Short answers to simple questions speak to the tall order faced by teams devising game plans to stop Nikola Jokic.
An hour and a half before Jokic dropped 41 points with 17 rebounds in an April 5 loss to the Spurs, coach Gregg Popovich was asked whether it was more important to take away the pass from the reigning MVP or looks at the basket.
“I don’t know,” Popovich said. “I don’t think anyone’s figured that out. He’s a great one.”
Colleague Mark Medina posed a similar inquiry to Steve Kerr recently, asking whether the Nuggets center is more dangerous as a scorer or a passer.
“Yes,” Kerr said, laughing.
In all seriousness though, the world witnessed three MVP seasons simultaneously from Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But only one walks away with the award this summer once the “Inside the NBA” crew makes the league’s announcement after what will likely end up as one of the closest MVP races since the 2000s, when players such as Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett and Steve Nash reigned supreme over the league.
Jokic finishes the 2021-22 season at No. 1 in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, after producing a campaign even stronger than 2020-21, when he captured the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
Leading the heavily depleted Nuggets to the sixth seed in the West, Jokic racked up nearly 200 more minutes than second-place finisher Embiid while eclipsing 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists in a single season for the first time in NBA history.
Jokic averaged 38 points over his final four games with 17.5 rebounds and six assists, capping the regular season with 35 points, 16 rebounds, and six assists to go with a season-high five steals. The performance marked Jokic’s first career outing with that stat line, as he became the fifth player in league annals to accomplish that feat, joining the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and George McGinnis.
Jokic joined Karl Malone as the only players in NBA history to put together five consecutive double-doubles with 35 points or more, and the Nuggets center topped his previous mark of 16 triple-doubles last season with 19 in 2021-22.
“He’s dangerous in every regard,” Kerr said Wednesday, as Golden State preps to host Jokic and the Nuggets on Saturday (8:30 ET, ABC) in the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs. “No matter how you play him, he’s got an answer for you. When you’re not used to playing against Jokic, you think you’re in position defensively, but you’re not. You’re even with your guy off the ball, [and] he’s whizzing that thing right by your ear for a layup. Any other center in the league is probably not even making that pass.”
That’s counting Embiid, too. But that doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of the Sixers’ center, who pummeled opponents this season just as effectively as Jokic while dealing with similar adversity. Jokic played virtually the entire season without second- and third-leading scorers Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., while Embiid navigated the Ben Simmons saga by carrying Philadelphia on his back for nearly 60 games before James Harden arrived in February to alleviate some of the load.
Averaging an NBA-best 30.6 points per game with 11.7 rebounds, Embiid became the first center to capture the scoring title since O’Neal in 2000, and blistered opponents for 41 points or more in three of his last four games.
The reigning Finals MVP, Antetokounmpo finished just behind Embiid in scoring (29.9 points per game) and averaged 11.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists to become the first player in NBA history to average 25 points or more, 10-plus rebounds and five assists or more in four separate seasons.
And now, the top 5 in the final 2021-22 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last week’s ranking: No. 1
Season stats: 27.1 ppg, 13.8 rpg, 7.9 apg
We didn’t get into all the advanced analytics to bolster Jokic’s case for MVP because that’s all way too complicated and unneeded. We’ll just let Kerr explain how Jokic sets himself apart, as the Warriors prepare to face the Nuggets in the opening round. “That’s what makes him special . . . it’s pick your poison. He can score one-on-one down on the block, [a] brilliant passer,” Kerr said. “He’s not only one of the best players in the league. He’s one of the smartest. He’ll pick you apart if you’re not aware.” Along with Antetokounmpo, Jokic was named Kia Player of the Month for March and April, after averaging 31.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 7.5 assists in leading the Nuggets to a record of 12-9.
2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Last week’s ranking: No. 3
Season stats: 30.6 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 4.2 apg
If Embiid doesn’t win Kia MVP, he should know that the media doesn’t “hate” him, as he said recently. In fact, it’s likely most NBA observers admire the sheer dominance Embiid displayed over the course of the season. Offensively, there’s virtually nothing the big man can’t do, and he’s done it for all of 2021-22 in the face of constant double teams to become the first international player to win the NBA scoring title. Embiid managed to produce 12 games with 40 points and 10 rebounds, feats only accomplished by Russell Westbrook and Moses Malone since the 1976-77 NBA-ABA merger.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week’s ranking: No. 2
Season stats: 29.9 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 5.8 apg
The two-time MVP won Eastern Conference Player of the Month in both March and April, and his 29.9 points per game this season registers as a career best. Antetokounmpo closed out 2021-22 strong, averaging 31.5 points, 12.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists in leading the Bucks to a record of 14-6 since March 1 and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. As expected, Antetokounmpo is already in the mindset to win another title. “A lot of people think once you win a championship and succeed in life there’s no pressure,” he said. “I don’t really agree.”
4. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Last week’s ranking: No. 5
Season stats: 26.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.8 apg
Full disclosure: this NBA awards voter chose Booker for All-NBA 1st team at guard. In most seasons, Booker would have a strong case to win Kia MVP, after leading Phoenix to the top seed in the Western Conference with the NBA’s best record (64-18). Booker produced his 2,000th career assist earlier in the season and became the fourth-youngest player in NBA history to amass 11,000 career points. Phoenix’s PR staff has wisely pointed out that every player to average 26 points or more for a team with a winning percentage of at least .775 has either won the MVP in that season or finished as runner-up.
5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Last week’s ranking: No. 6
Season stats: 28.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 8.7 apg
It’s not Doncic’s time just yet, but can’t you envision this 23-year-old superstar winning multiple Kia MVPs in the future? Doncic strained his left calf in the third quarter of the regular-season finale, and his availability is in question for Game 1 of Dallas’ first-round series on Saturday against Utah. Doncic averaged 28.4 points per game, which ranked as No. 3 in the NBA. He also averaged eight rebounds and eight assists in leading the Mavericks to the fourth seed in the West. The franchise leader in career triple-doubles (46), Doncic racked up 25 points or more in 29 of his last 36 games including 23 games with 30 points or more.
The Next Five:
6. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last week’s ranking: No. 6)
7. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets (Last week’s ranking: T-7)
8. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls (Last week’s ranking: T-7)
9. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies (Last week’s ranking: No. 10)
10. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns (Last week’s ranking: unranked)
And five more (listed alphabetically): Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves; Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks.
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