The Denver Nuggets are currently 12-13, tied with the Dallas Mavericks for seventh in the Western Conference. Despite having Aaron Gordon for the entirety of this season, the Nuggets just can’t seem to get going. After starting the season 9-4, the Nuggets dropped six straight games and fell below .500. They have not managed to climb above that mark since. This lack of team success is overshadowing arguably the greatest individual season of all-time. Denver’s center Nikola Jokić should be running away with the MVP award this season. Still, if oddsmakers and sports writers are to be believed, Jokić isn’t anywhere close.
In order to understand everything I’m about to say, I suggest checking out this video by JxmyHighroller on YouTube. It perfectly encapsulates what has made Jokić’s season so incredible. His Player Efficiency Rating of 33.6 is on-pace to be the greatest single-season mark of all-time by over a full point (Giannis Antetokounmpo, 31.9, 2020). On offense, his box plus-minus (9.5) is currently the fourth-highest in NBA history. On defense, his box plus-minus of 4.6 also leads the NBA.
His averages of 26.1/7.2/13.4 are all close or better than his averages last season, in which he won the MVP Award, but Jokić is posting those figures this season with much higher efficiency. His effective field goal percent is over .02 points higher. He’s taking fewer shots and draining more, and while his free throw percentage and three-point percentages have taken a dip, he’s maintained incredible efficiency to the point where it’s almost inconsequential to his total stats.
Despite all that, Jokić currently has the fourth-best odds to win the MVP, being given a 5.13 percent chance to take home the hardware. The biggest reason he’s not receiving nearly as much MVP hype as he should is because of his team’s record. He’s statistically been the best player in the NBA, but his team’s sub-.500 record is holding back his MVP case. So, what can Jokić do individually in order to boost his MVP case? I’m talking about what kind of numbers he’d have to put up in order to leapfrog Steph Curry in the MVP race. The obvious answer is “Oh, he just needs to start winning more games.” That’s true, but it’s also somewhat out of his control. Could he start playing more often? Yes, but load management has become such an integral part of the game that asking him to do that when other stars like Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, and such aren’t playing every game either.
To truly answer the question, we can take a look back at other MVP winners and/or people who got close. Since 1977, the only award winner to have their team finish worse than third in their conference is 2017 Russell Westbrook. How did Westbrook do it? By putting up numbers previously thought impossible, averaging a triple-double on the season. Jokić would probably have to do something similar, not record a triple-double for the season. Westbrook’s 2018 season proved that feat is no longer worthy of an MVP Award.
Jokić could lead the league in assists per game though. It’s never been done by a center, and it would definitely turn some heads. Wilt Chamberlain led the league in total assists back in 1968, but in terms of per-game averages, it’s never been done. That being said, Jokić is literally competing with a guy who earned a repeating spot starring in insurance commercials because of how good he is with assists, so that’s maybe too much to ask. There is another way Jokić could win the award though, and it’s not that unbelievable.
Steph Curry finished third in MVP voting last season despite his Warriors missing the playoffs (they did finish the regular season in eighth place in the Western Conference though). He received the second-most first-place MVP votes of anyone. If his team was so bad though, bad enough to miss the playoffs entirely, what made him such a popular MVP candidate? Simply put, it was how hot he got toward the end of the season and how entertaining it became watching him carry the Warriors every night. In the second half of last season, Curry had eight games with over 40 points and only dropped less than 30 three times.
As great a talent as Jokić, he’s not very fun to watch and he’s not someone capable of dropping 45 every single game. That narrative of being a great basketball player and a great entertainer is lost with Jokić. The only headlines that Jokić draws are of him playing dirty. As crazy as it may sound, Jokić might need to build his brand and start getting in people’s faces after dunking on them if he wants to win the award. Unless the team around him starts playing marginally better and making its way toward the top of the Western Conference standings, Jokić will need some insane narrative surrounding him in order to put himself at the top of the MVP odds boards. Until then, his greatness will go more or less unnoticed.