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Harsh Reality: Giannis Antetokounmpo Is The Real MVP

However you want to slice it, there’s Giannis.

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Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The Milwaukee Bucks are not just reigning champions who are primed to mount a credible back-to-back attempt. They are on the precipice of establishing a basketball dynasty. In all honesty, we might look back in 10 years and realize that it was already in-place by 2022. Under the leadership of Mike Budenholzer, who took over in 2018 and turned Milwaukee into a regular season powerhouse, the Bucks have achieved three consecutive division championships (going on four), an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, and an NBA Finals victory, all in his first three years at the helm.

But the Bucks are not defined by Coach Bud. They are defined by Giannis Antetokounmpo, the do-it-all, literally-he-does-everything power forward who has already built a Hall of Fame-caliber resumé. Giannis, who’s still only 27 years old, isn’t currently favored to take home the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award, which would be his third.

But he should be.

For most of the season, the MVP conversation has revolved around the trio of Giannis, Nikola Jokic, and Joel Embiid. Others have come and go (Steph Curry, LeBron James, Jayson Tatum, Ja Morant, and Kevin Durant have all been included at some point), but the three behemoths have been the most consistent members of the various rankings and lists. With mere days left in the regular season, each of Giannis, Jokic, and Embiid have thoroughly established their cases for the award. Which one stands above the others? Which case holds up the most under scrutiny? Let’s take an unbiased (read: absolutely biased) look.

Because language is an invention of people, and people are inherently messy, the very meaning of “most valuable” has never been truly consistent. Does the designation go to the player who was simply the best, or the most important to their team? How do you define those things? It’s an individual award, but how much does team success factor in? Do you veer away from the measurable and instead focus on memory, the idea that the player who mounted the campaign that best represents the story of the league that year deserves the award? It’s complicated.

To simplify things, we can try and look at the award from two perspectives: results and narrative. Each feeds into the other and the two are inextricably linked, but these two categories seem to be the clearest delineation between the wide range of rationales that voters will use when submitting their ballots. So, between Nikola Jokic (the current front runner), Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo...

Who has the best results?

In terms of individual contributions, each of these three players had managed an absolute absurd amount of production for their teams. From a purely statistical standpoint, it’s difficult to argue with Nikola Jokic’s candidacy for the award. By the numbers, The Joker is the best rebounder of the bunch, by far the best passer, and the most efficient with his shooting possessions. Jokic has also improved considerably on defense; he can no longer be described as any thing worse than “average” on that end, and such a designation is still discounting him there! To be able to accomplish that growth while breaking your own records as an offensive hub is more than worthy in the race for MVP.

He doesn’t boast the overwhelming lead in advanced metrics that Jokic does, but Joel Embiid’s case for the award has merit. He’s been the most prolific scorer of the bunch, including a good-and-still-improving three-point shot, and he’s within decimal points of the scoring title. He combines that with his usually-stellar rebounding and rim protection, while also improving by leaps and bounds as a passer. Furthermore, Embiid’s demonstrated the most important ability a player needs to have: availability. Injury-prone earlier in his career, Embiid has managed to avoid the type of issues his detractors had assumed would sideline him prematurely, and he’s played in just as many games as Giannis this season. It’s an impressive campaign from an impressive player.

But (there’s always a but), Giannis gives you the best of all worlds. He’s not the leader in as many statistical categories as Jokic…but he’s not far behind. He doesn’t have the same shooting percentage as Embiid…but he’s ahead in the points category. With Jokic and Embiid, you get elite production in several different areas; with Giannis, you get that production in all areas, while also earning deserved attention as a front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year, and your team is a winner.

Who has the most compelling narrative?

The numbers matter, but they’re not the only factor. People are suckers for a good story, and the competition for MVP can provide.

