Why nearly a dozen NBA players could get MVP votes this season

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Could the NBA regular season’s final week decide the 2022 MVP?

While Denver Nuggets center and reigning MVP Nikola Jokic has the inside track at the award, both he and Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid have plenty to play for down the stretch. (The Nuggets can still capture home-court advantage in the Western Conference’s first round, while the 76ers are in a four-team battle for the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed.)

Jokic and Embiid have been spectacular, but plenty of other stars have proven themselves worthy of entering the conversation throughout the 2021-22 season.

Milwaukee Bucks big man and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo navigated numerous injuries to key role players to keep the defending champs within striking distance of the East’s best record. Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker has been the best player on the NBA’s best team. Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant has been the face of the league’s most surprising contender. Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum have sparked massive second-half turnarounds for the Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics, respectively.

Let’s run through the players deserving of some MVP love, including the front-runners, the long shots and early-season — but not forgotten — favorites.

Note: MVP odds courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook.

THE ELITE BIG MEN TRIO


Stats: 26.8 PPG | 13.7 RPG | 8.0 APG | 58.3 FG%
MVP odds: -300
Team record: 47-32 (fifth in West)


Case for MVP

Nikola Jokic’s MVP flex is more muscular than The Rock. The reigning award winner is averaging 26.8 points, 13.7 rebounds and 8.0 assists while shooting 58.3% from the field. No one in NBA history has ever averaged 25-13-7 in a season. Even without the injured Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., Jokic leads the league in triple-doubles (19), second most by a center in history behind only Wilt Chamberlain.

Jokic ranks top 10 in points, rebounds and assists per game and field goal percentage — something no player has done in a season over the past 50 years. Jokic has recorded over 1,000 touches and over 600 passes more than any other player in the league, according to Second Spectrum tracking and NBA.com/stats. And for the analytics fans, Jokic is clearly ahead of Embiid and Antetokounmpo in four metrics, ranking first in Real-Plus Minus, RAPTOR (the highest since player tracking began in 2013-14), Box Plus-Minus and LEBRON.

And Jokic has a 32.9 Player Efficiency Rating (PER), the highest single-season mark in NBA history.


MVP moment

Yes, there is the game Jokic beat Embiid and the Sixers in Philadelphia on March 14. But one game above all delivered the full Joker experience.

On Jan. 19 in Denver, Jokic delivered a triple-double of 49 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists to go with three steals in an overtime win over the Clippers. He made 16 of 25 shots, scored 11 points in overtime but won the game doing what he does best: finding open teammates with unparalleled touch and vision for a big man.

Double-teamed on the right wing, Jokic threw a pass over two defenders across the court to an open Aaron Gordon in the left corner for a winning 3.

— Ohm Youngmisuk

Stats: 30.2 PPG | 11.6 RPG | 4.2 APG | 1.5 BPG
MVP odds: +270
Team record: 48-30 (fourth in East)


Case for MVP

Embiid has been one of the premier big men in the NBA for years, but he has put it all together in 2021-22. The one lingering question about him was his durability, but other than a stretch he sat out due to COVID-19 in December, he has missed only four games.

Embiid held Philadelphia together throughout the drama of the Ben Simmons saga before Simmons was dealt for James Harden. Oh, and he’s averaging more than 30 points, 11 rebounds and four assists while being the league’s most unstoppable inside scoring threat.


MVP moment

Embiid has gotten better as the season has gone along, averaging over 30 points in January, February and March. His consistency in both availability and performance has been the metronome that has kept a tumultuous season on track in Philadelphia.

But if there was one game to point to from this season that has defined Embiid’s dominance, it would be his 42 points, 14 rebounds and five assists in Philadelphia’s final game before the All-Star break: a 123-120 road victory over Antetokounmpo and the Bucks while Philadelphia was still waiting for Harden to make his team debut.

— Tim Bontemps

Stats: 30.1 PPG | 11.6 RPG | 5.8 APG | 1.4 BPG
MVP odds: +600
Team record: 48-30 (third in East)


Case for MVP

A Defensive Player of the Year candidate and one of the three players in a virtual deadlock vying for the scoring title, Antetokounmpo’s case to win his third MVP has only gotten stronger as the season has gone on.

When the Bucks were missing starting center Brook Lopez for almost the entire year, Antetokounmpo slid over and played the five more frequently. When Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday began the season slowed by injuries, Antetokounmpo became the team’s primary playmaker. Despite a lineup in flux all season, Milwaukee finds itself competing for the East’s No. 1 seed as the season winds down. Antetokounmpo is the driving force behind it all.


MVP moment

Consider how Antetokounmpo asserted his dominance in back-to-back road games against top East contenders last week. In Philadelphia on Tuesday, he put up 40 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and three blocks, including the game-saving swat to deny Embiid a layup that would have tied the game in the final seconds.

