Can Nikola Jokic win the NBA MVP Award in 2021?
Updated: Feb 3, 2021
When the average NBA fan thinks of the MVP Award for the modern-day game, they probably think of great players like Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Russell Westbrook.
But starting in 2020 and continuing into 2021, Nikola Jokic (knee-KOH-lah YOH-kitch) from the Denver Nuggets has arguably been the best player in the entire National Basketball Association. While NBA writers have been butchering the pronunciation of his name for years (Video at https://youtu.be/ROuViiWK3Ck), you can’t butcher how great he’s been when the games have counted in 2021.
How dominant has he been you might ask? Consider this: Despite his team playing .500 basketball for most of the season, Jokic leads the NBA in several next-level efficiency categories. Jokic is currently first in Player Efficiency Rating (30.66), Overall Win Shares (2.6), Offensive Win Shares (2.0), Box Plus/Minus (10.7), and Value Over Replacement Player (1.3). Please note that these statistics are subject to change since I recorded this video on Sunday, January 17th.
But what do his impressive statistics exactly mean? Well, in a nutshell, Jokic is basically the most efficient player on the court. Whoever the Nuggets play against this season, Jokic is basically the best overall player: rebounding the basketball, taking the right jump shot, passing the ball when somebody is open, and not forcing that many contested shots. He might not ever win a dunk contest, but these next-level stats prove that he’s a major reason why the Nuggets are still a problem to deal with on a game-to-game basis.
But should efficiency ratings put Jokic over such great scorers this season like Kevin Durant, Chef Steph, and even Bradley Beal? Well, to answer that question, let’s look at P-E-R from previous MVP winners. I’m picking PER because this statistic is the most approved stat at evaluating overall greatness and efficiency. The best analogy to make here is think Wins Above Replacement for Major League Baseball players. While RBI and Batting Average are important statistics, WAR tells MLB scouts how above average that player is over a replacement level minor leaguer. Player Efficiency Rating is basically the same thing as WAR since Value Over Replacement Player doesn’t really differentiate players in the NBA.
Anyway, let’s evaluate the former MVP Award winners. Giannis from the Milwaukee Bucks won back-to-back MVPs in 2018/19 and the shortened 2019-2020 seasons. What you might not know is Giannis, AKA the Greek Freak, won the Player Efficiency Rating crown in both seasons. My point is the voters care about the analytics nowadays. Even when Harden won the scoring title during the 2018-19 season, Giannis took home the MVP hardware. In fact, Giannis was only third in the league in scoring that year.
And last season, Giannis Antetokounmpo (ON-teh-tuh-KOONM-poh) was just fifth in Points Per Game average. Simply put, putting the orange ball into the hoop isn’t as important anymore if it takes you 10 shots to get 15 points. With Jokic, he isn’t that type of scorer, and like Giannis, he probably will be rewarded with the MVP award if he can keep up these very impressive numbers.
So let’s play the game of Devil’s advocate. Is there anything about Jokic’s game that screams, “Yeah but if he was that great, why aren’t the Nuggets competing with the Lakers and Clippers for a top seed in the Western Conference?” First of all, the season is still very young, and the Nuggets have plenty of talent in their starting lineup to get back into the top tier of the Western Conference. Secondly, it’s just hard to take the MVP Award away from Jokic if his Player Efficiency Rating numbers continue to be fantastic. Although James Harden is constantly scrutinized for his inefficient step-back threes and constant dribbling, he actually won the PER crown during his 2017-18 MVP season.
Simply put, there is definitely some correlation here between being the most efficient player on the court and the most valuable one. In layman’s terms, the voters like when a player can force double teams and then kick it out to the open player. That being said, Harden and Giannis both played on teams who finished first in their respective conferences. Jokic winning the hardware would be against what the voters usually do, which is of course vote for players from the best overall team.
Should Jokic’s MVP consideration be somewhat discredited due to the failures from his teammates, or would an injured Jokic mean the Nuggets would turn into a team headed towards the draft lottery? No one can foretell the future, so it’s hard to say how much worse the Nuggets would be if the Joker contracted COVID-19 or God forbid tore his meniscus. With all of that in mind, it’s simply hard to take away the MVP award from arguably the league’s most efficient player.
