The 2022 NBA MVP Race

Nikola Jokic leads NBA MVP race
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The battle for the 2022 NBA MVP is coming down to the wire. 

MVP races usually sort themselves out by this point in the season. The key metrics used to determine the league’s most valuable player tend to reveal a true frontrunner come April. At a bare minimum, the MVP checks the following boxes:

  1. They’re the best player on a playoff team
  2. They’re durable, playing in at least 80% of their team’s games – 66 for an 82-game season
  3. They rank among the top-3 in player efficiency rating (PER)

The current frontrunners for MVP – Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo – will check all 3 boxes by the end of this week.

Let’s examine the entire field and figure out who will ultimately be crowned the 2022 NBA MVP. 

The 2022 NBA MVP Race

Narrowing Down the MVP Field

Trae Young, Ja Morant, DeMar DeRozan, Jayson Tatum, and Stephen Curry are all the best players on playoff teams. Morant and Curry lose ground because of the number of games they’ve missed due to injury. Young’s Hawks are barely over .500,  while DeRozan falls outside the top-10 in PER. 

Tatum is having the best statistical season of his career. He’s the centerpiece of a resurgent Celtics team still vying for the top seed in the East. Tatum falls outside the top-20 in PER, mostly because he doesn’t come close to matching the assists and defensive stats of the frontrunners for MVP. He’s only 24 years old and has MVP potential in the future, but not this year. 

Luka Doncic will likely finish in the top-5 in MVP voting, but outside the top 3. Doncic has carried the Dallas Mavericks to a top-4 seed in the Western Conference with an MVP-like performance since the beginning of January. Unfortunately, it took a few months for him to get his body in shape. Doncic’s early-season performance – and ultimately his MVP chances – suffered as a result. 

Devin Booker Making History

To understand what makes this race so unique, consider the following. The Phoenix Suns are this season’s best regular team by a decisive margin, and the betting favorite to win the NBA Championship. There have been 12 seasons in NBA history when a player on the league’s best regular-season team has averaged 25 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. In each of those 12 instances, that player won the league MVP. Devin Booker will become the first player in NBA history to buck that trend, despite leading a Suns team that played without Chris Paul for 6 weeks. And he won’t even finish in the top 3. 

#3: Joel Embiid Gave it His All

Last season, Joel Embiid finished 2nd in MVP voting behind Nikola Jokic. As recently as two months ago he was the betting favorite for this year’s award. Embiid is averaging a career-best 30 points per game (tops in the NBA) on a Sixers team still vying for the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. He carried a Sixers team without Ben Simmons for 4 months before they traded for James Harden. The Harden trade may have added some much-needed firepower to the Sixers’ offense, but it seems to have hurt Embiid’s MVP positioning as he and Harden figured out how to navigate the court together. 

MVP voting isn’t an exact science. As Embiid pointed out after a 44-point performance against the Cavs over the weekend, it’s unreasonable to expect him to do much more than he already does. It’s crazy to think that a 7 foot player with a long history of durability concerns could play in 65+ games while shooting over 80% from the free-throw line on 10+ attempts per game, finish 1st in the league in scoring, 3rd in PER (31.26), and potentially help his team clinch the top seed in the East – and not win the MVP. 

Embiid’s best shot at supplanting Giannis and Jokic would have been leading the Sixers to the #1 seed in the East, which now appears out of reach.

Like Booker, and to a degree Tatum, Embiid not winning the MVP this season says less about his shortcomings than it does about how special Giannis and Jokic have been. 

#2 Giannis Antetokounmpo is a Freak

Since winning back-to-back MVP awards in 2019 & 2020, Giannis has improved his game in almost every way possible. Last season he led the Bucks to an NBA title, but his woes from the free-throw line (68%) warranted criticism as he finished 4th in MVP voting. 

This season Giannis has improved as a playmaker in the half-court and is the defensive rock of a Bucks team vying for a 2nd consecutive NBA title. He’s taking 2 more FT attempts this year [than he did a season ago] at a 72% clip. It’s not a massive statistical leap, but his improved confidence at the line shows. If he had a single perceived weakness in his game, it was his FT efficiency. By neutralizing that perception, the position-less Giannis is practically impossible to defend. 

One way to evaluate just how valuable a player is to their team is by examining their on/off differential. This measures how many points (per 100 possessions) a team scores when that player is either on or off the court. Of the players who’ve logged at least 1500 minutes this season, Giannis ranks 9th with an on/off differential of 11.5. Next on the list is Giannis’ teammate Jrue Holiday, which shows how important they both are to the Bucks. It also indicates that Giannis has a stronger supporting cast than Embiid, who ranks 14th (10.2).

Giannis is 2nd in the league in PER (32.28). He’s about to become the first player in NBA history to average 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists on 55% shooting. Despite this accomplishment, he has a better chance of securing a second consecutive NBA Finals MVP award than he does the league MVP. Like Embiid, Giannis’ best chance at moving to the top of the MVP voting would have required the Bucks to secure the #1 seed in the East, which is now all but out of reach. 

2021-22 NBA MVP: Nikola Jokic

It’s scary to think that Jokic at 27 years old is still getting better, but he is. 

Jokic won the 2020-2021 NBA MVP after having one of the most incredible statistical seasons ever, and likely the best statistical performance ever by a center. This season he’s posting even better numbers, with career-highs in points (27), rebounds (13.7), steals (1.4) and blocks (.9) while shooting 58% from the field. He leads the NBA in PER (32.96). He’s the only player in the league in the top-10 in points, rebounds, and assists. 

His durability sets him even further apart from the pack, especially as a big. In his 2021 MVP campaign, Jokic played in each of the Nuggets’ 72 games. This season he’s played in 73 of their 80 games (91%). He’s a matchup nightmare and he’s always on the court. 

For most of this season, the Nuggets have played without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr – their 2nd and 3rd best players. Jokic has practically single-handedly led the Nuggets to the playoffs despite a depleted supporting cast. His value to his team is second to none, with a league-leading 18.1 on/off differential. 

In a crowded field, Nikola Jokic is the easy choice for the 2022 NBA MVP. 

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