20Q: Could Nikola Jokić actually win MVP again?

Oct 30, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) looks on against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

Today marks 50 days until the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season. In preparation for the most anticipated year in Denver Nuggets franchise history, Ryan Blackburn is asking and answering 20 burning questions facing the Nuggets prior to Media Day on Monday, September 26th. One question each weekday for the next four weeks.

Question 1: Could Nikola Jokić win a third straight MVP in 2022-23?

In a rare matchup outside of the NBA from two NBA superstars, Nikola Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo duked it out in a battle between the Serbian and Greek national teams. Both players performed well, but it was Jokić who got the last laugh, scoring 29 points en route to an overtime victory.

In the grand scheme of things, this game didn’t have any bearing on the title odds for the Denver Nuggets this season. It did illustrate one thing though: Jokić has remained committed to becoming the best athlete he can be. At 27 years old, Jokić is in the physical prime of his career, using his combination of strength and newfound agility to dominate the game. He was already a great player before his first MVP season, but now, his physicality is better than ever. He’s always been a cerebral player generating advantages with his brain and coordination. Now, he’s getting the edge by being a better athlete too.

 

During the last two MVP seasons, Jokić has improved drastically as a scorer, playmaker, rebounder, and defender. Across the two years, he has averaged 26.7 points, 12.1 rebounds, 8.1 assists, and 1.4 steals on 34 minutes per game. His shooting efficiency has also jumped, averaging 57.5% on field goals and 36.0% on three-pointers. Nobody else in the NBA has approached those numbers consistently, which represent the all-around impact Jokić has had for the Nuggets the last two years.

The MVP debates in each season were contentious, with Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid also showcasing dominance. Giannis put together two tremendous seasons, and Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry was on the edges of the conversation in both years. By the end of each season though, Jokić’s MVP case became ironclad, which reflected in the voting totals. Though there was some hesitance to credit Jokić, the numbers and impact were undeniable.

Will that be the case next season?

It seems impossible that Jokić could win another MVP, his third in a row. After all, only three players in NBA history have won the award in three consecutive seasons: Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, and Bill Russell.

The feat hasn’t been accomplished since 1986, and there’s a simple explanation why: it’s extremely difficult to be credited for being that dominant and impactful for three straight calendar years. Michael Jordan and LeBron James never accomplished it, though some have argued that they should have won in various years. Jordan won the award five times, and he probably should have won the award three consecutive times from 1996 to 1998. In 1997, Karl Malone won the award on the 64-win Utah Jazz. Advanced analytics likely would have called for Jordan to win instead, he of the 69-win Bulls. The same could be said for LeBron, who won in 2009 and 2010 but not 2011, the first year after The Decision sent him to win 58 games with the Miami Heat. Derrick Rose won the award as a media darling for the 62-win Bulls, despite LeBron’s superior numbers on the second seeded Heat.

For Jokić, it would take a miracle to win a third straight time. He isn’t viewed in the same renowned light as Bird, Wilt, or Russell, let alone LeBron or MJ. For Jokić to separate himself for a third straight season, a confluence of events would have to occur:

  1. Jokić would have to improve upon his previous numbers. He put up 27 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 assists in his first two NBA seasons? Well, now those numbers have to be 28, 14, and 9 on equal or better efficiency.
  2. The Nuggets have to win. A lot. 58 wins wasn’t enough for LeBron back in 2011. 69 wins wasn’t enough for MJ in 1997, though that may be due to even stronger voter fatigue with MJ, who had already won four MVPs. The Nuggets’ franchise record for wins is 57. They would have to break that record with Jokić playing 75+ games for voters to be properly swayed.
  3. The returns of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. cannot be the only difference in Denver’s record. While Nuggets fans will rightly hope for Murray and Porter to return as difference makers, it will be easy for MVP voters to justify crediting those returnees for Denver’s success rather than Jokić. If Murray and/or Porter make All-Star games, the “no help” narrative that helped Jokić win the MVP last season will work against him this coming season.

Can Jokić put up even better numbers next year than he did last year? His +13.7 Box plus-minus in 2021-22 is already the highest single season number in the Basketball Reference database. His +14.9 ‘RAPTOR’ plus-minus from 2021-22 in the highest number in a database that goes back to 2013-14. It stands to reason that Jokić may have hit an artificial statistical ceiling that he will have trouble breaking through.

Jokić’s best chance to improve is to hit the three-pointer more consistently while adding to his defensive impact. Jokić has exceeded 35% from three-point range in just two of his seven seasons to date. Hitting around 38% of his outside shots on top of the extraordinary production would go a long way. In addition, while Jokić’s steal numbers are impressive for a center, improving as a vertical rim deterrent would go a long way in improving his defensive impact. Being an elite rim protector is mostly out of the question, but if Jokić could average at least one block a game for the first time in his career, that would be notable.

Players like Embiid, Luka Dončić, Jayson Tatum, and Ja Morant are being hyped as the next wave of MVP candidates beyond Jokić and Giannis, who have combined to account for the last four awards. It’s rare for two players to dominate the MVP voting for five straight seasons, but Jokić and Giannis are on the verge of doing just that. If their teams each finish near the top of the standings while the individuals remain statistically dominant, it will be difficult to argue against the superstar tandem. Though many will try.

The Nuggets appear poised for a big season in the win column. Jokić doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Could he actually win a third straight MVP award? History says no, but logic dictates he will be in the race once again. Why shouldn’t he win it again?

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