Updating the NBA MVP race: Jokic, Embiid, Tatum, Giannis or Luka?

The race for the MVP, once thought through to the end, flared up at the top.

According to Caesar’s Sportsbook, Nikola Jokic is still the least likely to win the award (-130), but Joel Embiid (+130) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+350) have really narrowed the gap. Jason Tatum (+6500) and Luka Doncic (+10000) have succumbed to long shots so far.

The public discourse around the NBA MVP is also heating up. There was some heated debate on our own Sportzshala airs, including First Take, about whether Jokic should be the first player since Larry Bird in the mid-80s to win three MVP awards in a row.

One point I’ve seen on social media is that 10 of the last 11 MVP winners have led the league in Player Effectiveness Rating (PER) and that with Jokic leading the PER again this season, this should solidify him as leader.

As an analyst, I love that “advanced” stats are credible as support in the MVP race. I think it’s a positive step up from “best player on the best team” or superior point stats (like top scorer or average triple-double) as core requirements for an MVP.

But, since I’m an analyst, I should point out that PER or any other purely individual statistic is simply not able to capture the full impact of a player, because an individual score doesn’t have categories for things. for example, “prevented an opponent from scoring a goal” or “distorted the defense so much that my teammates got light hits.” Or any number of other important basketball factors that simply don’t count in the scoring.

That’s why when analyzing player impact, I find it vital to include scouting-based analytics like those on Second Spectrum, as well as to include +/- style data that correlates a player’s presence on the court with changes in their team’s performance.

Sportzshala +/- statistics are Real Plus Minus (RPM). I’ve written articles detailing scouting-based analytics and the impact of all MVP leaders this season, so I won’t necessarily repeat it here. But here’s a quick chart that includes team win percentage, PER, RPM (stats per 100 possessions) and RPM WINS (+/- impact with minutes played) for each of the MVP leaders.

I’ve been following the MVP race in this space all season, and over time my opinion has solidified. Doncic is having a strong season, but in fact, you hardly ever see an MVP go to a team flirting with a .500 record. His individual performance isn’t so dominant compared to his peers to overcome that, and with a season-ending injury that kept him out of the last few games, he’s really out of his depth at the moment.

I think Giannis is the best player in the NBA and the Bucks have the best record in the NBA, so I could support Giannis winning his third MVP. But on the metrics listed here, his impact is second to the other three, so I can understand he didn’t take it home.

Jokic and Embiid have been roughly the same players by metrics this season, each with marginal advantage in certain areas. But when we go beyond those stats, Embiid gets storytelling tie-breaks in my book.

Last season, one of the persuasive arguments in Jokic’s favor was that he rallied his team and helped them win when other top players (like Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.) were injured. Well, besides, Embiid has kept the Sixers afloat this season, even as two of his best lieutenants and starting backcourt James Harden and Tyrese Maxey missed months of play in the first half of the season.

Then there is head to head. I remember Kobe Bryant sealing off his MVP victory over Chris Paul in 2008 by beating CP3 one-on-one in a pivotal game. Well, when the 76ers and Nuggets faced off, Embiid dominated the game with 47 points, 18 rebounds and 5 assists (vs. Jokic’s 24, 8 and 9) in a hard-fought 76ers win.

Finally, there is the story “his turn”. Again, this is only something that affects players who are especially close in a certain race, but I find that Jokic and Embiid are close enough to be playable.

And in their case, Jokic has overtaken Embiid in each of the last two MVP votes; they finished 1-2 for two consecutive seasons. In both previous seasons, it was Jokic who supported his analyst vote with a slight RPM advantage. This season it’s Embiid with a slight rev advantage.

All in all, if it comes to Jokic vs. Embiid, Embiid will finish ahead on my bulletin.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out… the person who leads the league in overall influence as measured by both RPM and RPM WINS is none of the above. Instead, it’s Tatum. The Celtics no longer have the best record in the NBA (now second), and Tatum’s PER stats are the least impressive of the five. But, as I mentioned above, when looking at the ratings of players with a single number, at least RPM and RPM WINS keep track of a player’s overall influence, and not just take into account the statistics obtained in points.

So while the odds suggest that his actual candidacy for this award may be over, I would also support Tatum’s candidacy as this season’s MVP.

Jokic absolutely deserves to be one of the top three MVPs in a row. But if I had a ballot, he would be third on my list right now, and Embiid would probably beat Tatum to take home his first MVP award.


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