Another topic to keep in mind is comparing Jokic to other potential MVP winners. Honestly, there’s nobody who can make a case better than the Denver Nuggets’ starting center. Kevin Durant’s practically miraculous comeback from a torn Achilles injury has his case for another MVP distinction, but remember: The Nets aren’t winning that many games. This can obviously change now that the Beard is in Brooklyn, but still: You can’t discredit Jokic if his main competitor, the Durantula, is also on an underperforming team. And to continue, if the Nets surge in the standings, should the credit be more to Durant or the return of Kyrie Iriving and the arrival of the Beard?
But let’s still play Devil’s advocate. Kevin Durant is not only great at scoring, but he’s also the most efficient scorer in the NBA. His true shooting percentage entering game action on January 17th was the best for a non-center. Jokic you might ask? He’s at a respectable 15th place, but keep in mind that True Shooting Percentage is a stat usually dominated by centers since the most efficient shot is typically in the painted area. Jokic is presently in 7th place in T-P-Percentage among qualified centers. However, Jokic also shoots a lot of mid-range and three-point shots, so the MVP voters will take his very unusual style of playing the 5-position into consideration.
Another topic that the Professional Basketball Writers Association has to think about is the following question: “Is Jokic putting up numbers against teams who have been decimated due to COVID-19 contact tracing numbers?” Well, not really. Jokic has pretty much changed the overall state of the franchise since the Nuggets drafted him. They went from four consecutive losing seasons before he arrived there to reaching their first Western Conference Finals since Carmelo Anthony was the star attraction in town.
Furthermore, every NBA player is dealing with COVID issues, so it’s unfair to say Jokic is dominating in an off-year when Durant and Curry are also playing against depleted rosters.
Jokic is simply an exceptional talent, and 2021 might be his best season yet. He already has 46 career triple-doubles, good enough for 9th on the all-time list. He even obtained a triple-double at the fastest time in NBA history at just 14 minutes and 33 seconds. And he’s only 25 years old. I only bring these accomplishments because Jokic has been on the radar for MVP honors the past couple of seasons, with 2021 now being his coming out party as the best in the league.
Here are the current Las Vegas betting odds on who will win MVP: Jokic’s fellow European Luka Doncic (LOU-kuh DAWN-chitch) is currently favored at +480 odds. Last year’s reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is looking to three-peat at +600. Two other superstars in Kevin Durant and Steph Curry fill out the top 4 with +700 and +750 odds, respectively. And in fifth, the Serbian national (Jokic of course) sits at a competitive +950.
The best way to interpret those numbers is that the PBWA voters need to see more from Jokic than just his amazing start to the year. Also, backcourt players are generally more valued in today’s NBA than the frontcourt, so Jokic needs to consistently average over 9 assists per game to show the voters that his mere presence on the court leads to open shots for his teammates. The days of dominating centers with post moves are pretty much dead, so Jokic needs to continue to annihilate opposing defenses with assists, triple-doubles, and overall shot-making to stay in the MVP discussion.
As of now, Jokic is statistically the MVP. But he is the most valuable to his team? My argument is yes since Jamal Murray is averaging 19.5 PPG with just a PER of 15.34. Michael Porter, Jr., while a very good up-and-coming baller, is generally not their best isolation player. As such, when Murray isn’t performing, it’s up to the Joker to save the day, and the Serbian-born guy has pretty much done that in 2021. Don’t believe me? He’s the best player on the Nuggets in terms of points, rebounds, assists, and even steals.
Is Jokic a better MVP candidate than Bradley Beal? The statistics would say yes, and while Beal is the current scoring champion, his lower than 50% field-goal shooting is less than desirable for an MVP winner. In addition to that, Jokic shoots almost 57% from the field. This is even better than Stephen Curry.
Curry has a distinguishable right to his third MVP since he’s trying to lead Golden State into the playoffs without his fellow Splash Brother in Klay Thompson, but he still has Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins. The voters won’t just say Curry is doing it on his own, just like Jokic still has Porter, Jr. and Murray.
What’s my final take? Jokic should win the MVP Award if he continues to lead the league in PER, Wins Shares, and Value Over Replacement Player. Forget about scoring. Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine can put the ball through the nett, but there’s also a reason why their Wizards and Bulls teams are struggling in the Eastern Conference.