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This NBA MVP Race Could Be the Closest in Recent History

The final voting tally for MVP hasn’t been tight in more than a decade, but this year’s competition between Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Nikola Jokic may change that

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In a normal season, Devin Booker might warrant significant MVP consideration. The Phoenix guard is averaging 27 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game. He’s boosted his 3-point accuracy to 38 percent. He kept the league’s best team humming when Chris Paul was injured.

As the Suns’ Twitter account noted, the 12 previous players in league history to average at least 25-5-5 for the team with the best record all won MVP. But this is not a normal season. Booker won’t even finish in the top three.

That analysis is nothing against Booker, who is enjoying a spectacular season; instead, it’s a means of illustrating the absurdity of this MVP race. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Jokic—presented in that order alphabetically, not by MVP worthiness—are all playing above and beyond the MVP norm, and with a week to go, every game they play seems to tilt the race in one direction or another.

Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate their historic dominance is to look at the all-time Player Efficiency Rating leaderboard. Right now, Jokic and Antetokounmpo would each set a new single-season PER record—breaking Giannis’s mark from 2019-20—while Embiid ranks 16th. No other season in league history has more than one player in the top 20.

Their superlative performances make for a close MVP race—rendering it an anomaly in recent history. If we define a “close” MVP voting result as one in which the runner-up places first on at least half as many ballots as the winner, then we find 10 close races since 1980-81 (the first year that media voted for the award, as opposed to fellow players):

Close MVP Votes Since 1980-81

Year Winner (1st-Place Votes) Runner-Up (1st-Place Votes) Others in Double Digits
Year Winner (1st-Place Votes) Runner-Up (1st-Place Votes) Others in Double Digits
1981 Julius Erving (28) Larry Bird (20)
1982 Moses Malone (40) Larry Bird (20)
1989 Magic Johnson (42.5) Michael Jordan (27.5)
1990 Magic Johnson (27) Charles Barkley (38)* Michael Jordan (21)
1997 Karl Malone (63) Michael Jordan (52)
1999 Karl Malone (44) Alonzo Mourning (36) Tim Duncan (30)
2002 Tim Duncan (57) Jason Kidd (45) Shaquille O'Neal (15)
2003 Tim Duncan (60) Kevin Garnett (43)
2005 Steve Nash (65) Shaquille O'Neal (58)
2007 Dirk Nowitzki (83) Steve Nash (44)
*Yes, Barkley won the most first-place votes but lost the award, as Magic benefitted from better down-ballot placement from the voters who placed Jordan first.

Notice what’s missing from that list: any vote in the 2010s or 2020s. The ’80s and ’90s each had three close races, the ’00s had four—and then close races disappeared. Even the 2017 vote, which inspired intense debate among advocates for Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard, wasn’t all that close in the end: Westbrook nabbed 69 first-place votes to Harden’s 22 and Leonard’s nine, which means Westbrook won a higher percentage of first-place votes than the average MVP winner in the 1990s or 2000s.

This shift probably results from a mixture of factors. Modern voters can more easily consult statistics, with advanced metrics helping to form a consensus. A more consistent voting body and better League Pass service could reduce heterodox decisions based on local access. And the greater potential for social media shaming if a voter breaks ranks, plus the months of public debate leading up to the award, could inculcate greater groupthink.

But regardless of the reasons, the fact remains that no MVP runner-up has finished with even half as many first-place votes as the winner in 15 years. Let’s look at the closeness of results another way: By calculating the average proportion of first-place votes the winner receives in each decade, we clearly see that the vote is more unified now than ever before.

It’s possible that this year’s result won’t finish with a narrow margin, either, but rather will mirror the 2017 race: close in theory, but not in practice. In ESPN’s latest straw poll, Jokic collected 62 first-place votes to Embiid’s 29 and Antetokounmpo’s nine—a meaningful change from the previous edition around the All-Star break, which had Embiid edging Jokic 45 to 43.

Of course, immediately after the the latest straw poll was conducted, Giannis scored 40 points on 16-for-24 shooting, plus added a game-saving block of Embiid, in a win over the 76ers, then scored 44 points on 14-for-21 shooting, plus added the game-winning free throws, in an overtime win over the Nets on national TV. And Embiid responded to Jokic’s 38-point, 18-rebound masterpiece against the Lakers on Sunday with a 44-point, 17-rebound effort of his own that night against Cleveland.

This race isn’t over yet—especially with two more national TV games for Milwaukee this week, to the extent that statement games matter to voters in the final stretch.

With a week still to play, we can’t claim a conclusive winner just yet. But we can make each competitor’s case, using both individual and team statistics. Jokic has the clear advantage in the former category, whether by traditional or advanced metrics. Embiid (30.2 points per game) and Antetokounmpo (30.1) both score more points than Jokic (26.8), but he beats them just about everywhere else with his combination of volume, efficiency, and multifaceted contributions.

For instance, in addition to placing 10th in scoring average among players with at least 50 games played, Jokic also ranks second with 13.7 rebounds per game and eighth with 8.0 assists. He’s shooting 58 percent from the field, better than Antetokounmpo’s 55 percent and Embiid’s 49. And Jokic’s true-shooting mark of 66 percent ranks second in league history among qualified players with a usage rate of at least 30 percent, behind only Steph Curry’s 2015-16 season, which won Curry unanimous MVP honors.

