NBA MVP rankings: Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic pacing crowded field; Kevin Durant still carries great value

If you claim to be certain about who should be the NBA’s MVP at this point, more power to you. Personally — and I don’t think I’m alone here — I change my mind just about every night. The league’s talent pool has never been deeper at the top, and these huge performances are becoming such standard practice that it’s hard to even put them in perspective anymore. Dare I say we are all taking them for granted.

Nevertheless, here we are (or should I say, here the voters are, of which I am not one), tasked with the next-to-impossible duty of separating these top-of-the-food-chain candidates by the thinnest of threads. It’s like trying to decide who gets into Stanford or Harvard. Every one of these kids has a genius GPA and a moon-ball SAT score.

As it happens, we have our own acronyms in the NBA, and the guy who is once again sitting at the top of damn near every one of them is where I’m going to start. Entering play on Wednesday, January 11, here are mine very fluid MVP rankings.

  • Caesars Sportsbook odds: +325

PER (Player Efficiency Rating). VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). WS (Win Shares). BPM (Box Plus/Minus). RAPTOR (Robust Algorithm (using) Player Tracking (and) On/Off Ratings!) WAR, Total RAPTOR and Defensive RAPTOR. No matter how you feel about the NBA’s nerd-number movement, being No. 1 basically across the advanced-stat board, yet again, is not an accident. Jokic’s value to his team continues to be off the charts. (Yes, I know that’s true of every other guy on this list, too, but Jokic just stands a bit above the rest.)

Jokic — who has the second-shortest MVP odds on the Caesars board at the moment, trailing Luka Doncic — leads the league with 54.7 front-court touches per game. For reference, Doncic averages 33.9 touches per game. Does that mean Jokic controls more possessions? No, but it does mean that he’s not holding the ball for as long, enabling him to have multiple touches per possession. It’s why Denver’s offense flows so well. Jokic is the hub, but he only keeps the ball for an average of 4.4 seconds per possession, while Doncic controls it for nearly 10 seconds per possession.

That’s not a knock on Doncic, who is everything to the Mavericks both because he’s unbelievable and because they don’t have any other avenues to create consistent offense, whereas Jokic is working with the Nuggets’ championship-caliber roster with Jamal Murray back in the fold and Aaron Gordon, who has blossomed into a fringe All-Star since joining Jokic.

Still, this Denver roster doesn’t look so hot without Jokic making everything work, dropping by over 25 points per 100 possessions when he’s not on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. Put another way, when Jokic plays, Denver operates at an offensive rating that would rank as the best in history. When he sits, they have the worst offense in the league.

And it’s not just offense. Jokic’s defense has steadily solidified over the past few seasons, to the point where he is now the anchor of a formidable unit in saving the Nuggets an extra 3.9 points per 100 possessions when measured against a league-average defender. (That’s called Defensive Box Plus/Minus, and, yes, Jokic leads that category as well.)

Oh, by the way, the Nuggets are also tied for the top spot in the West, so Jokic, who is half an assist per game shy of averaging a triple-double, doesn’t have to satisfy the outsized burden of proof that he did last season when he won his second straight MVP despite the Nuggets finishing as the No. 6 seeds. If Denver remains atop the standings and Jokic keeps playing like this, he should become the league’s first three-peat MVP since Larry Bird in the mid-80s.

Two advanced-stat categories that Jokic doesn’t rule are Basketball-Reference’s Offensive Win Shares (OWS) and 538’s Offensive RAPTOR. Luka, who is the MVP favorite according to Caesars at the moment, leads those. And he’s second to Jokic in almost all the others. Doncic leads the league in scoring at 34.2 per game and his 61-20-10 triple double — the first such line in NBA history — is still fresh in everyone’s minds.

Doncic recorded three 50-plus games over the last week of December, and so far in January he’s gone for 39, 34 and 43-11-7 on Tuesday night vs. the Clippers, albeit in a loss. Most impressive, Doncic has the Mavericks, without anything close to a second All-Star (all due respect to Christian Wood, who has obviously been great) as a top-four seed in the West as of this writing.

There’s massive value here on the recently injured Durant, and if he gets back in a month and picks up where he left off, and especially if the Nets pull out the East’s No. 1 seed, he’ll be one of the favorites at the end. Unfortunately, I don’t see Durant holding this post in the short term through his absence, but he’s been so extraordinary this season that you could make a case that he should be at the top of this list at this moment.

Again, the margins here are miniscule. Durant is shooting 57 percent on seven midrange shots per game this season. He’s at 56 percent overall with a .637 true shooting percentage — a mark that includes 38 percent from 3 and a nearly 80-percent clip at the rim.

Those numbers, on the diet of highly contested looks on which Durant primarily survives, are nuts. Durant has also been the driving force behind a top-10 Brooklyn defense. His effort never wanes defensively. He makes the second and third efforts every time he’s in a position to do so. He guards tight on the perimeter. He rotates. Protects the rim. Goes back and forth between tasks seamlessly. He’s damn near as smooth defensively as he is offensively, which is obviously saying a lot.

Brooklyn’s season has completely turned around. This is the Nets team everyone envisioned when Durant came aboard. He has always given this kind of effort, but now, at least for the moment, he has the drama-free in-season support he deserves, and the Nets look like a top-tier contender because of it.

The best player on what has been, over the course of the season, the league’s best team. If you have Tatum top three on this list, or even at the top, you have a realistic argument. Tatum is averaging over 30 a game and is scoring 124.3 points per 100 shot attempts, per Cleaning the Glass, which is by far the most efficient mark of his career.

Tatum just put up a 29-14-10 triple-double against Dallas last week and did great defensive work on Doncic. Tatum is at the sweet spot in his career where he is at, or near, the height of his skill level but also young enough that he has something to prove every night. Tatum plays as hard as anyone. He’s chasing a title. He’s chasing MVP. He has risen to the elite ranks of the game but still lacks the hardware of those of similar status. It makes him even more hungry for something he’s close enough to taste.

Giannis is less than two weeks removed from becoming the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to record two straight 40-point, 20-rebound games, and he followed that with a career-high 55 points in a win over the Wizards last Tuesday. Giannis is again averaging huge numbers, but despite scoring almost 32 points per game, he isn’t having quite the same offensive impact as the other guys on this list.

That’s a high bar to clear considering the seasons Jokic, Doncic, Durant and Tatum are having, but that’s the deal in an MVP race this tight. The Bucks are a bottom-10 half-court offense, and the pull-up midrange shot that Antetokounmpo weaponized last season, only to watch it fall this season, figures into that (44 percent from 10-19 feet last season, 34 percent this season, per NBA.com). The Bucks have lost six of their last 10.

Still in the race

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