Many words, sensical or otherwise, have been spilled over the 2021-22 MVP race. Three candidates are under the spotlight: Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Joel Embiid. Nobody else approximates their performances. They’ve all ridden delightful campaigns to further stamp themselves into the league’s superstar pantheon and embolden their legacies.
Whoever your preference is among the three is entirely valid. None of them is a runaway favorite. I am not here to convince you of one over the other. I find such an endeavor frivolous and unnecessary. What I am here to do is celebrate these dudes. Each of them has ascended to MVP status in distinct signatures, which should reorient the conception of winning formulas.
Whenever a certain approach shepherds a prosperous run, whether it be individually or collectively, talking points about a dominant play-style best conducive to winning emerge. But the best play-style is always the one that tailors to your personnel and optimizes them; aiming to copy the blueprint of a different team with different circumstances often ends in disappointment.
As it pertains to these superstars, they’re all stressing the notion that one style is not preferable to another for winning. Playing your game sits chiefly among the recipe of success. They’re stalwarts in the MVP conversation, both this season and in the past, for wide-ranging reasons. Above all, you just need great players. Putting all your eggs into the basket of a specific archetype is a dangerous and generally fruitless endeavor.
Although an MVP is not a championship, I feel quite confident Jokic, Antetokounmpo, and Embiid could all be the best players on a title team. Antetokounmpo, of course, has already accomplished that feat and owns a Finals MVP trophy to confirm it. In the event the other two joined him on that mantle, they’d achieve it by carving their own lane to the honor.
This season’s MVP crop illuminates the versatility of the league’s contemporary superstars and makes clear the multifaceted paths to greatness. Extend the parameters to other superstars like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James, and the theme of uniqueness persists. Perhaps, there are similar plans to build around them, but the foundation of a championship begins with these dudes and that foundation is discernibly varied for each.
Consider Jokic, the reigning MVP and the betting favorite to repeat. He’s arguably the league’s foremost playmaker, a wizard of a passer who anticipates openings before they exist or whirls dimes without even checking to see if the angle is available. As easily as he breathes, he darts no-look skip passes from the high post, tosses over-the-head feeds to cutters, and sails sky-high outlets to streaking teammates. He’s conditioned us to shrug at some of his awe-inspiring passes because another is imminent anyway.
He also wields the most dexterous hands in the Association, stripping ball-handlers in pick-and-rolls, deflecting aimless passes, and pinballing rebounds into his orbit. His rim protection and mobility may be limited, but those paws of his render him quite the defender and he’d look even better defensively if Denver’s point-of-attack options weren’t so unreliable.
None of this even mentions his scoring. A season after the dude averaged 26.4 points on 64.7 percent true shooting, he topped that by virtue of 27.1 points on 66.1 percent true shooting. He finished sixth in scoring and fourth in true shooting. There are exceptions, but the players directly above and below him in the latter category are primarily lob threats. All of this happened while Jokic spent the majority of the year without his co-stars, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., available to lighten his workload and had to commandeer most of the Nuggets’ efforts.
Every night, his unorthodox shot-making resume mystified opponents. Whether it was one-legged faders at a mile-high release point, swirling finishes through a sea of limbs, or buckets through from wonky, bewildering angles, Jokic continually cemented himself as a premier scorer. His scoring season is truly magnificent and its brilliance cannot be understated.
The topic of magnificent scoring seasons brings us to Embiid, who became the first center since Shaquille O’Neal to earn the scoring title as he averaged 30.6 points on 61.6 percent true shooting. Much like Jokic, Embiid waded through compromised personnel for a sizable segment of the year to anchor his team to playoff relevancy.
In 2020-21, he diversified his scoring juices and dove into pull-up shooting en route to a runner-up MVP finish. This season, he expanded upon that and took 311 off-the-dribble jumpers, ranking in the 72nd percentile at 0.949 points per possession, according to Synergy. Only 31 players attempted more. None of them were the obvious backbone of a top-10 defense like him.
He’s a 7-footer who pilots fast breaks, splashes off the bounce like a star guard and can radicalize games defensively, both as a rim protector and malleable ball-screen disruptor. Embiid is no Jokic as a playmaker, but he absolutely grew in that department this year. From shoveling passes on the move in pick-and-rolls, pinging dishes to dudes in the dunker spot, or lasering skips to shooters, Embiid has become one of the NBA’s top facilitating bigs.
As the domain of his scoring gravity has broadened, his court vision has followed. He’s cognizant of the stress he inflicts on defenses and parlays that into comfortable looks for others. Sometimes, it’s a simple kickout sparking a swing-swing-swing sequence into an open triple. Maybe, he’ll load up into a jumper, see a defender shade help and fling a quick no-look read.
His development as a transition scorer typically manifests in breathtaking coast-to-coast buckets. Yet he’s also learned to generate cross-matches by pushing the pace, quickly gathering into his shot, only to audible and set up someone else for success.
Some of Embiid’s transition prowess is reminiscent of Antetokounmpo, albeit to lesser magnitudes. Antetokounmpo has seemingly reached a point where some of his regular-season greatness is now implied rather than audibly praised. That is not a criticism. It speaks to his caliber of superstardom that analysis drifts toward the playoffs with him now because the expectation is he’ll level up as the title hunt kicks off.
But to discount his incredible regular season would be to miss the previews of what may unfold in greater depth over the ensuing weeks and months. After a playoff run that bore witness to him extinguishing some half-court scoring foibles, Antetokounmpo looks even further removed from his early struggles against the Brooklyn Nets in last year’s second round. Although Jokic was the lone player to finish top 10 in scoring and true shooting percentage, Antetokounmpo was third and 12th, averaging a career-high 29.9 points on 63.3 percent true shooting.
Milwaukee deployed him in a number of facets, ranging from the mid-post to ball-screens to cutting and the traditional top-of-the-key face-ups. He’s prepared better than ever to flourish in half-court contexts. His footwork, craft, and patience as a driver are refined. If one angle is stonewalled, he’ll burrow his head, veer elsewhere, pivot into an opening and convert.
His intermediate game is notably more functional, thanks to a midrange pull-up and turnaround hook shot. By and large, he’s a much more diverse scorer. Plan A of a steamroll to the rim remains, but the backup options are much more trustworthy and tangible than prior years. He’s an exceptional scorer who sprays tantalizing passes to teammates and holds the title of league’s best weak-side rim protector.
In one form or another, these superstars sharpened components of their game from a season ago. Jokic better weaponized his hands defensively, both on the glass and in pick-and-rolls, and reached novel heights as a scorer. Embiid grew as a transition creator, pick-and-roll scorer and interior passer. Antetokounmpo evolved as a half-court hooper, torching opponents in newfound areas.
They’re all dominant in starkly multifaceted manners. For each, another step forward necessitated addressing different areas. Only one of them will win MVP, but their eclectic prestige should be applauded, not scrutinized in the hopes of uplifting someone else.
That eclectic prestige is a reminder of the versatility of superstardom and the importance of winning on your terms. A one-size-fits-all style for this league does not exist. The seasons of Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo embody that.