1. The MVP race
• Nikola Jokic: 71 GP, 26.6 PTS, 13.6 REB, 8.0 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.8 BLK, 58.1 FG%, 32.8 PER, 46-32 TEAM W-L
• Giannis Antetokounmpo: 63 GP, 30.1 PTS, 11.7 REB, 5.8 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.4 BLK, 55.4 FG%, 32.5 PER, 48-29 TEAM W-L
• Joel Embiid: 64 GP, 30.0 PTS, 11.5 REB, 4.3 AST, 1.1 STL, 1.4 BLK, 49.4 FG%, 31.0 PER, 47-30 TEAM W-L
In an average season, each one of these guys would be considered runaway leaders for the MVP. Over the past ten years, perhaps only Steph Curry’s 2016 unanimous MVP season has been better. But this is not your ordinary season; we are blessed to have three superstars submitting historically dominant single-season resumes, and it’s a shame only one can take home the award.
The Bucks have five games left and Giannis may end up as the only player on a 50-win team. The Nuggets would need to sweep their remaining four games to reach the plateau. The Sixers should theoretically reach 50 because of their easy schedule, but as I mentioned in last Thursday’s piece, I get the sense that they may want to avoid the Nets in the first round. Fifty wins is the unofficial MVP threshold (that’s why many felt Russell Westbrook and OKC’s 47-35 record in 2017 was an exception), but the Bucks, Sixers, and Nuggets are close enough that drawing the line at 50 wins seems excessively arbitrary. If either the Bucks or Sixers snag the best record in the East, then perhaps that could be the difference-maker.
In a way, that’s the wrinkle of this year’s MVP race. None of the protagonists are playing for dominant teams. But that’s not because they’re just putting up empty stats. Their respective teams have faced difficult challenges the entire season and the win totals are relatively impressive given the circumstances. The Nuggets are without both Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., their second and third best players, for practically the whole season. The Sixers had a roster spot wasted on Ben Simmons for the first three quarters. Brook Lopez has only played nine games for the Bucks, while Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday have combined to miss 30 games.
Giannis and Embiid have missed 14 and 13 games, respectively. If Jokic plays in three of Denver’s last four games, he’ll be the only guy to have played in 90% of his team’s games. In a tight race like this, maybe it should count more than it typically does.
ESPN recently conducted a straw poll that showed Jokic edging ahead with 62 first-place votes, followed by Embiid with 29 and Giannis with 9. The poll was as of March 26, and I’d flip Giannis and Embiid after a monster week from the Greek Freak (44-14-6 in two big wins versus Brooklyn and Embiid’s Sixers). Heading into the final week, I also have Jokic as the frontrunner because of his advantage in almost every advanced metric, playing with a more depleted roster, the negligible difference in win-loss records, and his availability.
2. The PER race
• Jokic: 32.81
• Antetokounmpo: 32.45
This is a subset of the MVP race, though at this stage it’s been narrowed down to Jokic and Giannis. It’s not being talked about in the mainstream because John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is not an official NBA stat. It was once thought to be the Holy Grail of advanced metrics, but it’s being dismissed by Daryl Morey’s geek society these days. Apparently, it’s not predictive enough—an absurd criticism because unpredictability is inherent in sports (tell me how many of these stat geeks had St. Peter’s at the Elite Eight).
Someone wrote that PER is “an analysis stripped of the complexities so that it can be easily absorbed without any threat of someone not being able to understand it.” Maybe it is. But it’s a pretty good idiot’s guide. I still trust PER for what it is: it captures a player’s overall contributions for each game. I don’t care much for predictive tools—otherwise, I’ll no longer be watching games and will just blindly trust predictions that someone with his own set of biases made. Where’s the fun in that?
As an individual measure, there’s still no better metric that marries the box score with the “eye test.” The top ten PERs of all-time feature Wilt’s 50-point season in 1963, Michael Jordan’s 1988 MVP-DPOY year, LeBron James’ majestic 30-7-7 in 2009, and Steph’s 2016 unanimous MVP. No other advanced metric yields a similar result.
