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NBA Fact or Fiction: Does Nikola Jokić have any challengers in the MVP race?

Each week during the 2023-24 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.

[Last week: Is the 65-game rule an All-NBA disaster?]

This week's topic: Nikola Jokić faces a stiff MVP challenge

If your MVP ballot does not include five of Nikola Jokić, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luka Dončić, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and Anthony Edwards (in some order), you are reaching for a candidate.

Jokić's case is the easiest to make. His Denver Nuggets perform like a 69-win team when he is on the floor and a 17-win team when he is not. That 52-win discrepancy is twice that of the other candidates.

We also agreed that he was the game's best player at last season's end, when he carried the Nuggets to an unchallenged championship. He took home MVP in 2021 and 2022 and finished second to Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid last season, when Jokić probably should have won for a third straight regular season and earned Finals MVP instead. His is one of the most dominant four-year runs in league history.

Oh, and Jokić is the most efficient three-level scorer, playmaker and rebounder of the group.

Among the top six candidates, Jokić's 64.6 true shooting percentage is second only to Antetokounmpo, who is shooting 34.7% outside of the restricted area to his rival's 51.3%. Jokić, a center, owns a higher assist-to-turnover ratio (3.07) than his challengers, including point guards Gilgeous-Alexander (2.87) and Dončić (2.46). At 6-foot-11, 284 pounds, Jokić naturally grabs the most rebounds of the bunch, both by volume (17.8 per 100 possessions) and percentage (20.4% of available rebounds when he is on the floor).

We should also mention that Jokić has played more games than all but Edwards.

If you were drafting a team for this season only, Jokić would be the No. 1 selection — at every benchmark of this campaign. But if you want to analyze the MVP race on a case-by-case basis, we can do that, too.

(Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports Illustration)
(Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Jokić (73/76 GP; 2,524 MIN): 26.4 PTS (64.6 TS%), 12.3 REB, 9.0 AST (2.9 TO), 1.3 STL, 0.9 BLK

  • SGA (71/76 GP; 2,444 MIN): 30.3 PTS (63.8 TS%), 5.5 REB, 6.3 AST (2.2 TO), 2.1 STL, 0.9 BLK

Gilgeous-Alexander is the newcomer to this debate. His Oklahoma City Thunder are making a surprise run at the West's No. 1 seed, and he is averaging 30-6-6 on 54/37/87 shooting splits. This is MVP-level stuff.

Except, Gilgeous-Alexander's argument against Jokić is based mostly on the four more points he scores per game. Of course, SGA attempts 19.9 field goals a night — two more than Jokić. Never mind how slim the scoring margin might be if Jokić hunted as many shots; incorporate their assists, and Jokić creates 68.1 points per 100 possessions, four more than SGA (64.3). Jokić also generates more secondary assists.

Gilgeous-Alexander's 2.1 steals per game lead the NBA, and he is the superior perimeter defender. Jokić's impact as a rim protector and possession-ending rebounder negates much of SGA's edge, if not all of it. The Nuggets operate like a top-four defense (110.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) when Jokić is on the court and the 11th-rated outfit (113.2 points allowed per 100 possessions) when he's on the bench. By contrast, the Thunder perform like a top-four defense whether or not Gilgeous-Alexander is in the lineup.

Overall team performance is negligible between the two candidates. Jokić's Nuggets are tied for the West's best record, a game up on the Thunder, who own a 3-1 head-to-head record against Denver. Jokić missed the final showdown between the two teams and averaged 24-9-9 on 71/60/91 shooting splits in the other three games. Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 27-5-6 on 45/40/91 splits across all four meetings.

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 17: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks and Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets talk during a beak in the action in the second half at American Airlines Center on March 17, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
The NBA's leading scorer, Luka Dončić, is still looking for his first MVP trophy. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images) (Ron Jenkins via Getty Images)

Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks

  • Jokić (73/76 GP; 2,524 MIN): 26.4 PTS (64.6 TS%), 12.3 REB, 9.0 AST (2.9 TO), 1.3 STL, 0.9 BLK

  • Dončić (66/75 GP; 2,471 MIN): 33.9 PTS (61.8 TS%), 9.2 REB, 9.8 AST (4.0 TO), 1.5 STL, 0.5 BLK

Dončić is creating an astounding 74.3 points per 100 possessions (43 points scored plus 31.3 points assisted) for his Dallas Mavericks, six more than Jokić generates for the Nuggets. If you are looking to challenge Jokić's status as the most dynamic offensive hub in the game, that is a decent starting point.

You could also argue that Dončić is the worst defender of these candidates. Dallas is a middling defense when Dončić is in the lineup and slightly better when he is not. Opponents are shooting 1.1% better than their field-goal percentages for the season when defended by Dončić, according to the NBA's tracking data. Meanwhile, Jokić is holding opponents to their averages and challenging 30% more shots than Dončić.

