Over the course of history, adjudging the NBA MVP has typically been among the more predictable outcomes as the season winds down. There have been occasions when, barring a catastrophic injury, an MVP favorite has stood out with much of the season still left to be played.
However, this season may be an outlier.
A handful of players can make the case for league MVP, with some candidates making a late-season push that spilled over to their team’s success and in turn, entered the minds of the voters.
This isn’t the only exception this season as a recent trend of big men MVP winners is emerging. The last two (well, technically three) MVPs, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo (2x) and the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, are big men, and you would have to go back to 2006-2007 to find the next big man MVP, which was Dirk Nowitzki.
As it stands, the current MVP frontrunners are also big men, with the Philadelphia 76ers Joel Embiid joining both Antetokounmpo and Jokic.
Apart from a bout with COVID-19 Embiid has largely avoided major injuries that have hurt his cases in previous seasons. Currently averaging 29.7 points, 11.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.4 blocks, the addition of James Harden has bolstered his case instead of deterring it, as the five-time All-Star has scored no less than 22 points in the five games (and wins) he has played with Harden. Moreover, he still leads the NBA in usage rate at 37.3 percent, with one his best games this season coming against the Chicago Bulls.
Embiid’s stellar performance comes as he has dominated his matchups and taken advantage of mismatches. Having a teammate like Harden in recent games helps, but the body of work the three-time All-NBA selection has produced so far this season has not only thrust him into the MVP conversation, but has put the 76ers in a position for a long playoff run.
Motivated by his recent championship success, Antetokounmpo continues to produce stellar numbers (29.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, 6.0 assists, and 1.4 blocks) while keeping the Bucks within half a game of Philadelphia.
Antetokounmpo continues to find ways to remain dominant despite being the primary target of defenses and the added elements to his offense put him in the same conversation as Embiid in terms of being unguardable one-on-one. The things he does on offense don’t hinder his defensive abilities as he gives his all on that side of the floor even if the Bucks have surrounded him with highly capable perimeter defenders and an enforcer in Bobby Portis.
Let’s not forget about Jokic, who continues to lead the Nuggets through a growingly competitive Western Conference despite missing Jamal Murray for the entire season thus far. Numbers have never been an issue with Jokic as he remains in the top-10 in points (ninth), rebounds (second), and assists (seventh) despite being 21st in the NBA in usage (30.2)
His ability to influence the outcome of the game without having to exert brute force has made his huge performances more subdued than they ought to be. To Jokic, that would be fine, so long as the outcome is in his and his team’s favor.
Ja Morant and DeMar DeRozan will also draw consideration, especially with how they and their teams have exceeded expectations this season. Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies barged into the playoffs last season after beating the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors in the inaugural play-in tournament. While the Grizzlies did lose to the Utah Jazz in five games in the first round of the postseason, there were expectations that they would build on it the following season. By how much they would build on it would surprise pundits.
Memphis is currently second in the Western Conference, doing so by going on an 11-game winning streak in December and January and winning 21 of their 29 games in 2022 so far. At the forefront of that is Morant, who is averaging career numbers while also raising the bar on his play. Morant’s individual brilliance is a laudable feat, but it goes beyond that since it contributes to the winning and impacts a positive change within the Grizzlies.
Meanwhile DeRozan and the Bulls silenced the naysayers with their solid play throughout the season despite a major COVID-19 outbreak within the team and the loss of other key contributors due to various injuries. With him leading the way, they were able to hold the best record in the East for a time. Not only does the five-time All-Star continue to play at a high level (career-high 28.0 points on 50.9 percent field goal shooting), but he also remains a reliable player in the clutch.
With the way the MVP race is shaping up so far this season, there is a case for having two players share the award. Unfortunately, there have never been multiple MVPs in a single NBA season and while this year may call for it, we will be in for a thrilling finish regardless of who emerges as the league’s best player this season.