It’s time to seriously talk about the MVP race

Published March 10, 2022, 2:30 PMMiguel Flores

Only a select few are in the legitimate conversation for Most Valuable Player.

There's around a month left in the regular season and we’re heading for a heated round of shuffling not just in the standings, but also in the world of takes.

This season should spawn one of the most heated Most Valuable Player discussions since the great Russell Westbrook vs. James Harden debate of 2017. There's beauty and tragedy in the MVP being such a narrative-based award. One player could be having a historic statistical season, only to lose votes to a guy that has endeared himself more to the community. As much as players like to combat the media that vote on these awards lately, the MVP has forever been a reflection of what the NBA-watching populous values at a specific time.

We’re getting all that drama and then some this year. Which chatter should you pay attention to? Who truly does have the lead in the MVP race at this point in the season?

The wildcards

Ja Morant deserves more than to be the face of whataboutism in the NBA discussion spheres.

He was electric to start the season, cooled off due to injury, then returned to a red-hot Memphis Grizzlies team. With his team going on a winning streak, it was on Morant to adjust. To his credit, he buckled up and started showing more effort on defense while embracing his team’s all-in approach.

The Morant experience simmered before it came to a rapid boil around January. Since then, Morant has soared to unbelievable heights, scoring 46 and 52 points in back-to-back games. This was when the talks of Morant for MVP truly picked up.

Morant has the stats to back up his case. He went from averaging 19.1 points per game last season to 27.5 this year. His shooting splits have jumped to 49/34/76 for the year and he could become just the 25th player in league history to end the season averaging more than 25 points, five rebounds, and five assists.

He’s ascended to face-of-the-league status. Morant plays basketball with the fun slider turned all the way up to 99. His shot profile looks like prime Tony Parker. His athleticism is of young Vince Carter. He’s affecting the culture like Allen Iverson.

Morant’s case has plenty of similarities to the wave Derrick Rose rode in 2011. Like Morant, Rose was the young, exciting future of the league who was immediately crowned after leading the Chicago Bulls to the top of the East. The difference between now and 2011 is Morant’s narrative case should not be strong enough to topple the historical seasons of the top MVP candidates.

Ditto for Luka Doncic, who's been carrying the Dallas Mavericks on the back of 28.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game. He rebounded from a sluggish start to replicate his incredible sophomore season. Doncic is worthy of a mention in MVP conversations but he hasn’t been nearly as consistent as the other candidates.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo

The two-time MVP has been propping up the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks for much of the season. Jrue Holiday has struggled to stay consistent, Khris Middleton has been streaky, while the rest of the lineup has been relatively unhealthy.

Giannis has solved all of Milwaukee’s problems, from taking on more shot-creating responsibilities to guarding the rim like a center with Brook Lopez sitting out most of the season due to back problems.

The crazy about Giannis: he’s having a season as good, if not better than his past two MVP campaigns. With 29.4 points, 11.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.4 blocks, Giannis has been dominant while remedying his singular weakness from last season’s run: free throw shooting. Cleaning up his mechanics, Giannis is shooting 72.1 percent from the charity stripe, almost four percentage points higher than last season. 

Don’t put it past Giannis to go on an absolute scorching run to finish the season and take over the MVP race. For now, he is the clear third in a three-man race. It’s not about voter fatigue, either. It’s just that two other guys have been on another level.

2. Joel Embiid

For much of 2022, the MVP race was Joel Embiid’s to lose.

Embiid had a run of 22 straight games with 25+ points. He also scored 35+ points throughout a stretch in January. All the while, the Sixers have weathered injuries and the Ben Simmons saga to emerge as the current second seed in the East. 

He’s the league’s leading scorer for a reason. Embiid has eliminated all his offensive weaknesses. His post-up game remains immaculate. Facing up, Embiid can tear through most double teams to get to the rim. If he does get in a pinch, Embiid has matured so much as a playmaker that he can now dictate how his team moves the ball in the perimeter. He’s made headlines this season for his absurd amount of free throw attempts, but what can you really do when Embiid has his mojo going other than to foul?

It's crazy to think how murky Embiid’s prospects were when he got drafted. Injuries have continued to plague him but he’s managed to stay healthy over the past two years to put up Hall of Fame level numbers.

Embiid deserves MVP for carrying the Sixers on both ends. The only problem is someone else probably deserves it more.

1. Nikola Jokic

If the MVP award was purely about overcoming bad luck, Nikola Jokic should run away with the trophy. Last season, his tag partner Jamal Murray suffered an ACL tear, an injury which the young point guard has yet to recover from. Early this season, the Nuggets’ third-best option in Michael Porter Jr. aggravated a career-threatening back injury.

In most games this season, Jokic’s best teammate has either been the streaky Will Barton or the much-improved specialist Aaron Gordon – not exactly the All-Stars other candidates on this list have on their team. Still, the Nuggets have climbed the competitive Western Conference to currently occupy the sixth seed.

If the MVP award was purely about stats, Jokic should have this race in the bag. Averaging 25.9 points, 13.8 rebounds, 8.1 assists, and 1.4 steals, Jokic leads the Nuggets in all those categories. No center in the history of the league has come close to averaging the numbers Jokic has been hanging all season.

Then there are the wild graphs. Almost weekly, a new graph comes out of Jokic dominating another advanced statistic with graphs and charts illustrating just how ahead of the pack he is of other superstars around the league. 

It’s been said before, but Jokic also deserves credit for dominating with his particular style. He isn’t flashy in the modern mixtape way. Jokic is peculiar. He moves at his own pace, which seems slow compared to the average NBA player. But Jokic always gets his shot or his pass off. Teams have modernized their styles and systems to take advantage of certain inefficiencies by going small and taking more outside shots. Jokic is built to destroy the modern NBA scheme.

There should be no question about Jokic's claim for back-to-back MVP awards. He’s no longer playing against his own standards. He’s approaching all-time great territory.