Jokic and Giannis are set to post the two highest single season PERs of all-time. Given the names and seasons on the all-time list, it means a lot in the historical context—even more than the next individual race.
3. The scoring race
• LeBron James: 30.2678
• Giannis: 30.1111
• Embiid: 29.9843
Less than three-tenths separate the top three guys and this one will most definitely go down to the final day of the regular season. Each one has five games left, but whether they play every game is a question mark.
Giannis sat out Milwaukee’s most recent game because of right knee soreness, but that could’ve been precautionary because they were playing the second night of a back-to-back and coming off an OT win against Brooklyn. If the Sixers are indeed not chasing a top 2 playoff seed, then they’ll likely give Embiid a couple of games off before the postseason. LeBron returned last night after missing two games due to an ankle injury, but health may not be the main reason why he sits out some of the remaining games.
I’ve discussed LeBron’s motivations for a second scoring title in this column before, and I’d reckon that he’d do whatever it takes to win the race. Make no mistake, the scoring race matters more for LeBron than the Lakers making the play-in. Watching him chase the scoring title might be the modern-day equivalent of Wilt Chamberlain’s obsession with leading the league in assists in 1967. It’s both impressive and ridiculous at the same time.
LeBron has a slim lead, so sitting out games actually works to his advantage. The rolled ankle was a bit karmic after he purposefully tried to game the system (again) when he sat out against Philly last week and ducked a matchup with all-world defender Matisse Thybulle. LeBron still needs to play at least two more games to qualify for the scoring title though, and the Lakers close out their season against the Suns, Nuggets (twice), Warriors, and Thunder. Don’t be surprised if he sits out against the Suns (Mikal Bridges) and Warriors (Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins) to protect his lead.
Regardless, each one will have their opportunities. David Robinson scored 71 points in the final game of the 1994 season to snatch the scoring title from Shaquille O’Neal. In 1978, David Thompson dropped 73 on the final day of the regular season to briefly take the scoring lead, but George Gervin retook it with a career-high 63 hours later (he needed 58) to secure the title.
There were nine 50-point games in the NBA last March (the most since December 1962), including a pair of 60-pieces by Kyrie Irving and Karl Anthony Towns, so what’s a couple of more from these three?
4. College rivalry weekend
It’s a big rivalry weekend in college sports across three different continents. Two of my alma maters are involved, while I irrationally like another because of the GOAT connection.
• Ateneo defeated La Salle in the biggest collegiate sports rivalry in the Philippines to become the last remaining unbeaten team in UAAP Season 84. But boy, was that an ugly game to watch—further exacerbated by the absence of fans. It was the first UAAP game I saw this year, and I realized just how much the roaring crowd used to mask the quality of games (or lack thereof). I probably wouldn’t have noticed it too much if the drums were banging and the crowd were shouting “Go ‘Teneo!!!” after big baskets. As I turned off the TV, I kept thinking how Paige Bueckers would absolutely dominate this league.
• The first NCAA tournament meeting between eternal rivals North Carolina and Duke didn’t disappoint. In a game that saw 18 lead changes and 12 ties, the Tar Heels sent Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski out of the Final Four and into retirement, booking their ticket to the national championship game against Kansas. Sports fans like to make analogies, and one that usually pops up in conversations with my college friends is how Ateneo is the local equivalent of Duke. I get that the colors match, the smaller student body and the academics (compared to UNC), so I guess it makes sense. Maybe it’s just that I never liked Duke that’s why I’m hesitant to admit the similarities. My argument is that Duke is the most hated collegiate sports team in the US, and that’s not true for the Blue Eagles. Or has the perception changed because of the eight titles in the last 14 years?
• Basketball is not big in the UK, but the oldest university rivalry in the world hits the River Thames this Sunday for the 167th Boat Race. Cambridge leads Oxford 85-80 (one was a dead heat) and are on a three-race streak since I watched them take a dominant win while chugging a pint of Guinness by the riverbank in 2018.
5. Throwback video of the week
The Admiral’s epic 71-point effort capped a tight scoring race in 1994, and my main man, the late Stuart Scott, delivered an equally legendary report.