From the Basement | Is Jokic deserving of MVP three-peat?

Max Perlman, Contributing Reporter

Nathan Rich

Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo — with less than a month to go in the NBA season, it seems clear that these three big men will be the finalists for MVP for the second year running. Jokic could potentially win for the third-straight year. But does Jokic, a player with no finals appearances, currently tied for 17th in league scoring, really deserve such a historic accomplishment?

Jokic has effectively carried the injury-plagued Denver Nuggets in recent years, averaging 26.7 points per game, 12.3 rebounds and 8.1 assists over the ‘20-’21 and ‘21-’22 seasons combined. The Nuggets repeatedly play star players Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Despite his impressive regular season stat lines, Jokic’s Nuggets have only won a single playoff series since his MVP reign began. Denver knocked off the Portland Trailblazers in 2021 before they fell to the Phoenix Suns in the second round and were crushed by the Warriors in last year’s first round.

Despite the award explicitly being for the regular season, many do not think Jokic deserves to three-peat in MVP voting until he further proves himself in the finals. The legendary Larry Bird was the last to accomplish the feat from 1984-1986. By the time Bird won his first MVP, he was already an NBA champion and he managed to win two more during his MVP three-peat. 

Jokic’s most significant playoff push thus far has been reaching the Western Conference Finals in the 2020 bubble after coming back down 3-1 in both the first and second rounds against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, respectively. LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Los Angeles Lakers power duo, stopped this run, though. The Nugget’s success in the early rounds was in large part to Murray, who led the team in scoring. 

In last year’s losing effort against the Golden State Warriors, with Murray injured, Jokic put up historic numbers averaging 32 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists, though the Nuggets won just one of five games. This has been the story of Jokic so far: big stats without his co-stars, and falters to NBA legends like James or Steph Curry when it matters most.

Embiid, the MVP runner-up the past two seasons, is seemingly this year’s top contender to dethrone Jokic. He leads the league in scoring with 33.1 points per game, led the league last year as well with 30.6 and has proven himself defensively by being named an NBA All-Defensive player three times in the last five seasons, a feat Jokic has never accomplished. Though Embiid is the better scorer and defensive player, he is not the playmaker Jokic is. Embiid averages a mere 4.2 assists this year compared to the Serbian’s 9.9, which shatters Wilt Chamberlain’s record of 8.6 dimes for most in a season ever by a center set in 1968. 

Like Jokic, Embiid has been unable to really break through in the playoffs, only getting as far as the second round due to a combination of injuries, heart-breaking buzzer-beaters and Game 7 collapses. Furthermore, Embiid has had the opportunity to play with multiple All-Stars, such as Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons and James Harden while Jokic has never once been teamed up with an All-Star. 

It seems that Milwaukee Bucks superstar forward Antetokounmpo will finish third for a second year running. However, he deserves much more consideration to fight for that top spot, averaging 31.3 points per game, 11.8 rebounds and 5.7 assists. Antetokounmpo’s biggest detractor, in my opinion, is voter fatigue. The Greek Freak won the award back-to-back in 2019 and 2020 and suffers from some of what Jokic is starting to feel this year with voters and fans alike wanting to spread the love. 

But Antetokounmpo has a lot going for him that the other two do not. Firstly, Antetokounmpo hasn’t missed an All-Defensive First Team since 2019 and won Defensive Player of the Year in 2020, something not even Embiid in his defensive dominance has managed to do. And, Antetokounmpo is an NBA champion. He led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first title in half a century in 2021, taking home Finals MVP honors after the Bucks’ erased a 2-0 deficit to win in six against the Phoenix Suns. 

Many — including myself — think Antetokounmpo is the best player in the league since winning it all in 2021. He took the torch from James who had previously been the league’s best player for years. No, Antetokounmpo is not shattering the assists record for centers like Jokic is, nor is he leading the league in scoring like Embiid. But the Bucks currently have the best record in the whole league. While Jrue Holiday is an All-Star and Brook Lopez will likely be nominated for Defensive Player of the Year, there is no question that the Bucks are Antetokounmpo’s team. He is a winner, a scorer, one of the very best defenders in the league and a humble superstar leader on the best team. 

If you think MVP should go to the player whose “turn it is” based off of the past few years, then it should be Embiid. If you think MVP should go to the guy with the most ridiculous stats who has orchestrated and led a team without any other All-Stars to the playoffs, then it should be Jokic. But, if you think it should be the league’s most complete, best player, then it should be Antetokounmpo, even if he’s already won it twice.

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