An Honest Case for Nikola Jokic as NBA MVP
This year's NBA MVP race can end a few ways.
Odds are that it goes to either Russell Westbrook, after he averaged a triple-double on the full year (31.6 points, 10.4 assists, and 10.7 rebounds per game), or James Harden, who was close (29.1 points, 11.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds), and played on a better team.
If you overlook the "arbitrary" triple-double mark or the impact that a Mike D'Antoni offense can have on point guards (like we saw with Steve Nash a decade ago), then your hypothetical vote is probably for Kawhi Leonard, one of the best two-way players in the league for a team with the second-most wins (61) on the year.
LeBron James, still the world's best player, averaged 26.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 8.4 assists for a team that struggled down the stretch and would have been significantly worse without him (more on that later).
This is the elephant in the room, so we'll start here. Jokic's Nuggets finished 40-42 and missed the playoffs by a game. That rules him out automatically. But what if (and there will be plenty of "what-ifs" here) head coach Mike Malone didn't force Jokic to play with Jusuf Nurkic early on in the season?
Per NBAWowy, the two shared the court for 224 possessions and scored 97.3 points per 100 possessions. That offensive rating would have been roughly six points per 100 possessions worse than the worst offense over the full year this season.
Defensively, with that pair on the court, Denver yielded 112.1 points per 100 possessions to opponents, which would have ranked 28th in the NBA.
The early-season struggles led to Jokic's temporary move to the bench, which didn't work out well for the Nuggets. Here are their win-loss splits with Jokic starting, coming off the bench, or inactive.
|Nuggets Splits With Jokic||Starts||Bench||Inactive/DNP||Total|
Penalize him if you want for not playing in nine games -- it's not like he's getting actual MVP votes, after all -- but at 32-27, the Nuggets could have been around 44.5-37.5 with 82 games of Jokic as a starter.
For context, 44 wins would have netted them the 7 seed in the West. Westbrook is probably winning the MVP on a 47-win team, so that's not much of a stretch that we could give Joker extra attention on a 44-win team.
Vegas Win Differential
If you're not fully inundated in the NBA MVP discourse, you should know that some who are in favor of voting for James Harden cite the preseason Vegas win odds for the Rockets. The Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas initially set Houston's win total at 41.5. They won 55 games, a difference of 13.5 games.
By contrast, the Nuggets' win total was set at 34.5 games, and they won 5.5 more games than that projection. Only the Washington Wizards (49 wins, 6.5 more than their over/under of 42.5) outperformed their preseason total more than the Nuggets, aside from the Rockets.
Now, again, we're dealing with hypotheticals here. And our algorithms projected Houston to finish two games below .500, so it's not like the over/under was bananas low.
But the truth remains that the Nuggets -- even with 9 missed games and 14 games off the bench from Jokic -- outperformed those Vegas expectations, and with an earlier realization that the Nuggets couldn't pair Jokic with Nurkic, maybe they do get closer to 43 or 44 wins.
Or maybe if they didn't lose the third-most value over replacement player and second-most win shares due to missed games and injuries, per ManGamesLost, they push for the 47 wins that the Thunder got.
I get it. They didn't win those games and didn't make the playoffs, but it's tough to pin coaching decisions and injuries to teammates on Jokic.
Here's the fun stuff.
Per Basketball-Reference, the Nuggets owned an offensive rating of 117.7 with Jokic on the floor. That would have outpaced the Golden State Warriors' mark of 115.6 on the full season and is bogged down by playing alongside Nurkic.
With Jokic on the floor and Nurkic off, the team posted an offensive rating of 120.3, per NBAWowy.
It's true the Nuggets are a fairly capable offense regardless of whether or not Jokic plays, but they had an offensive rating of 107.9 without Jokic on the court this season. That was roughly a point off the pace of the league average (108.8) and 9.8 points per 100 possessions worse than their mark with Jokic on the court.
Defensively, the team allowed 111.9 points per 100 possessions with Jokic and 113.9 without him. Both are well above league average, but the team played better defense with Jokic on the floor.
