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Who Are The 2022-23 MVP Leaders As The Halfway Mark Approaches?

The NBA’s Most Valuable Player award didn’t use to be discussed until the All-Star break. Now, for better or worse, those conversations take place in the early stages of winter. The debates begin, multiple fanbases start yelling at each other about which candidate is more deserving, and before you know it there’s an unhealthy amount of vitriol surrounding the topic.

On the bright side, tracking the MVP award throughout the long and grueling schedule gives you a chance to focus on what the top superstars are doing every night. With a league this deep and rich with talent, there will be standout performances every time you turn on League Pass.

This season, I plan to do three MVP check-ins. One right after Christmas, another in early March, and the final cuts in mid-April when the votes are being compiled.

For each MVP ladder, the top five candidates will be shown in a graphic with their statistical production (both traditional and advanced) below their names.

I always prefer to adjust the raw counting numbers (points, rebounds, assists) to account for instances in which superstar X is held out of garbage time minutes. Players shouldn’t be penalized for sitting entire fourth quarters with the game already decided, as Steph Curry did countless times during the early stages of Golden State’s dynasty.

Instead of per-game, we’ll use per-75 possession numbers for those categories. The “active record” row is simply the team’s record with player X in the lineup. The advanced metrics at the bottom are explained below the table:

Notes:

  • BPM = Box Plus-Minutes, via Basketball-Reference. BPM approximates a player’s value on a per-100 possession rate, compared to a league-average player.
  • EPM = Estimated Plus-Minus, provided by DunksAndThrees.com
  • RAPTOR = FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR model, which uses play-by-play and player-tracking data to calculate each player’s individual plus-minus measurements and wins above replacement.
  • RAPTOR WAR = the wins above replacement/cumulative impact of a player (for the entire season) according to the metric above. Players that stay healthy and active will typically rank higher.

On the fringes of the MVP top five: Joel Embiid, Ja Morant, Donovan Mitchell, Zion Williamson, Stephen Curry (injured).

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. As we near the halfway point, Nikola Jokić leads all candidates for the 2022-23 Most Valuable Player award.

Following his 40-point triple double on Christmas night, he’s now averaging a ludicrous 27.7 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 10.3 assists on a per-75 possession rate. Splashing home 66.8% of his twos, he’s on track to have the second-highest efficiency among anyone to attempt at least 13 two-pointers per game. Only Wilt Chamberlain is higher on the list, making 68.3% of his twos during the 1966-67 season, which objectively did not feature the level of talent (or size across all positions) that we see today.

Surely nobody is questioning the Joker’s impact at this stage of his career. But if they still choose to be foolish, you don’t need advanced numbers to illustrate his importance. With Jokić on the floor, the Nuggets have outscored opponents by 238 points this season. Second on the team is +195. With Jokić resting, opponents have outscored Denver by 178 points. Second on the team is -135.

On a per-100 possession scale, that’s a swing of 24.9 points in terms of net rating. For perspective, last year (which was widely believed to be his greatest season), the Nuggets experienced a net rating swing of 16.3 points per 100 possessions.

So, despite Denver having critical bodies back this year and Jokić having more scoring help, the team still falls apart when the reigning MVP is off the floor. At a certain point, you can’t just roll your eyes at the point differential. It has been at least half a decade of Jokic’s on-off impact being this profound. You can’t keep crying for more context once a trend becomes the cold hard truth.

Jokić deserves immense credit for developing into the all-encompassing big man the Nuggets have needed. Once a beautifully-gifted passer that would turn down scoring opportunities, he’s now a hybrid weapon that teams have zero answers for.

His two-man action with Jamal Murray hasn’t missed a beat. If teams switch the pick-and-roll, Jokić is burying your guard in the paint and making him pray for help. If you play it traditionally, Murray has daylight for a pull-up or Jokić is rolling down the lane for one of his unique floaters.

Then, there’s his chemistry with Aaron Gordon. Talk about exactly what Jokić needed by his side after Jerami Grant departed. His ability to find — and trust — Gordon on various cutting actions and transition chances brings the Nuggets’ offense to near invincibility on most nights.

