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Multiple sources informed the Bleacher Report NBA staff that there has been an alarming lack of clarity on who should win the 2022 MVP award.
And so, on the heels of the regular season’s conclusion, we decided to cook up some.
A no-brainer or concrete favorite typically emerges this late into the process, but that hasn’t happened this year. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic all have MVP cases that would be considered airtight in any other season.
This says nothing of the latter half of the ballot. Devin Booker, Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan, Luka Doncic, Ja Morant and Chris Paul all had seasons worthy of landing them within the top five of MVP voting.
Moral of the story: Brace yourself. Because if our results are any indication of what’s actually going to happen, we’re in for one heck of a closely contested final ballot.
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Morry Gash/Associated Press
Bleacher Report asked 11 NBA experts to vote for their top-five MVP candidates from this season.
Each first-place vote is worth five points. A second-place vote is worth four points. That pattern continues down to fifth place, which is worth one point.
At the end, we tallied the votes, calculated the points and established our definitive top-five ranking.
This is one part of a B/R staff series ranking the top-five most deserving candidates for major NBA awards this season. Special thanks to the following experts for their votes: A. Sherrod Blakely, Andy Bailey, Dan Favale, Eric Pincus, Grant Hughes, Greg Swartz, Jake Fischer, Jonathan Wasserman, Mo Dakhil, Sean Highkin and Zach Buckley.
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Gross amounts of energy have been expended debating the most valuable player on the league-best Phoenix Suns. Consensus has generally tilted toward Chris Paul over Devin Booker, given how much control he has over their offensive structure.
Really, though, the answer doesn’t matter—unless it’s used to paint Booker as a significantly inferior player riding the coattails of his running mate. Both he and CP3 meet the superstar criteria, and either one of them can shuffle their way into the MVP conversation during any given year.
At this time, our panel of esteemed scribes has awarded the honor to Booker. It is the correct choice, and not just because CP3 missed extensive time with a right thumb injury. Paul finishes the regular season with three fewer appearances and having logged 206 minutes less than his co-star. That’s not a large enough gap to serve as the defining difference.
Not to say that Booker’s time without CP3 isn’t part of his case. It absolutely factors into the equation. He has tallied far more solo reps—1,945 possessions versus 1,488 for Paul—and the Suns have outscored opponents by seven points per 100 possessions in those stints.
There can be no underselling those results. This isn’t the most scientific way to look at it, but Phoenix’s net rating when Booker plays sans Paul is higher than the Milwaukee Bucks’ net rating when Giannis Antetokounmpo takes the floor without Jrue Holiday.
Hate that logic if you must. It isn’t a be-all, but it is meaningful. So, too, is the simpler fact that Booker averaged 26.8 points and 4.8 assists per game on 57.6 percent true shooting while playing some of the best defense of his career for the league’s top team by a mile.
Voting Points: 13
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Under no circumstance should anyone claim Luka Doncic’s spot on the MVP ballot is recency bias run afoul.
Grifters with competing interests or livelihoods tied to engagement-at-all-costs will yell all day long about how the Dallas Mavericks’ superstar began the season slow and out of shape.
Hopefully, the clouds are listening.
Everything about Doncic’s slow-relative-to-his-megastar-standards start has been blown out of proportion. His performance out of the gate wasn’t so much a perma-slump or protracted rut as a blip on the radar.
Sure, he has been on a surface-of-the-sun heater since the middle of January, averaging 31.7 points and 8.7 assists while downing 53.8 percent of his twos and 39.6 percent of his threes, including a logic-liquefying 48.4 percent of his step-back triples. But, uh, this “stretch” just so happens to cover nearly half of the damn season (35 games).
Wind back the clock further, and you’ll find Doncic has been more thermonuclear than not since early November. For those keeping track at home, that’s pretty much the entire season.
Also, it absolutely matters that he’s going scorched earth for a Dallas Mavericks squad that wedged its way into a home-court-advantage playoff seed. For all the (warranted) hullabaloo over their surprisingly stingy defense and Spencer Dinwiddie’s incandescent crunch-time play, the Mavs would not have clawed their way up the standings or register as a postseason dark horse without Doncic thriving as their all-everything.
Voting Points: 23
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So many of us probably lost sleep and burned waaay too much brainpower cobbling together the top three. I know I did.
