This time of the year is always great for hoop fans. College basketball is at its peak with March Madness and the National Championship about to happen, while the NBA regular season is getting more intense as teams gear up for the playoffs.
As if we needed more excitement, the race for individual awards in the NBA would also join in, especially the Most Valuable Player plum. It’s the most prestigious of its kind, so why not, right?
What’s a bit different this year, however, is we are arguably witnessing the tightest three-man race for the MVP in league history. Note that it’s three instead of the usual two.
We’ve seen tightly contested races between three guys in the past – Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley in 1990, and Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard in 2017 (Johnson and Westbrook won, respectively). On both occasions, though, you could feel like there was a favourite early on – Magic led the Los Angeles Lakers to the best record in the league right after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired, while Westbrook was a one-man army who unloaded the first triple-double season in the modern era. Stats and narrative were simply on their corner.
Narratives, for better or worse, will always play a part, but the 2023 version just doesn’t have that in an outwardly level. It’s just a pool of elite hoopers balling out.
In fact, ’22-23 kicked off with five really good candidates and stayed as such until the best of the best separated themselves. Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics and Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks got bumped out around February, and it remained a battle between the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, and the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The latest NBA MVP ladder has Embiid at the top for the second consecutive week, which succeeded weeks of Jokic being at the forefront. Antetokounmpo, on the other hand, is a very close third simply because he’s arguably the most dominant player today, and the best player on the best team record-wise.
But, let’s give each other justice, and look at the respective arguments.
Averages: 31.1 points, 11.8 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks | 55 FG%, 27.6 3P%, 64.8 FT%
Team record: 55-22
Win shares: 8.4 (13th in the league)
As usual, the Greek Freak is playing like his nickname – just a straight up monster when he has the ball. That has been the case for several years now, and we’ll have the pleasure of seeing it for more.
Giannis is the strongest man on the court for quite possibly 99.9% of the time, and everyone knows it, so when he’s coming through in transition, it’s an almost automatic two – either that or you hack him and just get into foul trouble. Same thing when he’s in the paint because he knows how to navigate nicely maximize his strength. The scarier part is he’s as much of a menace on defense, a good reason why the Bucks are a terrific two-way team. All that is a blueprint to a strong MVP campaign.
Team record: 51-26
Win shares: 15.0 (1st in the league)
Going for a rare three-peat MVP this season, it clearly felt like Jokic’s case will fall into the “voter fatigue” syndrome, but he was so good, many just forgot about that and had no choice but to rank him as an MVP favorite once again.
A good reason for that is basketball is simple to him. ‘The Joker’ doesn’t play games and just lets the game come to his side and react accordingly – it just so happens that he’s a crafty 6’11 man with a sea of post moves, alongside a good outside shot and elite court vision. He’s the Nuggets’ maestro, and he’s guided them to the best record in the West even with all the recent stumbles.
Averages: 33.0 points, 10.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.7 blocks| 54.4 FG%, 33.7 3P%, 85.7 FT%
Team record: 51-26
Win shares: 11.7 (3rd in the league)
Placing second behind Jokic in back-to-back years, Embiid is hungrier than ever, and he has shown it. Last season, he became the first big man in over 20 years to win the scoring title, and even with all the talent in the league and playing alongside James Harden, he may actually do it yet again.
The man is just locked in – you could see it in how he operates in the paint and how varied his offensive arsenal is. He can score and bully defenders anywhere, thanks in good part to having that size, physique, and soft touch from the perimeter and beyond the arc. It helps that he has also perfected drawing fouls, making him quite the headache for defenses.
Brace yourselves for more debate
Like we’ve said, it will go down the wire. We will see debates until it’s the award gets handed off to someone. Whichever side you’re on, such a race will result in more great basketball from these three MVP-level stars. We all win.