Lineups with the trio of Jokić-Murray-Gordon have scored 122.5 points per 100 possessions and allowed just 107.6. For all of the talk about Jokic’s inability to defend, which is simply not true, they perform just well enough to be atop the Western Conference. And if you’re talking about regular season awards … matchup problems in the playoffs do not matter.

Jokić leads all players — not just big men — in every meaningful advanced metric tracked around the league. He’s first in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR model (both per-minute and cumulative), Dunks and Threes’ EPM, and Basketball-Reference’s BPM. This would be the second straight year he runs the table with that group of statistics.

For those who don’t care about the advanced formulas, despite most of them having all of the prime MVP candidates in the top 10, throw them out. Take his raw production into account and look through an historical lens to see how ridiculous of a season he’s having.

The only players in NBA history to average at least 25 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists over a full season are Oscar Robertson, Russell Westbrook, and Jokić during his first MVP run in 2021. Adding this year to the list, here’s how each of those seasons stack up in efficiency:

Every time someone makes a comment suggesting Jokić has to ‘one-up himself’ just to be considered for a third straight MVP, he calmly goes about his work and achieves it. He leaves the critics searching for more ridiculous benchmarks, probably laughing in his head and realizing he’ll never be fully appreciated.

Over the last few years, certain players around the league have complained about the MVP criteria changing from year to year, claiming it should go to the most impactful player on a team near the top of the standings. If Jokić fits that bill again – as he currently does – there should be no requirement for him to go above and beyond his previous elite seasons to be the favorite.

The idea of him needing to provide ‘extra credit’ on top of his nightly MVP production is purely silly. It’s a yearly award that features absolutely zero carry-over from the previous season. Just like the stats reset across the board, the narratives should disappear as well. To act as if Jokić needs to be otherworldly by some weird standards, instead of just better than every other candidate for that given year, is evidence that he’s treated much differently than other greats.

For the crowd that constantly screams LeBron should’ve won six or seven MVPs, do you think those people would’ve been saying it’s a crime for someone to three-peat?

No, they wouldn’t. Probably because American superstars have a higher popularity. And this might sting a little, but it needs to be understood: Last year, Jokić had a better MVP year than any of LeBron’s four. But it was still controversial for him to win it, for whatever reason.

Just because we haven’t seen a player win three straight MVPs since the 1980s, it doesn’t mean it’s not allowed to happen. He has certainly heard the noise about him being undeserving. The Nuggets leading the conference this year with Jokić having similar numbers would be the ultimate response from a guy who routinely avoids trash talking.

Everything flows through Jokić without him being a ball-stopping, high-usage player that prevents his teammates from feeling involved. He leads the NBA with exactly 100 touches per game. More than point guards such as James Harden, Luka Dončić, and Trae Young. Yet, he ranks 160th in average seconds per touch among all players with at least 10 minutes per game.

That’s the definition of an offensive hub. The actions start with him, but don’t necessarily have to end with a bucket or assist. There are no perfect stars, but Jokić is as close as you’ll get offensively. He’s a selfless player and personality that is comfortable filling any responsibility a game calls for.

Right now, he’s the MVP of the league for a third straight year.

You never want to make proclamations in December or put anything in Sharpie, but the writing is certainly on the wall for a Jokić and Tatum battle down the stretch – in similar fashion to the Jokić and Embiid war over the last two seasons. One can only hope it’s not fueled by toxicity and doesn’t spark meaningless debates on watching film versus tracking advanced metrics.

Tatum is currently the leader of the best team in the league, with Boston having a 23-9 record when he plays (59-win pace) and outscoring teams by more than 10 points per 100 possessions. Although we’re dealing with just 32 games, this is the most efficient interior scoring season of his career – he’s converting 70% of his attempts inside the restricted area, full embracing contact by boasting his highest free throw rate, and keeping his turnovers low.

If the season ended today, Tatum would be one of six players in history to score 30-plus points per game with a turnover percentage below 10. Only Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, George Gervin, Tracy McGrady, and Dominique Wilkins have managed a scoring volume that high without coughing it up on 10% of their possessions.

