basketball

Nikola Jokic? Jason Tatum? Luka Doncic? Who leads the NBA MVP race?

Nikola Jokić has a chance to do something that even Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Tim Duncan never accomplished. Jokić will have a chance to win his third consecutive NBA Most Valuable Player award. Only three players in league history have won three straight MVPs: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird.

The NBA MVP award would carry intrigue even if we discount Jokić’s attempt at a three-peat. No individual league honor carries as much weight.

So how is this season’s MVP race shaping up?

To answer that question, we turned to three members of The AthleticThe NBA staff who voted for the award last year: Zach Harper, Josh Robbins and Anthony Slater.


What are your criteria for selecting the NBA’s MVP? Do you select the best player on the best team? Do you choose the person who posts the best stats?

Zach Harper: I have a lot of things I take into account. There is no set criteria across the board for me because every season is different. I try not to compare one season to a previous one for any player or standard for why the MVP was chosen for that year. While I do think historic precedent matters, each individual season is ideally contained within itself.

I’m looking for quite a bit. Player production matters. Are these historic numbers? Are these numbers few others are doing? What impact do these numbers have? Team success matters. Is a team performing at an elite level? Is a team completely propped up because of this player? Would it be significantly worse if this player got hurt or was removed? Player impact. This plays into team success some, but can this team survive without the player on the floor?

Other factors matter to me too. What’s their perceived value, as subjective as that can be? Is the player clutch and coming through to pull games out when everybody knows he’s getting the ball? What’s the narrative of the league that season, and how does the player’s narrative fit into that?

Josh Robbins: Here’s how I distill my thought process for this award: Which player made the most indispensable contribution to winning for his team? Here’s another way of putting it: If you subtract that player from his team (maybe because of injury), how much would his absence impact the team’s record?

Stats matter — but they’re not the be-all, end-all. I mean, Carmelo Anthony led the league in scoring during the 2012-13 season at 28.7 points per game and led the New York Knicks to the league’s seventh-best record, but he wouldn’t have received my MVP vote.

The standings matter. Durability matters. And defense matters; Someone who hurts his team on defense will be less likely to appear atop my ballot.

Anthony Slater: It’s never as simple as best player on best team. The Boston Celtics have the league’s best record. Jayson Tatum wouldn’t be in my top three. The Phoenix Suns sprinted away from everybody with 64 wins last season. Devin Booker is great. He didn’t have a realistic MVP case over the upper tier of candidates. But team wins do matter. The higher your seed, the stronger you check that box. If you finish in the Play-In or lottery, you’re unofficially disqualified.

As for stats: Raw numbers matter. You’re never going to find an MVP who isn’t among the league leaders in key categories. Games played matter a lot. I like candidates to log at least 65 to 70 games. If you get in the 80 range, that full volume can really strengthen a case. Jokić only missed one and eight games the last two seasons. That was a factor. Beyond that, I’m not huge into the deeper analytical formulas, but on/off metrics catch my eye. If you so obviously lift an inferior supporting cast, that screams value.


Nikola Jokić has won the last two MVP awards. How much do you think voter fatigue or the desire to vary the winner will factor voters into this season’s decisions?

Harper: While I don’t tend to believe in voter fatigue, I can’t pretend it doesn’t happen. A perfect example of this is Giannis Antetokounmpo. He won MVP awards in 2018-19 and 2019-20. However, the Milwaukee Bucks had very disappointing or infamous flameouts in the 2019 and 2020 postseasons.

I asked certain voters (who will remain anonymous here) if they were going to consider Giannis again for a third straight MVP if he had similar seasons. Almost all of them (roughly a dozen) said they wouldn’t likely vote for him because of the previous postseason shortcomings. I lump that into voter fatigue, and it makes me wonder if Jokić (who hasn’t had a ton of team success in the postseason) might get hit with the same thing.

Perhaps the precedent of the first back-to-back-to-back MVP since Larry Bird in the ’80s doesn’t sit well with some voters? All of that sounds like voter fatigue elements. It wouldn’t factor into my voting, but I believe it’s real.

Robbins: I think the desire to vary the winner — to be even-handed, which is a laudable goal — will factor into some voters’ decisions, but not as much as whether Jokić is perceived to have had a better season this year than he had in 2021-22 and, more importantly, whether the Denver Nuggets have a better regular season than they had in 2021-22.

What Zach said about how the Bucks’ postseason flameouts in 2019 and 2020 impacted the 2020-21 is worrisome to me. The results of prior postseasons, negative or positive, should have no impact on the MVP award, which is a regular-season honor.

Slater: Oh, I’m sure it’ll matter some. It felt like Giannis took that hit a couple of years ago after he’d won two straights but still hadn’t broken through in the playoffs. He had a stronger case that season than he was ultimately given credit for. Maybe it’d be a tiebreaker for certain voters. I’ll admit that I came into the season with a bit more of a skeptical eye on Jokić’s season from an MVP perspective. But you can’t ignore reality. Jokić is clearly a top-three candidate to this point — the front-runner, in some eyes — and I think the current pulse of voters would reflect that.


