Wednesday, February 28, 2024

NBA MVP Rankings: Nikola Jokic leads wide-open race; why DeMar DeRozan has slight edge over LeBron James

We’re nearing the halfway point of the 2021-22 NBA season, and the MVP race is, at this moment, looking like it could come down to a photo finish. There’s a lot of context to this year’s discussion. 

Three of the top four candidates have been without an All-Star teammate for the entire season. Giannis Antetokounmpo has played just 18 games alongside Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. LeBron James is trying to keep a painfully flawed Lakers team afloat as Anthony Davis, who can’t hit a 3-pointer to save his life and hasn’t looked anything like the 2020 version that helped lift the Lakers to a title, nurses an MCL sprain. 

There’s still a long way to go. The trade deadline could shake some things up. But as of January 3, 2022, this is my MVP ranking. 

1. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

I can’t deny it any longer. Jokic, at this point in time, is the MVP. I haven’t been willing to make that leap in my head because Denver is barely above .500, but the season this guy is having is ridiculous — even better than his MVP campaign from a year ago, which was also ridiculous. 

Right now, Jokic is the best player in the game. Close your eyes and throw a dart at an encompassing advanced metric — RAPTOR WAR, Total RAPTOR, VORP, BPM, OBPM, PER — and he’ll be leading it. He’s even leading Defensive RAPTOR and ranks second in Defensive Win Shares, and those aren’t statistical deceptions. He’s been legit awesome on the defensive end. 

He has three game-winning blocked shots. 

All told, the Nuggets are 24.1 points per 100 possessions better when Jokic is on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. The Nets, by contrast, are 7.4 points per 100 better with Kevin Durant — who will show up on this list shortly — on the floor. He’s the only player averaging at least 25 points and 12 rebounds. Throw in his seven assists per game and nobody is in his galaxy across the board. 

And so, yes, the Nuggets are an 18-16 team entering play on Monday, but they are beating opponents by almost 10 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor with what would rank as the league’s No. 2 overall offense and an 88th percentile defense, per CTG. There’s nothing he can do about the time he isn’t playing. 

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Giannis is well within range of his third MVP. The Bucks are 21-9 with him in the lineup and 4-0 since he returned from health and safety protocols on Christmas. Over that span, Giannis has averaged 33 points, 11.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists on 58.5 percent shooting. He’s also gotten to the free-throw line over 10 times per game and knocked them down at just under a 75-percent clip. 

The Bucks, who’ve still only played 18 games with Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday all active, are 15.5 points per 100 possessions better with Giannis on the floor, per CTG, and beating opponents by 12 points per 100, a differential that trails only Curry and the Warriors on this list. 

Giannis, the league’s third-leading scorer and the only player averaging at least 25 points, 11 rebounds and one block per game, trails only Jokic in VORP, BPM and PER and Total RAPTOR. 

3. Stephen Curry, Warriors

Curry was the frontrunner for a long time and for many people he still may be, but his shot has been off long enough — relatively speaking — for me to drop him in the rankings. 

Curry was shooting under 40 percent from 3 until he went 6 for 12 in a win against Utah on Saturday. He made just 40 percent of his shots in the month of December. His 43.4 overall shooting percentage would go down as a career low. He has never been worse, by a wide margin, from the midrange. 

All this said, I’m admittedly holding Curry against his own historically high shooting standards. For anyone else in the universe, 40 percent from 3 on an NBA record 13.5 attempts per game would have our heads spinning. For Curry, we say he’s struggling. 

Ultimately, the Warriors have the best record in the league (27-6 with Curry playing) and are outscoring opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the court. He’s the league’s fourth-leading scorer, continues to rank among the elite of the elite in all the advanced stats, and projects to get even better upon the imminent return of Klay Thompson, who should distract a few of those defenders that have been swarming to Curry in packs.

4. Kevin Durant, Nets

If Jokic has been the best player, Durant isn’t far off and the Nets are a top-two seed. I wouldn’t be surprised if voters put KD ahead of Curry and Antetokounmpo at this point in time. Frankly, he could be the leader right now and I wouldn’t argue too much. The top four really do feel like a tossup. 

Durant will get points for carrying Brooklyn to this point without Kyrie Irving and with James Harden looking like a shell of himself through the early going. 

Despite facing multiple defenders everywhere he turns, Durant continues to shoot a preposterous 58 percent on long midrange shots (between 14 feet and the 3-point line) and 53 percent on all midrange shots, per Cleaning the Glass, both of which would register as career highs. 

Durant leads the league in scoring and has been held under 20 points just one time the entire season. 

5. DeMar DeRozan, Bulls

After the pretty much indisputable top four, things get really interesting at the No. 5 spot. To me, with respect to Joel Embiid, who is carrying the Sixers and could be in the middle of this list by season’s end, the top two current candidates are DeRozan and LeBron James, the latter of whom is on a scoring tear trying to keep an otherwise bad Lakers team afloat in the Western Conference playoff race. 

LeBron scored 26 in a win over the Timberwolves on Sunday. Prior to that, he had scored 30-plus in seven straight games. On Friday, he became the oldest player in history to post 40 points and 14 rebounds, putting up 43 in a win over the Blazers. LeBron is second to Durant in scoring and his 15 30-point games leads the league. The Lakers are a disaster without him — 10th percentile offensively, per CTG. Forget the age qualifier: James has been awesome and is still clearly one of the very best players in the world. 

Still, I’m going with DeRozan for the No. 5 spot in a near coin flip. He’s been nothing short of sensational all season. He just became the first player in history to hit a game-winning buzzer-beater in two consecutive games, and he’s been magical in the clutch all year, his 67 total points — on 55 percent shooting — in the final five minutes of five-point games registering second only to Embiid, who is playing like a madman in the biggest moments. 

Truth be told, both LeBron and Embiid are better players than DeRozan, but the narrative matters here. DeRozan is at the center of a total Bulls turnaround. People clowned the contract Chicago game him and for years have dismissed him as an inefficient stat guy. We’ve grown somewhat numb to LeBron’s brilliance and the Sixers, for all of Embiid’s dominance, are easy to forget about down around the play-in cut line. 

The DeRozan story is fresh. It matters. Or at least I think it will to voters. All told, the Bulls are 15.7 points per 100 possessions worse with DeRozan off the court, per CTG, and they’re beating opponents by almost 10 points per 100 with him on, a number equal to that of Jokic’s impact on the Nuggets. Most importantly, the Bulls, a team most people picked to hover around the play-in line, have the best record in the East. That has to count for a lot. 

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