The NBA media stole Jokic’s MVP

How false media narratives control the NBA’s most prestigious regular season award.
The NBA media stole Jokics MVP

The National Basketball Association, commonly referred to as the NBA, is the premier basketball league in the world, yet the 2022-2023 NBA season was tarnished by a botched decision: the decision to give the NBA MVP to Joel Embiid over Nikola Jokic. Beyond on-court performances, media narratives played a pivotal role in swaying MVP discourse.

To understand the MVP inaccuracy, you have to understand the MVP. The NBA defines the award: “The NBA Most Valuable Player Award (MVP) is an annual National Basketball Association (NBA) award given since the 1955–56 season to the best performing player of the regular season.”

NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024 (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

While the NBA’s definition of the criteria is ambiguous, they have consulted with basketball experts to provide a more in-depth interpretation.

Steve Aschburner summarized, “The MVP is the best player on the team with the best record. Unless it’s the star who has done something statistically and artistically masterful over the 82-game, regular-season canvas.”

The late Sekou Smith gave his analysis: the MVP is “Someone who can combine elite-level proficiency on both ends of the floor, who impacts the game in all facets and does it on a consistently brilliant basis while also lifting his team up to the next level.”

Furthermore, the NBA MVP is a player who wins games, passes the eye test in a large sample size of games, and is statistically dominant at both ends of the floor. Once the guidelines for MVP are condensed in this manner, it’s clear that the most deserving candidate for the 2023-2024 NBA MVP title is none other than Nikola Jokic.

Nikola Jokic is a Serbian professional basketball player who is a center for the Denver Nuggets. Nicknamed “the Joker,” he is regarded as one of the greatest players and centers of all time. Jokic is a 2x back-to-back MVP, 5x NBA All-Star, and 1x NBA Champion (2022-23).

Contrasting “the Joker” is Joel Embiid: the eventual 2022-2023 MVP winner. Embiid is a Cameroonian professional basketball player for the Philadelphia 76ers. Joel has nicknamed himself “the Process.” Embiid is the first center to lead the league in scoring in back-to-back seasons since Shaquille O’Neal and is a 6x NBA All-Star.

Surely, both Embiid and Jokic are generational talents, but this begs the question: who fit the criteria for MVP better?

Criteria 1: games won. Both the 76ers and the Nuggets had prolific NBA regular season campaigns. Embiid’s 76ers went 54-28 finishing third in the East while Jokic’s Nuggets went 53-29 finishing first in the West. Although it may appear “the Process” had more team success, because he had one more team win than Jokic, deeper statistical analysis shows that “the Joker” slightly edges Embiid out in this category.

Embiid missed 16 games of the regular season to Jokic’s 13 misses. Jokic’s presence also proved more impactful as the 76ers won 81% of games without Embiid while the Nuggets only won 45% of games without Jokic. The Nuggets, most importantly, won when it mattered most, coming first in the West compared to the 76ers third in the East.

Criteria 2: the eye test. Medium summarizes “the eye test” well: “‘The eye test’ is the principle of judging athletes’ talents and potential based on watching their performances alone.”

NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, in Philadelphia.

This is a subjective test, and there are varying opinions on whether Embiid or Jokic pass the test better, but “the eye test” is predominately used by supporters of Embiid to claim that Jokic supporters are just nerds.

Mike O’Connor, a NBA writer, shared this opinion tweeting, “Joel Embiid is gonna win the scoring title and is a top-5 defensive player in the league and isn’t gonna win MVP because another guy has a better VORP” What this argument fails to understand is that Nikola Jokic is not only a statistical anomaly but the best player in the league. Even through the lenses of an eye test, Jokic’s generational playmaking, ludicrously consistent levels of production, and underrated defense all contribute to the subjective case that Jokic just looks better on the court.

Criteria 3: statistical dominance on both ends of the floor. This criteria is the bread and butter  comparison that can be objectively analyzed.  It looks at which player is statistically better on paper. Here is a hint: it’s Jokic.  Let’s compare their statistics.