On the advanced side, basically every stat places Jokic first—some by significant margins. The only exception in this chart is the basic version of win probability added, which gives extra weight to “clutch” performance and thus nudges DeMar DeRozan, with his multiple buzzer-beating game-winners, into the top spot.

Ranking in Advanced Stats for Top MVP Candidates

Statistic Jokic Antetokounmpo Embiid
Statistic Jokic Antetokounmpo Embiid
Box Plus-Minus 1st 2nd 3rd
Win Shares 1st 2nd 3rd
Estimated Plus-Minus 1st 2nd 3rd
EPM Wins 1st 5th 2nd
RAPTOR 1st 2nd 3rd
RAPTOR Wins 1st 3rd 4th
LEBRON 1st 3rd 2nd
LEBRON Wins 1st 4th 3rd
Win Probability Added 2nd 6th 5th
Kitchen Sink WPA 1st 3rd 4th

Jokic also fares best in terms of influencing team performance. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets outscore opponents by 8.6 points per 100 possessions when Jokic is on the court, but are themselves outscored by 10.1 per 100 when Jokic is off the court. In other words, they’re about as good as the Suns when Jokic plays and worse than the Rockets when he doesn’t. The on/off gap for Jokic is the largest in the league among players with at least 1,500 minutes.

Biggest On/Off Differentials (Min. 1,500 Minutes)

Player Team On/Off Differential
Player Team On/Off Differential
Nikola Jokic Nuggets +18.8
Jayson Tatum Celtics +16.6
Stephen Curry Warriors +15.6
Jusuf Nurkic Trail Blazers +13.4
Darius Garland Cavaliers +12.4
Kevin Durant Nets +11.9
Aaron Gordon Nuggets +11.8
Immanuel Quickley Knicks +11.6
Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks +11.5
Jrue Holiday Bucks +11.2
Jonas Valanciunas Pelicans +11.1
Monte Morris Nuggets +10.7
Wendell Carter Magic +10.5
Joel Embiid 76ers +10.2
Via Cleaning the Glass

And finally, Jokic has a considerable advantage in volume because he’s missed fewer games than his MVP rivals. Jokic has played about 10 percent more minutes than Embiid and 15 percent more minutes than Antetokounmpo, meaning they would need to be about 10 to 15 percent more valuable on a per-minute basis to match Jokic’s total value. But the numbers almost uniformly say Jokic has been the most valuable player on a per-minute basis, too, so he has the statistical case locked down.

All of those factors—plus the sheer fact that he’s putting up these numbers and keeping Denver in the playoff race without either Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr.—combine to make Jokic the favorite, both in the latest straw poll and in the current betting markets, which until recently had Embiid in the top spot. But he’s not an overwhelming favorite, either, because Antetokounmpo and Embiid aren’t too far behind in individual stats and might have a perceived narrative advantage on the team side.

How media members factor in team performance—and, crucially, which “team performance” standards they recognize—could prove decisive. That’s because Denver will finish with the worst playoff seed of the three teams, but with similar records and point differentials to both Milwaukee and Philadelphia. There’s not actually much room between the three teams.

Team Stats for Top MVP Candidates

Category Milwaukee Philadelphia Denver
Category Milwaukee Philadelphia Denver
Record 48-30 48-30 47-32
Point Differential +3.0 +2.4 +2.5
Seed 3 4 5

But that analysis could change for some voters, especially if either the Bucks or 76ers catch Miami for the East’s no. 1 seed. (After Sunday’s games, they’re both 2.5 games back.) In that case, a simplified version of Booker’s argument would emerge, because since media members started voting for the award, every player to score 30 points per game on a no. 1 seed won the MVP:

  • Michael Jordan, 1990-91 Bulls
  • Jordan, 1991-92 Bulls
  • Jordan, 1995-96 Bulls
  • Allen Iverson, 2000-01 76ers
  • Steph Curry, 2015-16 Warriors
  • James Harden, 2017-18 Rockets

The last player to score 30 per game for a no. 2 seed was Kevin Durant in 2013-14; he won the MVP award that season, too.

Yet because all of this season’s candidates have amassed such ridiculous stat lines, this year’s award vote will necessarily bust some sort of historical precedent. Antetokounmpo or Embiid could score 30 points per game on a top seed and lose. Jokic could produce like peak Steph and lose. Booker will post MVP-level numbers and possibly fail to receive a single first-place vote.

The most likely winners could also make history, however. If Jokic wins, he’ll become the 15th player to win multiple MVPs; if Giannis wins, he’ll become the ninth player to win at least three. (A revealing quirk of MVP history is that a majority of players with multiple awards have gone on to win a third, too, instead of sticking with two trophies.) And if Embiid wins, he’ll be the third big man in a three-season span to win the award—the first time that would happen since Bill Walton, Moses Malone, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won from 1978 to 1980.

The three leading candidates were all born within a year of one another, all in different countries, and all give their own flavor to the big-man position. All are deserving MVP winners, but only one can claim the trophy. Unless Jokic runs away with his lead in the final week, this vote will be the closest in at least 15 years. May the trio continue to one-up each other in an effort to impress voters until the final regular-season buzzer sounds.