By TIM REYNOLDS – AP Basketball Author
The votes have been received. In the coming days and weeks, the NBA will announce the various honorees for this regular season. And while no one knows with absolute certainty where the trophies will go, this much is known: the MVP will be an international player.
Prepare for the story because it’s coming. The consensus seems to be that this season’s MVP will be either Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Jokic is from Serbia. Embiid from Cameroon. Antetokounmpo from Greece, with connections to Nigeria. When the winner is announced, it will be the fourth straight season that the MVP hasn’t been born in the United States — something that has never happened.
Neither does it: if Jokic, Embiid and Antetokounmpo finish the vote 1-2-3, in whatever order, it will be the first time in NBA history that the top three MVP vote winners have been foreign players.
Jokic is the reigning MVP and has made a brilliant case this season. An average of 27 points, 14 rebounds and almost eight assists per game are crazy numbers. Nobody has ever finished a season with these averages, which only further strengthens the case for Jokic going back-to-back.
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“I know I’m very biased. I admit that with all my heart,” said Denver coach Michael Malone. “The MVP is not even a competition. I mean there are other great players. I’m not saying they aren’t great players. But what Nikola Jokic has done with this team this year, with everything we’ve been through, is incredible. Last year he was good. He’s even better this year.”
Embiid won the scoring title averaging 30.6 points and nearly 12 rebounds. Throw in the four assists per game, and Embiid ended up with averages unseen since Bob McAdoo in 1975-76.
“I don’t do much campaigning,” said Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers. “Joel has struggled enough with his play.”
Antetokounmpo’s final scores in a season in which Milwaukee is defending the NBA championship were 29.9 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. The numbers are eerily similar to Antetokounmpo’s MVP season two years ago, right down to his 55.3% field goal ratio. And in terms of per-game averages, no one has racked up that many points, rebounds, and assists since Wilt Chamberlain in 1965-66.
“He sets the tone for everything,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer.
The international flavor of the NBA doesn’t matter that much anymore. It’s not a sprinkle, it’s not a garnish. It’s a very real — and highly talented — segment of the NBA player population, with the MVP leaders and Dallas’ Luka Doncic among those deservingly carrying the superstar banner into these playoffs, which begin with play-in games on Tuesday and then seriously with first – round games from Saturday.
Only Stephen Curry, who finished third last season, could stop the 1-2-3 finish Jokic-Embiid-Antetokounmpo in the MVP race a year ago. This year no one seems to stand a real chance of breaking up the trio. According to FanDuel Sportsbook, Jokic is the big favorite while Embiid and Antetokounmpo are the only others with a realistic chance. After: The fourth pick is Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns with 100-1.
It wasn’t an easy choice. Most of the awards were not given this season. The panel of 100 sportswriters and broadcasters covering and voting on the league is unlikely to agree on anything. And serious arguments can be made in many cases, particularly Defensive Player of the Year and All-Defensive Team, possibly the most subjective of all categories.
Coach of the Year has a lot of candidates. Rookie of the Year got messed up towards the end of the season. The All-NBA team is going to be a circus, especially since Embiid and Jokic are both centers and one of them either doesn’t make the first team or makes the first team as a forward. Either way, this is a travesty. The NBA still insists on picking an All-NBA team by position — two guards, two forwards, one center — in a league that has become largely positionless.
But the MVP is of course the big one.
If the definition is the player who is most valuable to his team, then it almost has to be Jokic. Without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets still made the playoffs because their center can do almost anything and do it better than almost everyone else.
When the definition is the most dominant player, the argument shifts towards Embiid. When he was at his best this season, he could not be guarded.
And if the definition is ‘best player’ – and that seems to have become the award – then it should be Antetokounmpo. He can always get the edge on offense and he’s back in the running for best defensive player. The dominance at both ends should not be underestimated.
Tim Reynolds is an NBA award selector and a national basketball contributor for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org
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