Can Nikola Jokić three-peat as MVP? (Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)

How crowded is this year’s field? In other words, how difficult would it be for you to pick given what’s happened so far in the season?

Harper: Because of injuries around the league, I do not believe it’s as crowded as others might think. Booker, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Giannis and Joel Embiid would all be up there for me without a significant number of missed games. Unfortunately they have exactly that. Curry missed almost a month. Booker has barely played in three games since Dec. 10. Embiid has already missed a dozen games. Giannis has missed roughly a dozen games.

Durant has only missed seven contests, but that knee injury might take a lot more time from him. Jokić has missed a handful of games, and Tatum has only missed a few games. That’s not the be-all, end-all factor for this award, but when we’re sifting through a crowded field of performances, games missed matters. Depending on how long Durant’s knee takes to get him back on the court, I think this is a two-horse race with Jokić and Tatum. Luka Dončić is on my ballot, but I think he’s a tier below those two at this time.

Robbins: For now, this is a crowded field. This is where the number of games played have a strong influence on this award. On Jan. 7, when Durant had played in 38 of the Brooklyn Nets’ 39 games, Durant would have been in my top two because of his shooting efficiency and, above all else, how he kept the Nets afloat during Kyrie Irving’s suspension and Ben Simmons’ early season rust. But Durant suffered a knee injury on Jan. 8, and it’s difficult to envision him playing enough games by the end of the season to work his way back into the mix.

Slater: Crowded, but the attention of every regular season starts to thin it out. Curry and Durant were very much in the mix a month ago. But Curry missed a few weeks, and Durant may miss a month with his current knee injury. Curry’s max games right now is 67, and that’ll only drop. Durant will be somewhere similarly. They aren’t completely out of the picture, but it’s difficult to win at that lowered volume. Zion Williamson had a moment but then strained a hamstring.


The NBA asks voters to pick first-, second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-place for MVP. Considering only through games of Jan. 23 — roughly a little more than halfway through the season — how would you vote today?

Harper: This is extremely tough. I switch between Jokić and Tatum pretty much every other day. Right now, Tatum would be first, Jokić second, Durant third, Dončić fourth and Embiid fifth. But I’m not even sure how much of that holds up by the end of this sentence.

Robbins: This is how I would vote through games played so far: Jokić first, followed in order by Tatum, Antetokounmpo, Embiid and Durant. It’s painful to leave Dončić out of my top five, but his Mavericks haven’t been as dominant as the teams of the players in my top five. Dončić will pick up ground against Durant if Dončić remains healthy.

Slater: I’m higher on what Dončić has done. I’d place Jokić first and Dončić second. Antetokounmpo third. Embiid fourth. Then I’d actually still have Durant fifth, understanding he can’s miss many more games (and will) to qualify. That leaves Tatum temporarily off my ballot, probably an unpopular opinion among voters. But I just think he’s in the next tier of players, a nudge below the league’s true elite. Boston is loaded. Jaylen Brown is a high-level co-star. Tatum is terrific, but the team’s success is more collective. I just don’t think he quite makes the type of nightly impact as the five placed above him.


What separated your choice for the winner from your choice for runner-up?

Harper: For me right now, it’s playing both sides of the floor. Jokić’s numbers are just stupid. They don’t even make sense most nights, but I don’t want to be dazzled by a numbers explosion in today’s game. It doesn’t discredit what he’s doing and they’re perfect in the games he gets triple-doubles. However, Tatum is an elite defender most nights to go with the unstoppable scoring. Teams can’t take anything away from him. Jokić was actually a pretty solid defensive player last season, and that has regressed with them being healthier. Calling this race razor thin doesn’t even do it justice, though.

Robbins: Fans of the Celtics may consider my choice of Tatum as a runner-up as a sign of disrespect. Not so! It’s just that Jokić has been even better, having played in more games and on the cusp of averaging a triple-double for an entire season. Jokić is Denver’s dominant playmaker, the person who makes the offense work. Denver is 30-11 this season in games that Jokić has played and 3-3 in games he’s missed. Jokić also is having a historic season statistically, especially for a big, averaging 25.1 points, 11.0 rebounds and 9.9 assists per game. He’s also shooting 62.6 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from beyond the arc.

Slater: The standings. Denver has separated from the middle of the conference in recent weeks. The Nuggets are 33-14, the No. 1 seed in the West, 8 1/2 games ahead of the Mavericks, in the No. 5 spot at 25-23. That’s a big enough gap to separate Jokić and Dončić, even though Denver’s supporting cast is better than Dallas’. Both of their on/off metrics are insane. Their teams fall off the cliff when either leaves the floor. But Jokić’s are more eye-popping. They are plus-388 when he’s on the floor and minus-183 when he’s on the bench.


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(Photo illustration: Samuel Richardson / The Athletic; (photos: Dustin Satloff / Jacob Kupferman / Katelyn Mulcahy / Getty Images)

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