Why Each MVP Candidate Should Be The Favorite

A) Giannis Antetokounmpo

31.1 p | 11.8 r | 5.7 a | 0.8 s | 0.8 b | FG%: 55.3 | 3P%: 27.5 | FT%: 64.5

Giannis Antetokounmpo should be the favorite for the MVP award.

He is nearly universally regarded as the best player in the league today. Incidentally, he’s also the best player on the best team, one of the traditional ways voters choose MVP. And by the way? The Bucks haven’t had a healthy Khris Middleton all year, and Khris has long been their best perimeter threat (apologies to Jrue Holiday, shooting lights-out this season). So if Jokić was rewarded for lifting a decimated Nuggets team last season, shouldn’t Giannis get some credit for what he’s done this year?

This isn’t just about feels. The numbers paint a Michael Jordan Trophy picture, too. Giannis leads the league in points per 36 minutes and free throw attempts per 36, and he’s significantly higher than Jokic or Embiid in rebounds per 36, too.

Typically, higher volume leads to lower efficiency, so explain this: Giannis averages the most shots per minute than any other player in the league… but also has a higher FG% than anyone else in the top 50 of FGA per 36.

Giannis goes after every play like his next contract depends on it. Here he is in the fourth quarter of a meaningless game against the Wizards. The Bucks have their seed essentially locked up by this point, and they’re winning by 15 in the fourth. But Kendrick Nunn dares to steal the ball from an unsuspecting Giannis, and such slights must not go unpunished:

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Sure, the Wizards still score on that play. The rest of the team understands that this layup is, ultimately, meaningless. But that sure as hell didn’t matter to Giannis. Basketball fans have to appreciate what Giannis brings every. Single. Night.

As evidenced by the highlight above, he’s a former Defensive Player of the Year, anchoring the best defense in the league. Lest you think that’s the Brook Lopez effect, lineups with Giannis and without Brook still perform at an above-average rate defensively. Individually, Giannis leads the league by forcing opponents to shoot a whopping -17% worse at the rim than expected; second place, Walker Kessler, is at -13.3%.

Nothing tells on a fan quicker than claiming that Giannis has “no bag.” Euro-steps, step-throughs, drop-steps. Finger rolls, hooks, any dunk you want. No-looks, wrap-arounds, pump-and-passes. Here’s an image of Giannis deciding what move to destroy you with:

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Pictured: Giannis, reaching into his bag

Giannis is scoring more points in transition (9.3 per game) than we’ve seen in the eight years that the NBA has provided tracking data. He might be the greatest one-man fast break of all time; he’s undoubtedly the most prolific.

Antetokounmpo seems to get stronger as games go on: he’s second in the league in fourth-quarter scoring despite averaging fewer than nine minutes.

So, to recap: Giannis is the best player on the best team (despite missing his Robin), leads the NBA in major per-minute stats while performing at highly efficient levels, and is one of the best defenders in basketball, too. Sounds like an MVP to me.

B) Joel Embiid

33.1 p | 10.2 r | 4.2 a | 1.0 s | 1.7 b | FG%: 54.8 | 3P%: 33.0 | FT%: 85.7

Joel Embiid should be the favorite for the MVP award.

He led the league in scoring last season, which isn’t pertinent to this year’s race. Except he’s leading the league in scoring this season again while averaging 10% more points than last season, on by far his most accurate-shooting season ever.

Of course, there’s more to Embiid’s case than shooting, but we should talk about that a bit more. Naturally, he’s an excellent finisher at the rim (how could a mongoose-quick mountain not be?), and we know his jumper is wet. But it’s pure water from the deep midrange: per Mike Vorkunov at The Athletic, Durant leads the league with a 57.7% FG% between 14 and 23 feet… and Embiid is second at 52.3%. That puts Embiid ahead of noted midrange assassins Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and everyone else.

That shotmaking has opened up a world of unstoppable possibilities for Embiid. This season, coach Doc Rivers has Embiid starting his possessions at the elbow instead of the block. And when he’s got that much room to operate with a jumper that sterile, defenses have to worry about everything and end up stopping nothing:

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And, perhaps most importantly: Embiid gets to the line nearly as often as Giannis… but makes 86% of his free throws (compared to Antetokounmpo’s 65%). That’s outrageous accuracy, and it’s adding 10 points per game to Embiid’s totals. He’s averaging the sixth-most made free throws per game ever.

Defensively, Embiid’s averaging three “stocks” per game, but his impact goes deeper. When he’s on the court, opponents get to the rim 6.5% less often, in the 99th percentile league-wide, and they shoot 2.1% worse on the rare occasions they do get off an attempt.

If all that’s not enough, Embiid is also one of the best clutch players in the NBA, and he’s had some of the highest highs of anyone in the league. Sounds like an MVP to me.

C) Nikola Jokić

24.8 p | 11.9 r | 9.8 a | 1.3 s | 0.7 b | FG%: 63.3 | 3P%: 38.5 | FT%: 82.1

Nikola Jokić should be the favorite for the MVP award.

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first. Here are a bunch of acronyms Jokić owns: BPM, RAPTOR, EPM, WS/48, LEBRON…the list never ends. Those metrics purport to amalgamate a player’s total impact into one easily-digestible number (and they account for defense in varying ways and to varying degrees, it’s worth pointing out), and Jokić is not just winning but outright dominating most of them.

When Jokić is on the floor, the Nuggets outscore opponents by 13.4 points per 100 possessions and have an offensive rating of 125.6, unfathomable numbers. He’s the most versatile offensive player in the NBA, and he’s one slot behind Embiid in clutch-time plus/minus.

This is the two-time defending MVP having his best season yet. His scoring volume isn’t quite at the level of his peers (“only” 25 points per game), but he never misses: he’s leading the league in true shooting percentage (TS%), which adjusts for three-pointers and free throws.

Jokić is taking fewer jumpers than ever but canning them at exceptional rates. He finishes at the rim well despite struggling to jump over a phone book. Coach Mike Malone has been creative with his schemes this year, pinballing Jokić around off-ball like a wooly-sized Rip Hamilton. Jokić has even been running the world’s slowest give-and-go:

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But no one is a Jokić fan because of the scoring. It’s the artistry of his passes, the sheer ebullience dripping off every inventive dime. Look at how many defenders this one-handed frozen rope has to get past:

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Some people act as though Jokić is only impressive thanks to the nerds pumping out advanced analytics, but his traditional per-game box score numbers are just as absurd:

  • 16th in the league in scoring
  • 8th in FG% (behind seven guys whose only job is to dunk the ball)
  • 1st in True Shooting (which adjusts for threes and free throws)
  • 2nd in rebounding
  • 3rd in assists
  • 20th in steals (his quick hands are his most underrated attribute).

Basically, Jokić breaks statistics while playing perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing game in the league. Sounds like an MVP to me.


It’s crazy to me when I hear another analyst say that “Player X is clearly the MVP.” These three all have valid MVP cases, and it just comes down to what a voter wants to prioritize.

My MVP pick (along with a few more awards) is coming in the next couple of days; I’m not dodging the question. But I wanted to do my homework first and lay out the strongest case I could for the three most deserving candidates while ignoring the prevailing narratives around each. I’m still deciding how much those narratives will and should matter.

More thoughts coming soon.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.