Antetokounmpo followed that up in Brooklyn on Thursday with 44 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, a step-back 3-pointer to send the game into overtime and the winning free throws to seal the victory in the extra frame.

— Jamal Collier

WORTHY CHALLENGERS


Stats: 26.6 PPG | 5.0 RPG | 4.9 APG | 37.7 3P%
MVP odds: +6000
Team record: 62-16 (first in West)


Case for MVP

The Suns are far and away the NBA’s best team, and Booker firmly established himself as their top player with his performance during the absence of backcourt-mate Chris Paul.

Booker averaged 28.2 PPG and 7.0 APG on near 50-40-90 shooting as Phoenix went 11-4 without Paul. Booker has also excelled at a position less conducive to putting up big stats than the point guards and centers elsewhere in the MVP race. Because I have Donovan Mitchell playing more minutes at point guard, Booker easily leads all shooting guards in my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric this season.


MVP moment

In Paul’s return to the lineup, Booker made his MVP case against the reigning winner and presumptive favorite in Jokic. Booker went off for a season-high 49 points on March 24 in Denver, adding 10 assists for his fifth double-double of the season as the Suns came from behind to beat the Nuggets.

Booker had 19 points in the third quarter and made a season-high 15 free throws in addition to shooting 16-of-25 from the field. According to Basketball-Reference.com’s game score, the performance was Booker’s second best of his career, trailing only his 70-point outing in 2017.

— Kevin Pelton

Stats: 28.3 PPG | 9.1 RPG | 8.7 APG | 35.3 3P%
MVP odds: +10000
Team record: 49-30 (fourth in West)


Case for MVP

Can we ignore the 2021 portion of the season? Doncic put up impressive individual numbers in the first couple months of the season, but he was subpar by his standards while playing his way into shape and dealing with recurrent right ankle sprains. He has performed at an MVP level since sitting out the last three weeks of December, averaging 29.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 8.8 assists to lead the Mavs to the league’s fourth-best record (32-12) since Jan. 1.

Doncic has had some of his most dominant performances in wins over other MVP candidates, including a 33-point, 13-rebound, 15-assist outing against Embiid’s 76ers and a 32-point, 8-rebound, 15-assist game against Antetokounmpo’s Bucks.


MVP moment

When the Mavs dealt Kristaps Porzingis to the Washington Wizards at the Feb. 10 trade deadline, making it clear they’d be a one-star team for at least the remainder of the season, Doncic responded with a career-high 51 points in a win over the Clippers that night.

Spencer Dinwiddie has established himself as a phenomenal clutch sidekick since arriving in that deal, and Doncic has been dominant, averaging 32.3 points with an effective field goal percentage of 52.7 as the Mavs have surged to fourth place in the West standings.

— Tim MacMahon

Stats: 27.6 PPG | 5.7 RPG | 6.7 APG | 34.0 3P%
MVP odds: +15000
Team record: 55-23 (second in West)


Case for MVP

Morant is the high-flying face of the franchise for a fun, young team that has the NBA’s second-best record. He’s an acrobat who attacks relentlessly, leading the league in points in the paint (16.8 per game) despite his size (6-foot-3, 174 pounds).

He’s also a basketball savant who excels at setting up his teammates, averaging 6.7 assists per game. The Grizzlies’ success without Morant is a testament to their talent and depth, as well as some fortunate scheduling, but it is difficult to make a case that a player is the most valuable in the league when his team is 20-2 without him.


MVP moment

Morant soared into the MVP conversation when he averaged 26.7 points on 50.5% shooting during the Grizzlies’ 11-game winning streak in December and January. That run was highlighted by a road win in Phoenix, when Morant capped a 33-point performance by contorting his body in traffic to hit the winning shot in the final second.

But Morant’s most impressive stretch of the season? That had to be when he broke the Grizzlies’ regular-season scoring record in consecutive wins, following up a 46-point performance against the Bulls by scoring 52 on the Spurs.

— MacMahon

Stats: 27.0 PPG | 8.0 RPG | 4.4 APG | 35.1 3P%
MVP odds: +25000
Team record: 49-30 (second in East)


Case for MVP

Tatum’s season has mirrored his team’s second-half rise. Early on, Tatum couldn’t buy a bucket, shooting 41% from the field and 31% from 3-point range with some rotten shooting luck, as Boston scuffled to a .500 record through late January.

But since the Celtics took off at that point, Tatum has averaged almost 30 points while shooting over 50% from the field, 40% from 3-point range and just under 90% from the free throw line, making a credible case he has been the league’s best player on what has been the league’s best team for close to half the season.