Let’s start with Nikola Jokic, the reigning Most Valuable Player from last season. The Denver Nuggets were (are?) considered a powerhouse in the Western Conference, but the supporting cast around Jokic has become depleted. Jamal Murray suffered an ACL tear in April 2021, and Michael Porter Jr. has been sidelined with a back injury since November and just suffered a significant setback. Staying above 0.500 without those teammates is challenging enough, but to be 15 games above that mark and sticking in the thick of the playoff race, while your best teammates are Will Barton and Aaron Gordon? That is the sort of adversity that MVP voters can get behind.

Joel Embiid hasn’t had an easy go of it either. Much and more was made of his former teammate Ben Simmons’ postseason performance, and the unraveling of that relationship forced the Sixers to find ways to win without one of their cornerstone pieces. Embiid’s role in that production was straightforward: be the best version of Joel Embiid the league has ever seen, and maintain that excellence amidst the rumors and hearsay in order to keep the team on-task and on-target. A clear task, but not a simple one, and Embiid was up to that challenge while also navigating the Philadelphia 76ers acquisition of James Harden. The Sixers are in position to make a deep playoff run because of Embiid’s focus, more than proving the value he provides.

But once again…here’s Giannis. If you want to talk about narrative, Giannis is a Disney movie incarnate. No, really! Still, you may ask yourself at this point in his story, what else is there for Giannis to do? He already won the award twice, led his team to the NBA Finals, and pushed them over the top to claim the title…he can’t possibly muster up another MVP-level narrative, can he?

He can. He has. He is. Coming off their championship, the Bucks abruptly lost Brook Lopez, the centerpiece of their defense and a key component to Milwaukee’s chances of repeating. So what did Giannis do? He took it upon himself, playing more minutes at center than ever before in his career (41% per, accepting the burden and the beating that comes with it in order to keep his team afloat. While playing out of position, Giannis continued his evolution as a player, improving his free throw shooting (72.3%, his highest mark in 4 years) and midrange shooting (43.5% on shots between 16 feet out and the arc, his highest mark ever and better than a surprising number of familiar peers) and his playmaking (assist to turnover ratio of 1.75, his best mark in 5 years), maintaining his stalwart defense and rebounding, while also scoring over 30 points per game. Oh, and the Bucks find themselves all the way up to 2nd place in the conference standings, just a breath behind the East-leading Miami Heat.

This man has done all that for Milwaukee this season after reaching the pinnacle of his profession. Nikola Jokic, I’m sorry your team was bitten by the injury bug, and your stat lines are as incredible as your water polo passes, but your Nuggets aren’t even a top-4 seed in the West and if Giannis’ experience is any indication, the voters might veer off-script and hold your playoff record against you. Joel Embiid, you’re a tremendous talent who’s had an incredible year, but it’s hard to heap extra credit upon you for working through the Simmons Saga when you absolutely fed into it, and you fell short directly against the guy you claim to deserve the award over.

We look back at the MVPs awarded to other players when they should have gone to LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, or Michael Jordan as if those awards are somehow tainted. “They won MVP because the voters needed some variety, they were sick of giving it to the real MVP.”

This season might yet play out like that, because Giannis is like that. We have seen, time and time again, that Giannis Antetokounmpo is not just a superstar. Not just an All-Star. Not just an All-NBA Team member. Not just an #NBA75 honoree. Not even just an MVP or a Finals MVP. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best basketball player in the game, and he shows no signs of slowing down. Like Tim Duncan before him, another giant of the game who prioritized the team’s success over his own, Giannis will not seek the accolades for himself. Giannis focuses on self-improvement and supporting his team, day in and day out, thus demonstrating exactly why he deserves the award. Funny how you can find something only when you stop looking for it.

The voters for Most Valuable Player are human, and therefore fallible, and they might invent a reason to cast their ballot with someone else’s name at the top. They may continue to deny the reality in front of them about the order of the basketball paradigm and whose name deserves to be elevated above all others.

But, sure. Bet against him, I dare you.

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