ESPN’s Kendrick Perkins believes Joel Embiid is the true MVP front-runner and implies that the reason Nikola Jokic is the favorite is because the criteria keeps changing and that benefits the Denver Nuggets big man because he is white.
“When it comes down to guys winning MVP since 1990,” Perkins said on “First Take.” “It’s only three guys that won the MVP that weren’t top-10 in scoring. Do you know who those three guys were? Steve Nash, Jokic, and Dirk Nowitzki. What do those guys have in common? I’ll let it sit there and marinate.”
It’s the hottest conversation in the NBA right now. Who is the league’s MVP? The consensus among the Las Vegas sharps, league analysts and media is that the three favorites are Jokic, Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Jokic is the clear favorite according to Vegas (-350) and the media. If he wins it will be his third straight MVP, and that is difficult for many fans to accept.
Is There A Racial Media Bias In Favor Of White Players?
What Perkins is implying broadly is based in historical facts. The NBA media, which is predominantly white, has pushed the play of very good white players to the forefront of the discourse around best players in the league.
From Larry Bird to Nash, Nowitzki, Jokic, and Luka Doncic, to the average Black NBA fan it feels like The Great White Hope is being forced on them.
The racial makeup of players in the NBA is predominantly Black (73.2%) and the viewers of the NBA, according to Nielsen, are majority racial and ethnic minorities including Black. Making the NBA the only major North American sport without a white majority viewing audience.
This is important context when trying to understand the disconnect at the heart of the league’s most important individual award.
So what is the criteria for MVP? Is it the best player on the best team? Is it the player that averages the most points per game on a really good team? Is it a player who has done something historic on an OK team?
To that end Perkins is right again. The criteria does seem to shift from year to year.
Let’s take a look at advanced stats.
Advanced Stats Are Just Math
Now the use of advanced stats like WS/48, EPM, RAPTOR, and LEBRON are also areas of frustration for many average fans. They feel it’s used to prop up a player like Jokic. But all it is, is math. We use math to figure out who wins games, it’s addition. We use math to determine points per game and all of the box score averages. Advanced stats like the name states is just advanced math.
It gives us more context to the numbers players put up. All 20 point per game scorers are not created equal and don’t contribute to winning equally either.
Thirty-two points and seven assists per game sound incredible and those are the averages for a great player, an all-timer. But those numbers are for a team three games below .500 and out of the last play-in spot.
Twenty-five points and six assists per game is also incredible, but less raw numbers than the player above. But this is the best player on a team 11 games above .500 and top three in their conference.
This is why counting stats only tell us part of the story.
Let’s look at WS/48. An estimate number of wins contributed by a player per 48 minutes. The length of a regulation basketball game. League average WS/48 is .100.
Why is WS/48 so important?
Because over the last 15 seasons it has been the most accurate predictor of league MVP. It tells us over the course of the regular season who impacted winning the most.
Did you know over the last 15 seasons the leader in WS/48 has won the MVP 12 times. The three times the WS/48 leader didn’t win, the winner was still in the top-10, but not the top-5.
Do you know who the leader in WS/48 the last two seasons and current leader this season is? He also happens to be the leader in EPM, RAPTOR, and LEBRON. He is also averaging 24.6 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 10 assists per game all for a team leading the Western Conference and a game behind best record in the league.
By the eye test and every relevant metric what Jokic does for the Nuggets is more valuable than what any other player does for their team. That is what the MVP is.
Only three men have won three straight MVPs. Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Giants of the game, legendary figures and champions.
This too is what fans can’t square with Jokic. He hasn’t won yet. The MVP is a regular season award. We give an award to the best player on the title winning team. It’s called Finals MVP.
The Media Got It Wrong With Steve Nash
Did Steve Nash deserve back-to-back MVPs? No. The evidence suggests there were more deserving MVPs. Did the media rush to anoint Doncic as the next great player in the league and valorize his style of play when it looks an awful lot like James Harden, whom the same media derided? Yes.
There are valid reasons for Black NBA fans to feel some type of way about the discourse around excellent white NBA players.
But those feelings don’t mean Jokic is unworthy of being a three-time MVP.