MVP moment

Tatum’s superlative performance against the Nets on March 6 was not only the standout game of his season, but it sits among the best games from any player in 2021-22. Tatum’s 54 points in 41 minutes — while often guarding Kevin Durant — as he finished as a plus-12 in the Celtics’ 126-120 victory in Boston was a reminder of Tatum’s ceiling and how essential he has been to Boston’s remarkable turnaround.

— Bontemps

Stats: 28.0 PPG | 5.3 RPG | 5.0 APG | 50.3 FG%
MVP odds: +25000
Team record: 45-33 (fifth in East)


Case for MVP

The biggest reason the Bulls find themselves on the verge of their first playoff appearance since the 2016-17 season: the addition of DeRozan, an offseason signing that was maligned at the time but has turned into one of the most impactful.

At 32, DeRozan has put together a career year in his first season in Chicago, averaging 28.0 points per game (a career high and seventh in the NBA), 5.0 assists and 5.3 rebounds on 50.3% shooting. He had Chicago sitting near the top of the conference for most of the season’s first five months because of dominance in the clutch and stretches of brilliance, such as an eight-game streak in February when he scored 35 points and shot better than 50% from the field each night, the first player with such a run since Wilt Chamberlain in 1963.


MVP moment

DeRozan became the first player in NBA history to hit a winning buzzer-beater on back-to-back days, knocking down go-ahead 3-pointers on the road against the Pacers on New Year’s Eve and Wizards on New Year’s Day.

Those performances were memorable, but they also underscored DeRozan’s dominance in the clutch all season. No player in the NBA has scored more points (157) in clutch time — the last five minutes of a fourth quarter or overtime with the score within five points — and DeRozan’s shooting splits (53.5 FG%, 50.0 3P%, 88.7 FT%) actually improve compared to his per-game averages (50.3, 35.5, 87.7).

— Collier

EARLY SUPERSTAR CONTENDERS


Stats: 25.5 PPG | 5.2 RPG | 6.3 APG | 38.0 3P%
MVP odds: +25000
Team record: 50-29 (third in West)


Case for MVP

Stephen Curry has been the Warriors’ most valuable player for, well, the past 10 years. And after finishing third in voting for the award in 2020-21, he has displayed yet again why he is so important to the team this season. Most recently, his value has become evident because of how the Warriors have played without him as he deals with a foot injury heading into the playoffs. The Warriors are 3-10 without him this season.


MVP moment

Curry started this season on a tear, propelling himself atop the early MVP conversation as he launched his way to the all-time record for career 3-pointers. Through the Warriors’ first 15 games, Curry led the league in scoring, averaging 29.5 points per game with four 40-point performances, including a 50-point game against the Hawks on Nov. 8.

That night, Curry went 14-for-28 from the field and 9-of-19 from 3, hit all 13 of his free throws and dished out 10 assists. His strong start propelled the Warriors’ to the top of the standings and inserted the former dynasty back into serious title contention.

— Kendra Andrews

Stats: 30.1 PPG | 7.3 RPG | 6.1 APG | 39.3 3P%
MVP odds: +25000
Team record: 40-38 (10th in East)


Case for MVP

Durant is the key to everything the Nets organization wants to accomplish. When it doesn’t have him on the floor, Brooklyn looks lost — as evidenced by Brooklyn’s 5-17 record when Durant missed a month and a half because of a sprained MCL. Since returning March 3, Durant is averaging 30.2 points per game and has helped stabilize a soap-opera season that is headed for the play-in tournament.


MVP moment

Durant’s brilliance has always been in his consistency, but if one moment shined through, it might be the 34-point, 13-rebound, 11-assist performance in 48 minutes as he carried his COVID-19-ravaged team during a 131-129 overtime win over the Raptors on Dec. 14. That came two nights after he dropped 51 in a win over the Pistons.

— Nick Friedell

Stats: 30.3 PPG | 8.2 RPG | 6.2 APG | 52.4 FG%
MVP odds: +50000
Team record: 31-47 (11th in West)


Case for MVP

James has had the most dominant season for a 37-year-old in NBA history. He’s on track to capture the scoring title by averaging 30.3 points per game — the second scoring crown of his career a mere 14 years after his first one — and has racked up six triple-doubles. He won’t add a fifth MVP to his collection, as ESPN’s recent poll of potential voters had him receiving only a smattering of votes. But his season was remarkable. “He is as deserving for MVP consideration as anybody in the league,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “You can’t tell me that anybody has played a better season than LeBron James has this year.”


MVP moment

James hit the 50-point plateau twice in a seven-day stretch in early March, dropping 56 points on 19-for-31 shooting in a win over the Warriors and hitting 50 on 18-for-25 shooting while beating the Wizards a week later. Those two wins were surrounded by nine Lakers losses before, in between and after. In other words, without James going into superhero mode, the Lakers didn’t have a prayer. Preceding it was a 23-game run in which James scored 25 points or more, the longest such streak of his 19-year career.

— Dave McMenamin

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