Voting Joel Embiid into the third spot feels entirely icky. He just became the first center since Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-2000 to win the scoring title at 30.6 points per game, doing so on the second-highest true-shooting percentage of his career. Embiid also expanded his playmaking portfolio, anchored the Philadelphia 76ers defense and kept the whole team afloat, emotionally and functionally, during the Ben Simmons-versus-the-franchise fiasco.
Ending the analysis here is genuine temptation. I have no desire to inadvertently discredit Embiid’s credentials by explaining why he falls so “low.” But proper justification is crucial.
Rickety performances from the Sixers following the James Harden trade probably didn’t help Embiid’s case. Recent losses to the Bucks (March 27) and Suns (March 29) will go down as squandered opportunities to make a statement victory. Embiid’s offensive usage has also changed on the heels of Harden’s arrival. Noticeably more of his baskets are coming off dimes, and both his usage and assist rates drop during two-star minutes.
Yanking Embiid outside the top two—or first place—because the Sixers acquired someone who needs to domineer the offense is counterintuitive. And to be clear, that’s not necessarily what happened here.
We’re just at the point where we need to split already thrice-split hairs. This is the end result. And by the way: Calling someone the third most valuable player in the whole league is hardly an insult.
Voting Points: 36
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Recurring dominance has a way of numbing us to the unprecedented. Giannis Antetokounmpo is living, breathing, long-striding, detonating, ever-improving proof.
He broadened his offensive armory to include better off-the-dribble counters, silkier mid-range shooting and more valuable playmaking while averaging around 30 points and six assists and preventing the Milwaukee Bucks defense from regressing into disaster. Yet, he somehow wasn’t one of the Association’s single biggest stories.
Nobody should have Giannis fatigue. The dude is the mother of all anomalies. Just because he’s no longer a pending free agent doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss him ad nauseam, and already winning two MVPs shouldn’t diminish his case in any way, shape or form.
Giving Giannis the nod over Joel Embiid was tough for yours truly. And as the voting shows, it was a ridiculously close call.
Delineate between them as you must. There is no appreciable distinction in their catch-all-metric ranks. Though their scoring averages were neck-and-neck, Embiid racked up more blocks while Giannis comfortably beat him in assists. They are both defensive monsters ferrying similarly gargantuan, albeit very different, workloads.
Ask a variety of people to choose between Antetkounmpo and Embiid, and you’ll undoubtedly get a slew of various—at times warring—answers. I wound up valuing Giannis’ more complicated offensive role over Embiid’s overarching dominance in the absence of a co-star. That’s not necessarily the correct view, but in this race, there are no wrong answers.
Voting Points: 42
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Now, this was a close call. Nikola Jokic edged out Giannis Antetokounmpo for the top spot on our ballot by just two points, which feels like an ending that befits this entire race.
Roll your eyes. Uncork takes about how kitchen-sink metrics have ruined basketball. Resort to cheap and inaccurate shots about the Denver Nuggets’ place in the standings. Disagree however you like, so long as you understand Jokic isn’t an egregious MVP selection.
I’ve personally run out of original ways to spin his argument after having him atop my ladder for much of the season. It’s probably best to anticipate and debunk the biggest arguments against him.
Giving MVP to someone not on a top-four conference team? What is this, 2017? The Nuggets finished just shy of Joel Embiid’s Sixers and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks (both 51-31). They also outscored opponents by more points per 100 possessions with Jokic (plus-9.0) than Milwaukee with Giannis (plus-8.1) and Philly with Embiid (plus-7.9)
How about the fact Jokic sucks on defense? This might be a fair qualm if Jokic actually sucked on defense. He has quick hands and the IQ required to make big plays (like game-saving blocks) or at least not torpedo entire possessions. OK, but would you pick him to win a single postseason game or series over everyone else? It’s almost like MVP is a regular-season award.
The catch-all metrics aren’t everything! They’re not. But you don’t rank first or second in almost every single one of them by accident. Jokic is first in EPM, TPA, VORP, LEBRON and RAPTOR, and he’s second in Luck Adjusted RAPM. Oh, he also just averaged 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists for an entire season while drilling over 65 percent of his twos. He’s our MVP, just barely, but deservingly.
Total Voting Points: 44
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Monday’s games. Salary information via Spotrac.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math’s Adam Fromal.