Coming into the 2020-2021 season, Giannis Antetokuonmpo was the odds on favorite to win the NBA MVP for the third straight time, a distinction that came with very little precedence. He would be the first to accomplish a feat that eluded Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Michael Jordan before him, something no player had done since Larry Bird’s incredible 1984-86 run, which coincided with media getting the ability to vote on the award beginning in the 1980-81 season. Giannis had won not just a second consecutive MVP, but the Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2020. His main competition was Steph Curry, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Jokic. Whether in terms of team success, statistical dominance, or defensive excellence, there were arguments Giannis, who handed in a case nearly identical to the two seasons before, should’ve won his third MVP. He finished fourth in the vote, with a single first place ballot. Let me tell you why the voting body was right.
Historically, the NBA MVP, when it suits your argument, is a regular season award. It’s not an award given to the NBA’s “best” player, not even an award given to the NBA’s “most important” player to their team. It’s mostly an alchemical stew of narrative, team success, and statistical excellence. The NBA MVP electorate locks itself in a room, kills the lights, burns some incense, and emerges with a new Pope.
In the NFL, the MVP has essentially become the award given to the best regular season quarterback. In the MLB, it’s turned into an award handed out by calculators, nearly divorced from team success. For it’s part, the NBA MVP is typically an award that hews closest to the truth the idea of “Value” implicit in the name. It gives you wiggle room to define how you’d like — not a bug, but a feature that has kept the award interesting, honest, and important.
Giannis was denied his third MVP because in spite of its purported regular season distinction, in the 2019-2020 season, his juggernaut Bucks were summarily bounced 4-1 by a Heat team that “exposed” Giannis by building a wall and definitively proving he was a regular season affectation, a statistical glitch. The next year the Bucks won the championship, who knows if that little extra chip awarded by that fourth place MVP finish was finally what put them over the top.
If he played baseball, this season, Nikola Jokic had, at several points, what might’ve been the best case of his last three seasons to be awarded MVP. He’s flirted with averaging a triple-double. His finally healthy and well-stocked Nuggets team sits first in the West, and despite a recent slide, will likely finish there. He’s putting up numbers advanced stat geeks have never seen before, and he’s passing the eye test, nearly levitating off the ground some nights, having appeared to definitively solved basketball.
But he shouldn’t win.
In 2022, his Nuggets finished sixth in the West and suffered a gentleman’s sweep, 4-1 at the hand of the Warriors in the first round. And despite what will likely be the Nuggets strong finish in seeding, would it shock anyone if the Warriors or Lakers pulled off a first round upset against a team that increasingly looks overmatched and shorthanded? Meanwhile his main antagonist (besides Giannis) during this three season run, Joel Embiid is putting together another masterful season, arguably the best in terms of both his performance finally matched by his team’s (a real contender), averaging an eye-popping, career-high 33 points a game and eye test again, just fucking destroying people.
Case in point, in their lone matchup this season, Embiid pantsed Joker on national television, alphaing him by dropping 47 points, and a game-winner in his eye (they are playing once more, in what is now probably the most anticipated game left in the regular season March 27). You can say it’s just one game, but shit like this used to matter. This is why the MVP in basketball was always my favorite award, because beyond a stats case, these peripheral factors have always mattered and the voters will fade certain arguments to ensure the “right” player ended up with the trophy.
Let’s talk about another issue that many wish didn’t matter but we can’t ignore in trying to address this subject: JJ Redick made headlines on March 7 when he slammed Kendrick Perkins on First Take, accusing Perk of race baiting by injecting race as a factor into the MVP conversation. It was wrong for several reasons, namely because a guy who looks like a Kobra Kai sensei shouldn’t be discounting race with his whole chest ever for any reason, because accusing a Black man on television of being racist threatens his credibility and his job, and because if Clay Travis agrees with you, you’re doing something wrong. But the most important reason is JJ was misrepresenting the point. Nobody is accusing the NBA voter body politic of being a group of Mr. Burns’ in MAGA hats laughing maniacally as they pull a lever for Jokic and white basketball purity as thunder cracks and cartoon lightning flashes in the background. That’s not how racism works, it’s pervasive, it’s systemic, and it’s more abstract than that.
No one believes themselves to be racist. Racism, at least in the Northeast, in the 21st century, is about stories you tell yourself. In a maelstrom of discourse, it’s one argument you decide to emphasize over another that gets you to a place that seems logical on its face, without realizing you’re falling prey to rhetorical leaps and mental gymnastics subconsciously shaped by conditioning you’ve been subjected to your entire miserable American life. It’s a moving target on a case-by-case basis, but when you take a step back and survey the big picture, it clearly slants in one direction.
This both is and isn’t the problem when we discuss the MVP vote this season. Ironically, since Redick’s showdown with Perkins, the Nuggets have slipped, but a race characterized as all but over shifted in the discourse. The pushback on Redick’s point isn’t the sole reason this happened, but it would be foolish to say the sudden shift back towards, “Hey this thing is wide open and just look at what Embiid is doing every night!” is not a coincidence. Don’t trust any writer who characterizes these conversations as “just about basketball”, because it never is.
As a pure animal of offense, and of course, with several weeks left to play, Jokic should win this season’s NBA MVP on paper (though why we’ve decided defense is siloed from the MVP is somewhat beyond me), which is where it begins and ends for some Mike Trout voters. With or without the injury excuse last year, Joker won the award without getting home court in the first round, which at one time would’ve been a non-starter (ironically, the precedent for that not being a DQ was set by Russell Westbrook in his infamous triple-double MVP year when his Thunder finished sixth. Which still had the taint of an award handed out by the conservative wing of NBA MVP voting body because it came the season following Durant absconding to the Bay. The context was awarding the loyal and hardworking player who stayed and put “team first”, rather than the player empowerment diva who left the franchise who drafted him. All real, coded, Greenbook shit). And most importantly, the chatter around Embiid last season wasn’t that he didn’t have a great season (His Sixers finished fourth in the East and made the second round) but that he committed the unforgivable sin of wanting the award. He campaigned for it, and the media latched on like he was Anne Hathaway. This is not a critique that speaks to advanced analytics, or the regular season, but narrative.
So which is it? If Giannis, and LeBron, and Jordan fell prey to “voting fatigue”, why shouldn’t Jokic? Why is this decades old fact of the MVP suddenly going away at this incredibly convenient moment? Why doesn’t he have to “earn it in the playoffs” like Giannis did? Is the NBA going to use this debate as an excuse to finally let the calculators hand out the trophy forevermore, divorced from team success? Or a perhaps worse scenario, that it will return at a later date when there just happens to be a narrative argument against a dominant Black superstar on the cusp of a third trophy?
I would argue that the logic that has held true for NBA superstars in the MVP race for 40 years should hold true now. A vote for Embiid represents a vote for tradition, for an equitable NBA that doesn’t play by two different sets of rules, and just maybe, for a better player who at least deserved one of these last three trophies, even if the VORP doesn’t necessarily reflect that. It’s how the MVP has always worked and what it’s always meant. It’s a vote for a better and less boring MVP, a better and less boring NBA.