Sports

Long live Nikola Jokić, the NBA’s Most VORPable Player


Is some kind of Jokic?

Is some kind of Jokic?
Image: Getty Images

The impending news that Nikola Jokić will be awarded his second-consecutive MVP award has sent the NBA community into a border war formation between respect for analytics and the eye test. Jokic’s back-to-back wins is a resounding victory for the NBA’s mathlete contingency. This isn’t a diatribe against the existence of advanced analytics, just against its overuse. Nor am I saying that it doesn’t have a place in basketball analysis or that Jokic isn’t an MVP-caliber cornerstone player.

Jokić’s counting stats are almost identical to his 2020-2021 MVP-season averages. Last season, Jokić posted averages of 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, 8.3 assists per game. In 2021-22, he logged 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists on 58.8 percent shooting. And now Jokić will be etched into official NBA history as only the 13th player to win consecutive MVPs, but the timing couldn’t be worse. His win over Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid comes as Embiid has shifted the tide of Philly’s series against the East’s No. 1 seed.

Jokić won MVP over Embiid for the second consecutive year even while his peer spent most of his season battling while his star teammate was shelved. In the absence of Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray, the Nuggets finished sixth in the Western Conference and their .585 winning percentage is the sixth-worst in league history for an MVP. Jokić led the NBA in win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, Defensive Box Plus/Minus, barely edged out Giannis Antetokounmpo for the NBA lead in Player Efficiency Rating, finished top-four in assist percentage and VORP.

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VORP was one of the more popular advanced statistics espoused in the 2022 MVP debate. VORP measures “a boxscore estimate of the points per 100 team possessions that a player contributed over a replacement-level player translated to an average team and prorated to an 82-game season.” Michael Jordan and LeBron James own seven of the highest VORP seasons since the 1973-74 season. Jokic’s 9.87 VORP is the 14th-highest in NBA history.

Jokić led the league in VORP by a chasm that would lead you to believe that Antetokounmpo, who finished second, was his subordinate. If the voters pulled their heads out of the sand long enough they would have noticed that Antetokounmpo leveled up for the stretch run and staked his claim as the best basketball player on the planet, while Jokic was barely enough to get Denver into the postseason.

Jokić was outplayed in the twilight of the season by one of his MVP candidates. In February, March and April, when MVPs are truly won, Jokic’s play dipped and Denver nearly plummeted into the Play-in Tournament whereas Antetokounmpo leveled up and Embiid surged. Yet, Antetokounmpo, the previous player to win back-to-back MVPs, never became a serious contender. Meanwhile, Jokić overtook Embiid in a straw poll between February 17 and March 29, despite Embiid playing neck-and-neck if not better than Jokić in specific metrics during that stretch. Jokić defenders proclaim that he balled out with an inferior supporting cast, but in the first half of the season, Embiid kept the Sixers afloat with Tyrese Maxey and Seth Curry.

Embiid’s advanced defensive acumen never played into this race, either. Based on FiveThirtyEight’s Defensive RAPTOR statistic, Jokić had a greater impact on the defensive end this season than Utah’s Rudy Gobert. Alternatively, ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus considers Gobert the best defender in the NBA, Jokić ranks sixth, Embiid is 15th and Antetokounmpo is 98th. Once the NBA’s flawed defensive statistics created a narrative that Jokic was a defender on par with Gobert and Embiid, the 2022 MVP race was broken. The MVP Trophy has always been a regular-season award, but it carries meaning to the NBA community. The framing of Jokić’s case for NBA MVP has legitimacy, but the stats-heavy narrative lacked soul. That’s a travesty for him and the award.

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