Considering Boston’s glaring weaknesses in the NBA Finals, Tatum’s growth as a driver and decision-maker could be the most significant improvement among any player this season. After reaching the grand stage, he came back smarter, physically stronger, and more patient with his offensive approach. A high pick-and-roll with Tatum as the ball-handler is bordering on instant death for the defense. With Boston’s excellent screening big men, you’re either conceding a pull-up jumper in drop coverage with Tatum having clear separation, or giving up a switch that he’s undoubtedly hunting.

Tatum is turning 25 years old in March, but is having a season you would expect from a 28-year-old seasoned veteran in their prime. He’s manipulating the defense in new ways, relentlessly attacking as the catalyst for Boston’s paint-and-spray system, and causing havoc on the defensive end with his hands, length and anticipation in passing lanes.

Every year, Tatum enters the season more polished in certain areas. He’s on his way to becoming a scheme-proof scorer while still improving his defensive chops.

If you’re asking who the most likely 2023 Finals MVP is in late December, the answer would be Tatum. Because of the improvements to his shot profile, the experience of last year’s deep run, and how comfortable he looks against any type of defender, I like his playoff upside more than anyone on this ladder.

But, again, this award is strictly for regular season production. We’re always splitting hairs in these tight races, and Jokić has just been slightly more impressive in the aggregate.

Without spoiling too much on Durant’s exceptional season, as I’ll have an in-depth column about it this week, he’s 100% deserving of a top-three ballot selection right now. Yes, despite the turmoil launched by his June trade request and dealing with an early-season coaching change, Durant needs to receive a lot of credit for turning around Brooklyn’s season – and elevating them into contender status.

The NBA’s greatest individual scorer is having another masterful year, annihilating opponents from every spot on the court while toggling between an on-ball sniper and dangerous off-ball threat. If Steph Curry is the most malleable star in league history, Durant is only inches behind in second. Exactly half of Durant’s 158 three-point attempts this year have been off the catch (79), demonstrating that he’s fine with being a floor spacer in certain lineups that empower others to create off the dribble.

Then, any time KD wants to shut the door with his self-creation, you have to deal with the deadliest mid-range scorer the game has ever seen. For the season, Durant is shooting 80% at the rim, 60% in the floater range, and 57% on long twos. He typically has defenders looking so helpless, they will shake their head after he drills a pull-up jumper, then look to the coach seeking answers.

Defensively, this might be Durant’s second-best season of his career. And he’s 34 years old, for crying out loud. His rim protection and smart tactics as a help defender are ranking up there with his 2015-16 (OKC) and 2016-17 (GSW) campaigns.

Depending on who you ask, he’s completely made up for the offseason drama. If anything, I’m more impressed given the context of where the Nets were in November and how ruined the situation appeared.

Above all else, Durant has been durable. He’s already north of 1,200 minutes, the most of any candidate being considered for MVP. With the Nets having a top five halfcourt offense and defense, currently riding a nine-game winning streak, this is the appropriate place for KD. He’s not above Tatum or Jokić, who lead their respective conferences and have nearly flawless résumés at this point.

Dončić, however, has a strong case to be higher, factoring in the workload and responsibility he has for the Dallas Mavericks. This is reminiscent of LeBron in 2007 and 2018, as well as Russell Westbrook’s 2017 MVP campaign. With Dončić always having the ball in his hands and engaging two (or sometimes three) defenders in pick-and-roll, he’s creating wide-open opportunities for his teammates. I stated a few weeks ago that Luka’s drive-and-kick game is already at such an advanced level, you could make the argument he’s the best we’ve ever seen in that role – putting pressure on the paint, drawing help, and making the correct read 99% of the time.

Playing through Dončić, the Mavericks generate 20.3 wide-open threes per game (with six-plus feet of space). It’s the fourth-most in the league. They are making roughly 38% of those looks, which is just above the average mark. Christian Wood’s catch-and-shoot proficiency is a big part of that. There just aren’t enough reliable options around Luka, particularly when it comes to breaking down the defense and letting him get a breather. It’s the main reason Dallas’ late-game execution suffers, as Dončić is usually winded from having to create everything in all four quarters. Opponents are also not fearing his teammates with the game on the line, thus overloading the strong side when Luka catches the ball and exposing the predictability of their offense.

There’s no doubt about it: Jokić and Dončić are the two most valuable players when you consider their respective teams. If either had to miss significant time with injury, wins would become scarce.

