2021–22 Most Valuable Player

Most valuable player means different things to different people. In a typical year, this award will go to the player who had an impressive personal statistical season with team success, and a good story to back it up. This does not always go to the “best” player in the world and it does not have to be a player on the best team. Here is the argument I laid out for each player, along with the reasoning behind my final choice.

via Bleacher Report

Most Valuable Player is going to be the most heavily debated award for this season. Going into the last 2 weeks, it was a 3-person race between Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokuonmpo. Early in that time frame Giannis seemed to really drag his name back into it with some heroic performances, in particular during the overtime win against the Brooklyn Nets. He deserves recognition for being consistently in the conversation, if not in the lead, for the last few seasons but this is not going to be his year. Every ballot is going to come down to whether they want to give the nod to Nikola Jokic or to Joel Embiid. The main thing to keep in mind is that picking one is not to diminish the accomplishments of the other. I will break down the case for each candidate.

Giannis Antetokuonmpo flexing against the Indiana Pacers
via Firstsportz.com

For Joel Embiid, it all started out when Ben Simmons was unable to join the team in the offseason, leaking into the regular season. Whether you choose to consider his reasons to be valid or not is a whole different story. From that day on, Joel has had the public backing of most NBA fans, and he rewarded us all by having the healthiest season of his career and remaining dominant throughout. This season, averaging 30.6 points per game, Embiid became the first center since Shaquille O’Neal to win the NBA Scoring Title. It wasn’t just the scoring though. He backed this up with an impressive 11.7 reb/g, 4.2 ast/g, 1.1 stl/g, and 1.5 blk/g. That is a fairly complete resume and it would be hard to argue against. Things that do tend to matter however, to me personally, is how this player and their team approached the season. Towards the end of the season it became quite apparent that they were intentionally ducking the 1 or 2 seed to avoid any potential matchup with Brooklyn early in the playoffs. Still, they finished with a 51–31 record and earned the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference.

Joel Embiid holding his arms out in celebration
via NBA.com

Nikola Jokic has a different type of case for MVP. The reigning MVP came back in 21–22 and improved on his impressive season from a year ago. However, this award isn’t based on how you performed compared to your past self, but to the current other candidates. Have no fear though, he is no slouch on this front. When just looking at the typical counting statistics, Jokic ended the season with 27.1 ppg, 13.8 reb/g, 7.9 ast/g, 1.5 stl/g, and 0.9 blk/g. These numbers are nothing to overlook, especially since he became the first player in NBA history to have 2,000 points/1,000 rebounds/500 assists in a single season. Impressive as they are, the advanced statistics is where Jokic’s case is the strongest. Here are all the categories that Nikola Jokic leads the league in: Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Offensive/Total Win Shares, Offensive + Defensive + Overall Box Plus/Minus, and Value Over Replacement. Keep in mind that some of these are separate categories but I lumped them together if they say more or less the same thing. Nikola Jokic boasts a 32.85 PER this year, which is the highest of all time between all NBA and ABA players, surpassing Wilt Chamberlain’s 1961–62 PER of 32.08. For context Embiid was 3rd this season with a PER of 31.16, which is 14th all-time and still quite impressive but is also behind Giannis from this season and behind Jokic from his MVP season last year. Jokic has offensive and total win shares of 10.8/15.2 respectively, leading in both categories on the season. To me, however the most impressive advanced statistic here is his Box Plus Minus (BPM). Nikola Jokic lauded a BPM of 13.73, which is the HIGHEST IN NBA HISTORY. For much needed context, here is how the top 5 all time shakes out:

  1. Nikola Jokic 13.73 (21–22)
  2. Lebron James 13.24 (08–09)
  3. Michael Jordan 12.96 (87–88)
  4. Nikola Jokic 12.09 (20–21)
  5. Michael Jordan 12.01 (90–91)

However you want to shake it, this is a legitimate statistic to look at. The top 5 here consists of some the greatest seasons ever had by NBA players. It doesn't look as pretty to show a top 6, but sixth on the list would have been Stephen Curry at 11.94 in his unanimous MVP season in 2015–16. The tendency in this discussion for MVP then is jump to the argument that offense is only half of the game. Have no fear, Jokic has the numbers to back that up too. He lead the league in defensive BPM at 4.5, with Giannis, Thybulle, and Robert Williams following him. Joel Embiid sat at 9th with a defensive BPM of 2.0. Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid both tied with a defensive rating of 105.3. These are two of the biggest metrics to measure a player’s effectiveness on the defensive side of the ball. You must keep in mind that all of this happened in a season where Denver lost it’s 2nd and 3rd best players in Jamaal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. With those injuries, the Nuggets were left with a decrepid starting lineup. Outside of Jokic, the 4 other players with the most starts were Aaron Gordon, Monte Morris, Will Barton, and Jeff Green! No disrespect to any of these players, but I would not consider this to be a stellar supporting cast, serviceable at best. While Joel Embiid was missing Ben Simmons, the next 4 players with most starts alongside him were Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle, and Seth Curry. The Nuggests finished 48–34, good for 6th in the Western Conference. This record of 3 games worse than the 76ers is just too weak of an argument to hold up when the surrounding circumstances are so different. Just the caliber of supporting cast can easily account for a 3 game difference in the record.

To wrap-up this discussion, while Joel Embiid’s numbers this season should be applauded, in the context of this season they fall just short. Even though Jokic had a worse roster around him, it was Embiid who boasted a 37.2 usage pct, good for 2nd in the league with Jokic having a the 10th highest usage pct at 31.9. I wouldn’t fault someone for wanting Embiid to have the MVP award purely on eye-test of the year because his game is far more in your face and he’s loved throughout the league. This will certainly swing some votes in his direction, but with the necessary context I believe Nikola Jokic is the MVP for the 2021–22 season.

Nikola Jokic holding the 2020–21 NBA MVP trophy
via NBA.com

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Neel Patel

Neel Patel

Just a resident physician trying to get away from the books and think about sports for a while.