The votes are launched. Over the next few days and weeks, the NBA will announce the various winners of this regular season. And while no one knows with absolute certainty where the trophies will go, we do know this: The MVP will be an international player.
Get ready for the story, because it’s coming. The consensus seems to be that this season’s MVP will either be Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Jokic comes from Serbia. Embiid from Cameroon. Antetokounmpo of Greece, with links to Nigeria. When the winner is revealed, it will be the fourth consecutive season in which the MVP has not been born in the United States, which has never happened.
That didn’t happen either: if Jokic, Embiid and Antetokounmpo finish 1-2-3 in the voting, in any order, it will be the first time in NBA history that the top three elected MVP are foreign players.
Jokic is the reigning MVP and has had a brilliant business this season. Averages of 27 points, 14 rebounds and just under eight assists per game are crazy numbers. No one has ever finished a season with these averages, which only strengthens Jokic’s case for there being a sequel.
“I know I’m very biased. I admit it wholeheartedly” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “The MVP is not even a competition. I mean, there are other great players. I’m not saying they aren’t great players. But what Nikola Jokic has done this year, with this team, with everything we’ve been through, it’s incredible. He was good last year. It’s even better this year.
Embiid won the scoring title, averaging 30.6 points and nearly 12 rebounds. Add the four assists per game and Embiid finished with averages no one has had since Bob McAdoo in 1975-76.
“I don’t do a lot of campaigning” said Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers. “Joel has campaigned enough with his game.”
Antetokounmpo’s ending numbers in a season where Milwaukee is defending the NBA championship were 29.9 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. The numbers are eerily similar – right down to his 55.3% field goal rate – to Antetokounmpo’s MVP season two years ago. And in terms of averages per game, no one has averaged this many points, rebounds and assists since Wilt Chamberlain in 1965-66.
“He sets the tone for everything” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer.
The international flavor of the NBA isn’t so much a flavor anymore. It’s not a pinch, not a garnish. It’s a very real — and very talented — segment of the NBA’s playing population, with MVP leaders and Dallas’ Luka Doncic among those rightfully carrying the superstar banner in this playoffs that begin with playoff games on Tuesday, then seriously with first-round games starting on Saturday.
Only Stephen Curry, who finished third last season, stopped the Jokic-Embiid-Antetokounmpo 1-2-3 in the MVP race a year ago. This year, no one thinks they have a real chance of breaking up the trio. FanDuel Sportsbook say Jokic is the heavy favorite, with Embiid and Antetokounmpo the only others with a realistic chance. After that: The fourth pick is Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns, at 100-1.
It was not an easy choice. Most price choices were not this season. The panel of 100 sportswriters and broadcasters who cover the league and voted are unlikely to unanimously agree on anything. And serious arguments can be made in many cases, especially Defensive Player of the Year and All-Defensive Team, probably the most subjective of all the categories.
Coach of the Year has a slew of nominees. The rookie of the year got confused towards the end of the season. The All-NBA team will be a circus, especially since Embiid and Jokic are both centers and one of them won’t make the first team or make the first team as a ‘attacker. Either way, it’s a parody. The NBA still insists on picking an All-NBA team by position — two guards, two forwards, one center — in a league that’s largely positionless.
But the MVP is the big one, obviously.
If the definition is the most valuable player for his team, then it almost has to be Jokic. Without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets still made the playoffs because their center can do just about anything and do anything better than everyone else.
If the definition is the player who was more dominant, the argument shifts to Embiid. When he was at his best this season, he couldn’t be kept.
And if the definition is best player – which the price seems to have become – then it should be Antetokounmpo. He can get to the rim whenever he wants on offense, and he’s in the conversation for best defensive player again. The dominance at both ends cannot be underestimated.
Tim Reynolds is an NBA award winner and national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org