In all, the Nuggets were 11.8 points per 100 possessions better with Jokic than without him. Here's how that stacks up with the four primary MVP candidates.
|On/Off Differential||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating||Net Rating|
Each of these five guys has a significant impact on their offense, with Harden's Rockets the least affected by his absence. Not that I'm actually championing for anyone here, but that's at least a small knock on Harden's case.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, Thunder, and Nuggets all played better defensively with their MVP candidate on the court, and the Rockets played 3.7 points worse with Harden on the court. Again, that's not good for Harden's case.
Leonard's splits are the outlier. You can attribute to changes in offensive philosophy or statistical variance: Spurs opponents shot just 28.9% from three and 74.6% from the free throw line with Leonard off the floor and 37.3% and 79.2% with him on the court, compared to the NBA averages of 35.8% and 77.2%, respectively.
Regardless, Jokic's on/off impact is akin to that of Westbrook's and well above Harden's and Leonard's, if that would impact your hypothetical vote.
James' impact on the 2 seed Cavaliers is the largest by a comfortable margin. He has knocks -- like the team's 26-24 regular season record since January 1st -- but all the candidates do.
Some Fun With Arbitrary Stats
There's a case against Westbrook's triple-double record because a triple-double is arbitrary, but if you're going to value a triple-double, then you should also value some other arbitrary cutoffs.
Here are a few that make Jokic look like the MVP of this season.
Jokic recorded 7.7 offensive win shares this season, the fifth-most for any player to play fewer than 2,100 minutes in a season. (Coincidentally, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul both had 8.0 this season.)
Here's a better one. Triple-doubles are nice and round, but Jokic averaged 29.3 points, 17.1 rebounds, and 8.6 assists per 100 possessions while maintaining a 60.3% effective field goal percentage. Here's the list of guys to accomplish those numbers since 1973-74: Nikola Jokic.
If you cut off the shooting efficiency criterion, Kevin Garnett's 2004-05 season makes an appearance, but that's it. So only one of the best power forwards of all time also averaged 29 points, 17 rebounds, and 8 assists per 100 possessions in a season.
Drop those cutoffs to 25 points, 15 rebounds, and 8 assists, and it's Jokic, Garnett, and Westbrook's 2016-17 season, the masterful triple-double campaign.
In fairness, Westbrook averaged 44.8 points, 15.1 rebounds, and 14.7 assists per 100 possessions, but he shot 47.6% in terms of effective field goal percentage and took 34.0 field goals per 100 possessions compared to 60.3% and 20.5 for Jokic.
Let's drop it even more to 25 points, 15 boards, and 6 assists per 100 possessions. It's been done 14 times in NBA history, and the only players to do it are Garnett (six times), Charles Barkley (three times), DeMarcus Cousins, Pau Gasol, Kevin Love, and Westbrook.
You could knock him for the per-game production while he was limited to bench duty, but on a per-36-minute basis, nobody has met his line of 21.6 points, 12.6 rebounds, and 6.3 assists.
Oh, and the only players to net 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists per 36 minutes? Westbrook this year and Oscar Robertson in 1961-62, the year during which he averaged a triple-double. And Jokic's 0.227 win shares per 48 minutes bested Westbrook's (0.224) and Robertson's (0.214).
I know Jokic will not win this year's NBA MVP award. I don't think he should. We can only rely on so many "what-ifs," but at least some of these are actually out of his hands, like coaching decisions and injuries to teammates.
I do think he should be in the conversation if we're crediting Westbrook for his "arbitrary" triple-double counts and Harden for outperforming Vegas odds. With Jokic, the Nuggets had a net rating (5.8) on par with Houston's full-season rate (5.7). Without him, they were -6.1 points worse than their opponents per 100 possessions, somewhere around the mark of the Philadelphia 76ers (-5.7) or Brooklyn Nets (-6.6).
And if you want the "leadership" or "who would you rather play with" angles, Jokic battled through fatigue and double teams late in the season while his team pressed for the postseason, and frankly, who wouldn't want to play with the best passing big in the NBA?
The NBA MVP race is the most fun it's been in quite some time, and we should throw Jokic's name in the hat for the hell of it while we still can.