The seven more games played for Jokić is also no small factor, especially since the Nuggets are 23.4 points per 100 meaningful possessions better when he is on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass. Dončić generates an 8.3-point improvement for the Mavericks over the same number of possessions. That accounts for much of the eight-win margin between the two teams, which could mean the difference between home court throughout the Western Conference playoffs and starting the first round on the road.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

  • Jokić (73/76 GP; 2,524 MIN): 26.4 PTS (64.6 TS%), 12.3 REB, 9.0 AST (2.9 TO), 1.3 STL, 0.9 BLK

  • Giannis (71/76 GP; 2,500 MIN): 30.7 PTS (65.0 TS%), 11.5 REB, 6.5 AST (3.4 TO), 1.2 STL, 1.1 BLK

For all his limitations as a shooter, Antetokounmpo is a slightly more efficient and prolific scorer than Jokić this season. He is grabbing nearly as many rebounds, albeit at a lower rate (18.2%), and you could argue he is the best defender of the top candidates. That is the case — and a good one — for Antetokounmpo.

The question is what impact that has had on his Milwaukee Bucks. Jokić's playmaking, as I mentioned, pushes his points created to 68.1 per 100 possessions, 3.3 more than Antetokounmpo generates. That is part of the reason, along with his ability to score from every level, why Jokić has been more effective in the clutch, logging 39-14-6 per 36 minutes on 70% true shooting (to Antetokounmpo's 29-12-6 on 64 TS%).

Milwaukee's offense scores 119.7 points per 100 possessions when Antetokounmpo is on the court, which would rate third in the league across a full season (22 spots better than when he is on the bench). Incredible stuff. Except, Denver drops 122.1 points per 100 possessions when Jokić is in the game, which would rank second if averaged over a full season (28 spots better than when he rests). Even better stuff.

Defensively, Antetokounmpo is the Swiss Army knife for a defense that allows 115.2 points per 100 non-garbage possessions in his minutes, according to Cleaning the Glass, the equivalent of the league's 18th-rated defense. That is 3.2 points per 100 meaningful possessions better than when he is off the court. Jokić's on/off impact is broader, as he anchors a defense that permits 112 points per 100 non-garbage possessions with him (equal to the NBA's eighth-rated defense) and 117.2 points per 100 without him.

By no means am I arguing that Jokić is the better defender, but Antetokounmpo's impact on that end — and both ends, really — is not being felt in the aggregate as much as his rival. The difference nets out to a handful of wins in Jokić's favor, and that is enough in a race that boasts this many deserving candidates.

DENVER, CO - MARCH 7: Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets steals the ball from Jayson Tatum (0) of the Boston Celtics during the second quarter at Ball Arena in Denver on Thursday, March 7, 2024. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Jayson Tatum

  • Jokić (73/76 GP; 2,524 MIN): 26.4 PTS (64.6 TS%), 12.3 REB, 9.0 AST (2.9 TO), 1.3 STL, 0.9 BLK

  • Tatum (71/76 GP; 2,543 MIN): 27.2 PTS (60.7 TS%), 8.3 REB, 4.9 AST (2.5 TO), 1.0 STL, 0.6 BLK

There is a bit of a drop-off beyond the top four candidates, at least in terms of production. Tatum has no comparison with Jokić on traditional statistics or advanced numbers. The argument for Tatum rests solely on the fact that he is the best player on the NBA's best team (by a wide margin), and it is a decent one.

Tatum sacrificed touches in a loaded rotation, attempting fewer than 20 shots per game for the first time since he was 21 years old. He still takes more shots than Jokić, whose efficiency makes the scoring margin between them negligible. Jokić does everything else better but play the sort of versatile defense that makes Tatum (arguably) the field's most well-rounded candidate. There is nothing Tatum does not do well.

Yet, the Celtics have outscored opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions when Tatum is off the floor, almost as good as they have been with him in the lineup. Either mark is better than any other team in the league, and it is hard to rationalize Tatum's "value" over Jokić as a result, regardless of the reasons for those stats.

Without Jokić on the floor, the Nuggets collapse, operating at a nine-point deficit per 100 possessions, a net rating as bad as the Washington Wizards, and they are as dominant as the Celtics when he takes the court. When Tatum rests, Boston is still dominant, so there is no real way to get around that "V" part of MVP.

Anthony Edwards

  • Jokić (73/76 GP; 2,524 MIN): 26.4 PTS (64.6 TS%), 12.3 REB, 9.0 AST (2.9 TO), 1.3 STL, 0.9 BLK

  • Edwards (73/76 GP; 2,568 MIN): 26.1 PTS (57.4 TS%), 5.5 REB, 5.1 AST (3.1 TO), 1.3 STL, 0.6 BLK

Edwards plays one more minute and attempts two more shots per game than Jokić, and yet he scores fewer points per game. Jokić is better at the thing Edwards does best, and the Denver star's playmaking translates to having a hand in almost 20 points per 100 possessions more than his Minnesota counterpart.

Edwards is a better defender than Jokić on the league's best defensive team (by a wide margin), and that is the factor that has Minnesota in contention for the West's No. 1 seed — with a tiebreaker against Denver to boot. (Jokić averaged a 31-12-3 to Edwards' 26-5-5 in their three head-to-head meetings.) Edwards may also be the third-best defender on his own team, which curbs that advantage against Jokić.

Any edge is eliminated when you consider that Jokić's on/off rating is four times that of Edwards' on two teams tied for their conference's best record. The argument for Edwards is the same as Tatum, only worse, since the latter is more productive for a better team. And neither's numbers meet Jokić's higher standard.

Determination: Fiction. Nikola Jokić is your 2024 MVP.