In 2022-2023, Embiid led the league in points per game, the strongest statistic for his MVP case, averaging 35.1 to Jokic’s 25.5, and Embiid averaged 1.7 blocks a game to Jokic’s 0.7. Slightly less impressive, Embiid’s base player efficiency rating was 34.4 to Jokic’s 31.1, but the wins stop there for Embiid. Jokic led Embiid in games played, total rebounds, assists, field goal percentage, and most impressively win shares. Furthermore, the cracks in Embiid’s MVP case crumble when the supposed “nerds” bring up advanced statistics. “The Joker” leads Embiid in nearly every crucial category: player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage, and box plus-minus. Most importantly, Jokic’s 8.8 value over the replacement player (vorp) leads Embiid’s 6.4 vorp. This is a staggering difference that shows just what the MVP race is all about: value. Jokic’s value is not only seen in his vorp, for he is one of only three NBA players to ever average at least 25 points and eight assists per game with a usage rate of less than 30 percent.

With Jokic seemingly leading or competitive in all MVP criteria, how did he lose? Ultimately, the MVP award is determined by a panel of sportswriters and broadcasters. The media deciding the MVP makes the award inherently susceptible to bias, and the 2022-2023 MVP fell victim to the viral media narratives.

Jokic’s 2022-2023 MVP campaign was first plagued by the problem of voter fatigue. After winning the award in the previous two seasons, some voters were hesitant to give Jokic the nod once again. Sam Amick, who voted for Jokic in each of his first two MVP runs, acknowledged the idea of voter fatigue stating, “The short answer is yes, it exists […] When a certain player has won the award in back-to-back seasons, especially, you take the historical factor into play.”

Additionally, Jokic’s bid for MVP was hindered by the noise of a loud and controversial ESPN analyst: Kendrick Perkins.

Perkins, a former NBA player and current analyst, led the charge on the campaign to debase Jokic’s candidacy by stirring up noise and controversy.

In modern 24-hour sports media, there constantly needs to be a topic or focus point to discuss. Perkins thrives in the format, for he always has a bone-headed or controversial opinion to share and defend.

To create more buzz , Perkins went on ESPN and said, “80% of NBA voters for the MVP award are white,” suggesting that black players like Embiid are at a disadvantage in the MVP race when competing against white players like Jokic.

Jokic & Embiid lock eyes in a NBA game. (National Basketball Association)

This statement is objectively not true, which ESPN essentially admitted the following day when it issued a public correction. Perkins’s ESPN co-host Molly Qerim stated on behalf of ESPN, “When Kendrick Perkins said 80% of NBA voters for the MVP award are white, the NBA publicly announces the voters each year, and after review, it is clear the panel is much more diverse than what was portrayed by Kendrick Perkins and we wanted to make sure we corrected that today.” Perkins’s statement went viral. As NBA legend Charles Barkley commented, “Does he know how many voters are white actually or did he pull 80% out of his a**? My point is if only five White guys have won MVP in the last 30 years, that makes zero sense. His argument. Zero sense.” Perkins and those who mindlessly repeated his take made the MVP award something other than basketball, which diluted the integrity of the award.

Finally, Perkins and some in the NBA media threw around the term stat-padding. Wikipedia defines stat-padding as an action that improves a player’s statistics despite being of little benefit to their team or its chance of winning. Perkins took to ESPN to claim Jokic was stat-padding and that his team intentionally shoots, regardless of the quality of the shot, as soon as he passes them the ball in order to get Jokic an assist. He also believes Jokic is intentionally giving up shots in favor of passes in an attempt to accumulate assists.

This argument is beyond the realm of logic and reason. Jokic’s Nuggets were the winningest team in their division. The Nuggets were also unbeaten when Jokic secured a triple double. To say Jokic’s elite efficiency and playmaking are stat-padding when his team is winning at the highest level directly contradicts the definition of stat-padding.

If the voters for the Most Valuable Player award are getting tired of seeing the same player win year after year, then the NBA should reconsider its criteria and set some parameters. While Embiid had an impressive season that could have been MVP-worthy, that was not how Embiid’s MVP campaign was discussed.  It was less about Embiid’s performance on the court and more about getting in digs at Jokic.  In sum, the NBA and voters need to reevaluate how the MVP is awarded and judged, so the criteria are objective and can be justified.

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    Roy StanforthFeb 2, 2024 at 12:26 pm

    Great article, you made a strong case based on Jokic’s stats and credentials. You also covered today’s media (including sports media) of creating news instead of reporting news.