- Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.
With just four days until the much-talked-about play-in tournament, it’s NBA awards season! Here’s my official ballot as the 2020-2021 regular season comes to a close.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
1. Nikola Jokic
2. Joel Embiid
3. Stephen Curry
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo
5. Luka Doncic
What looked at the halfway point to be one of the most rollicking MVP races in history turned into a coronation. There is really no case for anyone but Jokic. He leads most advanced statistics that measure per-minute production — some by a lot — and has played more minutes than any major candidate.
Combine those things, and Jokic is the clear winner. He is wrapping one of the greatest offensive seasons in history, and the greatest passing season ever for a big man. He bumped his scoring average by almost seven points, and is within range of 50/40/90 shooting.
He’s not a great defender, but he’s not the cement-footed oaf skeptics portray. The same instincts that make him an unprecedented point-center help Jokic compensate for his physical limitations on defense. He anticipates the patterns of offenses. He has great hands; Jokic gobbles steals and rebounds — high-value plays that allow him to grab-and-go, and attack in semi-transition. He’s probably around average on defense, and when you consider his offense, average is fine.
There has been consternation, voiced most notably by Nick Wright of Fox Sports, that a Jokic MVP will look silly in retrospect. (Wright specifically lobbied for Chris Paul.) Wright didn’t mention this, but part of that skepticism may stem from the possibility of Denver losing in the first round. There is often voter’s remorse when the MVP bows out early. It happened with Antetokounmpo.
But this is different. We know point guard Jamal Murray is out, and that Denver will be reincorporating other key players who have missed time. It is not a surprise when any team in the West loses without one of its best players.
As things stand now, Denver is slated to draw the Portland Trail Blazers or Dallas Mavericks in the first round. Those are winnable series. Part of Jokic’s MVP case is how he has kept the Nuggets afloat — with huge help from the ascending Michael Porter Jr. — in the absence of Murray, Will Barton, and Monte Morris. The Nuggets are 11-4 since Murray went down.
Zooming out, I’m not sure why there is any fretting about Jokic’s future place in history — or why such fretting, even were it justified, should infect this MVP race.
Jokic is the greatest passing big man ever. Digest that sentence. With good health, he will probably go down as, what, one of the half-dozen or so best passers in history? In 15 years we might (will?) mention Jokic’s name alongside Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd, LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Larry Bird, and John Stockton.
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