- Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.
After an unpredictable and sometimes ragged NBA regular season, it’s finally awards time. With just three days until the playoffs, here is my official ballot.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
There are three worthy winners. A case for one is not a slight against the others. In any normal season, Embiid and Antetokounmpo would run away with this.
Antetokounmpo may be the world’s best player. If you asked 100 coaches and executives to pick one of these three for Game 7 of the Finals, Antetokounmpo wins — maybe easily. He edged Embiid (ending behind only Jokic) in most advanced statistics. Milwaukee was plus-8 per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo on the floor, and minus-3 when he sat; he too passes the “what happens when you take him away?” test. Milwaukee finished ahead of Philadelphia and Denver.
But with three otherworldly dossiers, I’m inclined to look again at that word “valuable” and place a smidgen extra weight on the rare level of chaos Embiid and Jokic navigated. Denver’s second- and third-best players missed basically the entire season. Embiid’s would-be co-star sat out the whole damned thing, turning a max salary slot into a zero until James Harden showed up in Philly’s 59th game. These two giants carrying their teams to 51 and 48 wins is an incredible accomplishment.
This isn’t “punishing” Antetokounmpo for Milwaukee’s stability as much as it is rewarding Embiid and Jokic for stabilizing teams that might have otherwise teetered. Perhaps Philly endured the more unusual and potentially destabilizing turmoil. Injuries happen. Indefinite superstar boycotts don’t. Jokic didn’t face endless questions about Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.
The difference between living those circumstances is hard for an outsider to parse. In strict production terms, I’m not sure Embiid faced a deeper talent void than Jokic. It’s possible only one other Denver starter — Aaron Gordon — starts for your typical contender. If backups are starting, who are the actual backups?
Denver outscored opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor, and went a hideous minus-7.9 when he rested. The first number is more important. You never want to over-reward someone because of a weakened surrounding roster — and in the process unfairly knock an equivalent superstar for the sin of having good teammates.
But that plus-8.4 number shows Jokic didn’t just lift an undermanned roster out of the muck. He made it great. That margin is one point higher than Phoenix’s league-leading team mark.
The same holds for Embiid, on a slightly lesser scale: Philly was plus-7.9 with him, minus-3.6 without him.
Jokic logged almost 200 more minutes than Embiid. He has the overall statistical edge, which is astonishing given Embiid averaged 30.6 points and 11.7 rebounds; outshot Jokic from deep (37% to 33.7%); and became the first center since Shaquille O’Neal to win the scoring title. But Jokic posted an unprecedented line of 27.1 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 7.9 assists; invented the 2,000/1,000/500 club; and lapped the field in advanced metrics. He shot 65% on 2s, compared to 53% for Embiid.
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