But, historically, I’ve always leaned a little closer to selecting the MVP based on the higher winning percentages. This year’s race could end up mirroring the 2017 MVP race, which featured two top-seeded players with strong on-court impact (Harden-Kawhi) and a clutch phenom that led his team to the six seed (Westbrook). For full transparency, I had Kawhi as the MVP with Harden as the runner-up and Westbrook in third. It didn’t mean there was a huge gap between each spot. All three were extremely close and warranted first-place votes, depending on how you framed the argument.

Dončić is having a better version of that 2017 Westbrook season. His usage rate isn’t quite as absurd, but it’s currently the seventh-highest in history. He’s doing it efficiently, though, with the best true shooting mark of his five-year career. As a guard or wing, there’s no way he should be identical to Joel Embiid’s conversion rate inside of eight feet (64.5%). By way of impeccable footwork, stellar timing, a perfect utilization of fakes, and abusing smaller defenders, his post-up effectiveness is what every 6’8” wing should strive for.

Under no circumstance should the Mavericks have the NBA’s number one halfcourt offense with one man leading the show. Yet, they do. Luka is an offensive engine by himself, and only Steph Curry is able to give opposing defenses the same terrible nightmares on every possession. What those two have in common is special. You know exactly how they’ll destroy you, but it’s virtually impossible to prevent it.

The Mavericks are currently 1.5 games out of a homecourt seed in the West. If they manage to secure one of those top four spots (which would require Doncic being healthy for the long haul), there will be a large contingent of voters who pick him over the field. It would be hard to disagree, even if the West isn’t as strong as we believed heading into the year.

For now, Doncic is fourth on the ladder, but he’s only marginally behind Durant and Tatum.

Giannis Antetokounmpo being this low on the MVP ladder feels … strange. Quite frankly, it feels wrong. But when you dig into the season he and the Bucks are having, this is the highest he could be at the moment.

His efficiency inside of eight feet is the lowest its been since the 2017-18 season. The Bucks’ offensive rating is below league-average for the first time since 2015-16. His free throw percentage has plummeted, and he seems to be regressing as a long-range shooter instead of improving.

Even through the offensive struggles, though, Giannis is still arguably the most destructive two-way force the sport has to offer. The way I’d categorize him this year is having MVP-level moments, but not putting together the full package that would lift him above the steep competition.

And boy, it’s definitely the toughest MVP field he’s had to go against.

Of course, the main reason Milwaukee isn’t leading the East right now is that Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton have only played in five total games together. Five.

So, it’s hard to really judge how the Bucks look until that sample size is respectable. This is likely going to be the most regular season adversity Giannis has dealt with in the Mike Budenholzer era … and they only find themselves 1.5 games out of first place. That says something about Giannis’s production and ability to guide the Bucks to competency with many different lineups.

For the third consecutive year, he’s leading the NBA in transition scoring with 8.4 opportunities per game – producing 1.19 points per possession, higher than his mark last season. Plus, for all of the noise and criticism surrounding his free throw shooting, he’s the one player that will never get deterred by it. He’s getting to the line 13.7 times per 75 possessions, easily the most in the league. The only way to (somewhat) slow him down is foul him hard, which he invites.

However, if I had to project moving forward, I would have Joel Embiid finishing higher than Giannis on the end-of-season MVP ladder. Embiid and the Sixers continue marching higher in the East standings, and just when we figured his per-minute scoring mark was maxed out last year, he proves there’s still more to unleash.

Embiid is scoring 1.15 points per post-up, the most in the NBA among all players with at least 80 possessions logged. It’s the most efficient he’s ever been in the low post, and you can thank the added spacing around him for allowing more single-coverage possessions.

Nobody should have a problem with Embiid being fifth instead of Giannis, as it’s really close between them with over half a season left. Arguing for either player to be above Dončić, KD, Tatum, or Jokić would be an uphill (and losing) battle if the voting took place today.

Unfortunately for those who believed Curry would have his third MVP season, it may not be in the cards considering he’d have to produce scintillating numbers when he returns from his shoulder injury, lead the Warriors to probably a 60-win pace the rest of the way, and not rest any games. I wouldn’t rule out him reappearing on the ballot, but his odds of winning the award are likely shot.


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