Players often claim indifference to what’s written or said about them, but understandably the nasty turn this MVP discourse has taken recently struck a nerve with the leader in the clubhouse.
After Denver’s 117-96 road loss to the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, reigning two-time Kia MVP Nikola Jokic was asked if he’s ignoring the intensifying national debate surrounding the award. Unsolicited, the 28-year old referenced recent remarks (which we won’t delve into here) made by ESPN NBA analyst Kendrick Perkins.
“It just popped up on my YouTube what [Perkins] said,” Jokic said. “I just find it interesting to say something just to make news or give those guys something to talk about.”
Pressed further and asked whether the media simply just needs something to talk about, the Nuggets big man concluded: “I think that’s not really healthy. I’ll say it like that.”
No disagreement here.
Just 30 days remain in the regular season, and Jokic still appears on course to become just the fourth player in NBA history to capture three consecutive MVP awards. If he pulls it off, the center will join elite company in Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Larry Bird, who from 1983-86 earned the distinction of being the last player to take home three straight MVPs.
But let’s not act like things can’t change from now to the April 9 conclusion of the regular season. Carrying Philadelphia to victories in three of its last four outings (averaging 36.8 points over that span), Joel Embiid has his Sixers creeping up on Boston in the Eastern Conference standings, just two games back of tying for the No. 2 seed.
Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, has sat out of Milwaukee’s last two contests with a non-COVID illness and a sore right hand. But he’s been the driving force for a squad that has won 19 of 20, including a streak of 16 in a row that was snapped Saturday by Philadelphia on the strength of an Embiid go-ahead 3-pointer with 41.4 seconds left.
So, despite Jokic clinging to No. 1 in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, this still very much remains a three-man race where every player among the top three is truly worthy of hauling in the hardware. Dallas superstar guard Luka Doncic appears to have slipped out of real contention, considering the Mavericks have dropped seven out of their last 10 to fall into Play-In Tournament territory. Boston’s Jayson Tatum seems to be losing momentum, too, especially when considering the Celtics lost three of their last four. Both sit at No. 4 and No. 5 on this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, respectively.
As for Jokic, his reaction to Wednesday’s question about the MVP debate made clear he wasn’t pleased about the current tenor of it.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone even defended the center last week when addressing allegations of stat padding.
“Nikola’s an essential hub of everything we do on the offensive end of the floor. Just because he’s that skilled to be a 10-assists-per-game center, don’t hold that against him,” Malone said. “He’s gonna make the right play. I do know that we’re [25-0] when he has a triple-double. So, if people want to construe that as stat padding, boy I hope he continues to do it. When he gets triple-doubles, we win. It impacts our winning because he’s an MVP player. When he contributes in all those different ways, that allows us to play at a much higher level.”
Malone then posed a question to the media.
What’s our record when he doesn’t get a triple-double?
“There in and of itself speaks to his greatness and the importance of him continuing to pad his stats,” Malone quipped.
And now, the top 5 in the 2022-23 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last week’s ranking: No. 1
Season stats: 24.3 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 10.0 apg
“The Joker” helped the Nuggets score four consecutive wins, including Monday’s 118-113 triumph against Toronto that included plenty of highlights, before the club suffered a rare home setback against the Chicago Bulls. “It’s one game. I think we are actually playing good,” Jokic said. “One game doesn’t mean that we are a bad team. But I think we have weaknesses like every team. [We] probably [need] to hide [the] weaknesses as much as possible [before the playoffs] or just get better at those weaknesses. That’s gonna be the goal before the playoffs.” Jokic has led the Nuggets in points, rebounds and assists on 99 occasions over his eight-season career, marking the most times in NBA history a center has accomplished that feat.
2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Last week’s ranking: No. 4
Season stats: 33.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 4.1 apg
On paper, the team’s five-game road trip to start the month looked daunting. But the Sixers handled it masterfully, finishing 4-1 with Embiid dropping 35 points or more in three of those outings. The signature showing of the trip took place Saturday in Milwaukee, where Embiid scored 31 points to go with 10 assists and six rebounds in the team’s 133-130 comeback victory against Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Philadelphia rallied from an 18-point deficit in the second half to snap the home team’s 16-game winning streak, the league’s longest since Phoenix’s 18-game streak last season. Two nights later, Embiid produced his 11th 40-point night of the season in a win over Indiana before following with a strong showing against a three-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week’s ranking: No. 2
Season stats: 31.2 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 5.5 apg
Antetokounmpo was out of the lineup for the second consecutive game on Thursday against Brooklyn due to a sore right hand after missing the team’s win on Tuesday at Orlando due to a non-COVID illness. The two absences came on the heels of the 28-year-old dishing out a season-high 13 dimes in a win over Washington on Sunday in addition to tying a season high in blocks (three) just one night after Embiid and the Sixers snapped Milwaukee’s 16-game winning streak. “They went where they wanted to go, scoring from the paint, floaters, isos, offensive rebounds, free throws, 3s,” he said of the Philadelphia 76ers. The Bucks embark on a three-game road trip starting Saturday at Golden State (8:30 ET, ABC), followed by visits to Sacramento on Monday (10 ET, NBA League Pass) and Phoenix on Tuesday (10 ET, NBA TV).
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Last week’s ranking: No. 3
Season stats: 30.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 4.7 apg
Boston stumbled through a three-game skid in which it surrendered double-digit leads in each defeat before Tatum scored 30 Wednesday in a win against Portland that snapped the losing streak. The performance marked the 24-year-old’s 36th game this season with 30 points or more, and he had sat out of Monday’s loss at Cleveland due to a sore knee. Having fallen back to second in the East, the Celtics are looking to regain their mojo as the regular season winds down. “The great teams stay the best version of themselves for the longest,” Boston coach Joe Mazzulla said. “When you don’t, you have to quickly get back to who you are.” That won’t be easy with the upcoming schedule. The Celtics start a six-game road trip on Saturday at Atlanta, followed by visits to Houston, Minnesota, Portland, Utah and Sacramento.
5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Last week’s ranking: No. 5
Season stats: 33.0 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 8.0 apg
Even before the trade for Kyrie Irving, nobody expected a Doncic-led Mavericks team coming off a Western Conference finals appearance in 2022 to be currently sitting in Play-In Tournament territory. But that’s where we are Dallas continues to struggle at finding a level of consistency with its superstar backcourt. Doncic left the third quarter of Wednesday’s loss at New Orleans due to a nagging sore left thigh that has been bothering him for quite a while. The good news is an MRI revealed no significant damage. But it’s unknown how the injury might affect the 24-year-old down the stretch. Dallas is eighth in the West with just 15 games left to play.
The Next Five:
6. Kevin Durant, Phoenix Suns (Last week’s ranking: No. 6)
7. Julius Randle, New York Knicks (Last week’s ranking: No. 7)
8. Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings (Last week’s ranking: No. 8)
9. James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers (Last week’s ranking: not ranked)
10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder (Last week’s ranking: No. 10)
And five more (listed alphabetically): Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat; Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers; Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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