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Handicapping Giannis Antetokounmpo’s MVP Chances

How likely is it that the Greek Freak takes home his third trophy?

NBA: All Star Game-Team Durant at Team LeBron David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

At the start of the 2020–21 NBA season (barely over 12 months ago!), the general consensus around the two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo was definitely “prove it in the postseason.” Of course, he went on to do just that! A massive individual playoff run topped off with one of the best closeout game performances in NBA history granted him basketball’s crowning achievement: an NBA championship with a Finals MVP, joining his already impressive collection of hardware amassed before his 27th birthday.

Could that erase the clichéd “voting fatigue” many NBA writers (who vote for the league’s awards) often espouse, which affects every star, not just Giannis? Voters are wary of giving MVP away too often and more than back-to-back years to one player, it seems. Even LeBron James won his four MVPs over five seasons, split up by Derrick Rose in 2011. LBJ was still most definitely considered by writers as a finalist that year, finishing third just behind Dwight Howard but with one more first-place vote than the then-Magic center. It’s not like Giannis didn’t merit a place in the MVP discussion last year—he did finish fourth in voting, after all—but the prevailing opinion was that he wouldn’t win a third consecutive MVP because he’d yet to win a ring.

Today, though, he has won a ring! In this writer’s opinion, he’s the best player on planet earth right now (yes you casuals, even if Kevin Durant was fully healthy) and he’s second in the league in scoring, 60 games through the season. By merely .2 points per game, he trails Joel Embiid, whose Sixers narrowly defeated the Bucks before the All-Star break thanks to his herculean 42-point evening. Giannis is 1.3 PPG clear of Bulls’ wing DeMar DeRozan, who also is in the MVP conversation.

So let’s have that conversation! At this three-quarter mark of the regular season, what are Giannis’ chances at his third award, which would put him in the company of an even higher echelon of players than his already exalted place as (in my opinion), a surefire top thirty player of all-time? Here are the latest odds from DraftKings:

It hasn’t been hard to figure out the MVP narrative at any point this season. For the first 30 plus games, until he entered a long and unprecedented (for him, at least) shooting funk, Warriors point guard Stephen Curry was the favorite with his team out to a hot 29-7 start. Since then, Golden State is 13-10—largely thanks to a 9-game win streak—and has fallen 6.5 games back of Phoenix, who continues to surge. Curry’s MVP odds have fallen accordingly.

With Curry somewhat out of the running, the race has settled around a trio of big men: Embiid, reigning 2021 MVP Nikola Jokic, and Giannis. Embiid was a popular MVP pick before 2020–21 for some reason, but that proved prescient as Philly placed first in the East as the regular season concluded. Embiid missed 31 games to Jokic’s 10, however: a left knee injury that resulted in a ten-game absence from March into April seemed to do Embiid’s chances in, and Jokic received 91 first-place votes while Embiid got the lion’s share of second-place votes. Both third-place finisher Curry (5) and fifth-place finisher Chris Paul (2) garnered more first-place votes than Embiid, who was only first on one writer’s ballot.

This year, it sure seems like writers are champing at the bit—and have been since before last season or perhaps longer—to give Embiid his first MVP. He is the favorite at this moment, which is indeed reasonable, but will it last? Most voters heavily take team record into account, and the top of the East is presently jam-packed with Miami and Chicago tied for first (though Miami has the head-to-head advantage currently), followed by Cleveland and Philly knotted up at third (Cleveland with the advantage). Now that the Sixers acquired James Harden, many think they could win enough to separate from this mass of five teams who are now within 2.5 games of the top seed, including the Bucks.

However, could Harden’s arrival actually hurt Embiid’s candidacy? We don’t yet know how the two will jive on the court together, and Harden’s ball-dominant style has proven to be a difficult fit (and that’s being generous) with other stars: see Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook when he was in Houston. Though they ended up barely playing together in Brooklyn, there were small signs that he may not have ultimately worked alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, two other stars who are most effective with the ball in their hands. Plus, with Embiid’s checkered injury history, you can never rule out that he’ll miss more than the 12 games he’s already sat out this season.

Meanwhile, Giannis is arguably having a better statistical year than either of his two MVP campaigns from 2018–20:

Advanced numbers prefer 2021–22 too: his true shooting is higher than his second MVP season by 1.7%, his box plus-minus exceeds his first campaign, and his win shares per 48 equal those of his first. He’s turning the ball over fewer times per 100 possessions while maintaining a similar (or higher) usage rate, is just .2% short of his 2019–20 mark in assist percentage, blocks more shots than in any season since 2016–17, is setting his highest free throw rate of any previous year by 5%, and his PER of 32.3 would be a career-high.

What could sway voters into voting Giannis over Embiid or Jokic? Milwaukee finishing with a top-two seed and ahead of Embiid would certainly help. Embiid’s scoring average could dip enough that Giannis more easily claims the scoring title, so if he maintains his recent production and throws in another 50 point game or two, that could go a long way. One doesn’t have to squint to see both those outcomes come to fruition.

Jokic leads the league in advanced stats like win shares and box plus-minus, but many writers may balk at Denver’s record, which while solid at 33-25 is just the 6 seed. If either Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. return from long-term injuries before season’s end, the Nuggets could work up the standings, but I don’t think anyone expects them to challenge Memphis (the current 3 seed at 41-19) and a fourth-place finish may not be seen as MVP-worthy. The Bucks’ record is not too much better at present, but the East has been the more competitive—and arguably better overall—conference this year.

Speaking of Memphis, Ja Morant pushed his way into the mix as his Grizzlies rose through the West in the new year. Some voices (who I don’t think have MVP votes) like the TNT guys are even putting DeRozan ahead of Giannis and Jokic merely because the Bulls have a better record—again, by just 2.5 games. TNT’s Jim Jackson even had Giannis outside his personal top five when he was on the call for the Bucks-Sixers game. Miss me with that garbage: before his recent thumb injury that will keep him out 6–8 weeks, I’d have argued Chris Paul deserves MVP more than anyone using those standards. By nearly all numbers traditional and advanced, the three favorites are unparalleled by the best players on the league’s current top five teams by record (Phoenix, Golden State, Memphis, Miami, and Chicago), whose success stems less from one single player.

Right now, it’s easy to see Giannis finishing third in the race, or even second depending on how the rest of the year plays out. As long as he’s healthy and the Bucks are winning lots of games, he’s likely in MVP talks every year until his mid-30s. Finishing first will take some work, but it’s clear from his recent play that he’s capable of the production necessary, and such efforts will likely grant the Bucks a higher seed.

These are the players who have won at least three MVPs: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6), Michael Jordan, Bill Russell (both with 5), Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James (each with 4), Moses Malone, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson (all with 3). Is Giannis likely the join them this year? My read is not this time, but I think I speak for all of us—and probably Giannis himself—when I say that I’d prefer another Finals version of that award instead.

Poll

Where will Giannis finish once MVP results are tabulated after the regular season?

This poll is closed

  • 32%
    First
    (73 votes)
  • 39%
    Second
    (88 votes)
  • 24%
    Third
    (54 votes)
  • 3%
    Fourth or below
    (8 votes)
223 votes total Vote Now

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