40.4 percent of his triples.
Steph's knack for warping the geography of a defense continues to be unparalleled. And despite how the Warriors prefer to play, he is among the best bailout options in existence. He's churning out 1.18 points per isolation possession on 10 shots.
Condolences to the "OK, but does Steph show up in the playoffs?" crowd that, apparently, actually exists somewhere—presumably in the glum, sludgy recesses of the internet. This is a big blow to their jokes-greater-than-facts #agenda.
4. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
Chris Paul was fluttering around the fringes of the top five entering the Suns' Game 6 showdown with the Pelicans. His numbers were fine, but he had a 5-of-16 showing under his belt from Game 2 and only attempted eight shots in Game 4 while turning in an uncharacteristically human fourth quarter.
Then Game 6 happened. Not even the ceaselessly blanketing Jose Alvarado could keep CP3 from making history—or, apparently, from chipping one of Alvarado's teeth with a late elbow. Paul dropped 33 points on a perfect 14-of-14 shooting. He now holds the postseason record for most field goals made without a miss.
With all sincerity: What else is there to say about CP3? The man is a battle-tested killer, even going on age 37. He just dished out 68 assists against nine turnovers versus New Orleans for crying out loud.
Too many people still conflate the absence of a ring with postseason failure. Paul's playoff numbers are caps-lock ABSURD. And they remain so during high-stakes tilts deep into the series. He has now appeared in a combined 22 Game 6s and 7s, through which he's averaging 22.3 points and 9.0 assists on 60.8 true shooting.
Perhaps Devin Booker earns the Suns' MVP banner—and this spot—if he never injures his hamstring. For now, the Point God gets a well-deserved, potentially-totally-predictable nod.
3. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Jimmy Butler's case is a tad diminished after Max Strus carried the entire team he missed the Miami Heat's series-clinching victory over the Atlanta Hawks with right knee inflammation. But only a tad.
Through four playoff games, Butler is averaging 30.5 points, 5.3 assists and a league-best 2.8 steals. His 56.9 percent clip on twos is at once smack-you-in-the-face fantastic and not that surprising when you consider the downhill pressure he routinely puts on set defenses.
His own defense certainly isn't a revelation, either. He was spared from primary duty on Trae Young for most of the series but remains exhaustive in his pursuit of ending possessions. You can neither safely inbound the ball nor throw a simple post entry nor toss any sort of pass more than three feet away if he's on the floor.
Not even Butler's three-point efficiency (43.8 percent on four attempts per game) is shocking at this point. His evading outside volume for the entire regular season only to morph into a supernova long-range sniper during the playoffs is among my favorite postseason rites of passage.
This should go without saying, but just in case it doesn't: The Heat better hope Butler is ready to rock versus the Sixers in Round 2. Miami most likely isn't advancing or making any sort of meaningful noise without Peak Playoff Jimmy.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Spotty perimeter shooting does only so much to warp Giannis Antetokounmpo's playoff-MVP stock. His 35.5 effective field-goal percentage on jumpers is ghastly, and he started off the Milwaukee Bucks' series against the Chicago Bulls bricking free throws galore, but his overall numbers still prove he's an unmatched option.
Giannis is averaging 28.6 points, 13.4 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.4 blocks while converting 64 percent of his twos, including a how-is-this-not-a-typo 80 percent inside the restricted area (40-of-50). He also leveled up at the charity stripe after Game 2, putting in 77.4 percent of his freebies the rest of the way (24-of-31).
More value should be ascribed to his passing, too. Giannis' playmaking is absolutely huge these days with Khris Middleton nursing a sprained MCL in his left knee. He isn't running a truckload of conventional pick-and-rolls, and he will absolutely face more challenging defenses (such as that in Boston). But he's effectively dime-ing up shooters out of the post and on double-teams.
Is there anything left to say about his defense? It is disruption materialized—particularly now that Brook Lopez's return has allowed him to more freely muck up possessions away from the basket. Which isn't to say Giannis isn't near the hoop. He's all over, everywhere, all at once. And opponents are shooting just 40.9 percent against him at the rim, one of the five stingiest marks among everyone challenging at least four point-blank looks per game.
The cherry atop the already-cherry-topped sundae that is Giannis' postseason: Milwaukee outscored the Bulls by 25 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
1. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum spearheaded the Boston Celtics' sweep of the Brooklyn Nets by showcasing pretty much everything that has vaulted him into the top-10-player conversation this season.
Sure, there was scoring. Oh me, oh my, was there scoring. Tatum is averaging 29.5 points while splashing in 47.9 percent of his twos and 41.9 percent of his triples, including an unconscious 90.9 effective field-goal percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers.
This, of course, is nothing new. Not really. If anything, it's more surprising that Tatum didn't have his pull-up trey going down at its typical clip. He went just 5-of-19 on them versus Brooklyn (26.3 percent).
Splitting hairs on the context of his efficiency becomes a waste of time when accounting for everything else he's doing. The playmaking leap isn't dramatized; it's real. He is averaging 7.3 assists per game while throwing an array of not-so-obvious passes. And those passes mean something. Among the 100-plus players seeing at least 20 minutes per game this postseason, Tatum ranks sixth in assist-to-pass-percentage adjusted, which measures the share of a player's passes that lead to an assist, secondary assist or free throws.
And on top of all that, only Al Horford tallied more partial possessions guarding the superdupermega star that is Kevin Durant. Sticklers can bemoan Tatum fouling out before the end of Game 4. Just know that I don't care. Tatum is shouldering a monstrous workload, at both ends, for what just might be the Eastern Conference favorite.