There are only two contenders for this year’s NBA MVP: Nikola Jokic, the engine that towed the Denver Nuggets to the playoffs, and Chris Paul, the leader of a young Phoenix Suns squad which just reached the Western conference finals by ousting the Nuggets through a sweep.
Although this award is limited to regular season achievements only, it helped a lot that fate allowed these two to face off during the Western Conference semis to add more data in coming up with a resolution to who should win this award.
Before many of you protest, here’s why I eliminated the other contenders: (1) Stephen Curry, who majority took care of Golden State’s offense, would have been included had carried the Warriors to better seeding. He should be able to lead his team to win over other title contenders and the results of their games during the play-in prove this point. (2) Joel Embiid missed too many games and the Philadelphia 76ers still finished with the best record in the East, indicating he is not the sole reason for the rise. (3) I was tempted to include Giannis Antetokounmpo in this list because he means everything to the Bucks and without him Milwaukee might not even be in the playoffs but I considered his exclusion from the actual top three list a reason to also do the same.
Nevertheless, my top five is also the same five named above that finished top five in the actual voting, only with different ranks.
Here’s why either Jokic or Paul deserved the award:
Jokic made history by becoming the lowest drafted MVP. He was picked 41st during the 2014 NBA Draft, topping Antetokounmpo and Steve Nash, who were both drafted 15th.
Denver was coasting with a 30-17 when fellow star Jamal Murray tore his ACL on April 12 causing him to be out for the rest of the season.
Instead of folding, Jokic anchored Denver to an even better 17-8 record for the rest of the way. He averaged 31.4 points, 10.3 rebounds and 8 assists during that 25-game span to lead Denver to the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.
Oh, did I also forget to say that two more Nuggets backcourt members Will Barton and PJ Dozier also got hurt.
Jokic, who played the entire 72 games scheduled this season, averaged career-best 26.4 points and 8.3 assists and tying a career best 10.8 rebounds. He also stole the ball 1.3 times a game and shot an impressive 56.6% from the field, 38.8% from 3-point range and 86.8% from the foul line. The Nuggets outscored their opponents by 5.33 points when he is on the floor.
Just like Antetokounmpo’s case, Denver might not even be in the playoffs without Joker.
Paul’s situation reminded me of the Johnny Abbarientos/Jojo Lastimosa pair during Alaska’s 1996 grand slam year. [For non-PBA readers, Abbarientos was a young and raw NBA-caliber point guard who had better numbers while Lastimosa was the team elder who served as captain ball. He was their go-to guy during crunch time.]
There is no way Lastimosa would win MVP over Abbarientos under the selection criteria that year as the latter was clearly the better player with the bigger numbers. That might even be true when compared to Bong Hawkins, their power forward.
But Lastimosa was also clearly the guy who put Alaska over the top during those three conferences. Over Abbarientos, Hawkins, or even import Sean Chambers.
He provided the leadership for the team, the main source of scoring given the team had a non-scoring import in Chambers for both reinforced conferences, and the needed points when going gets tough.
Such was the case of Chris Paul. His numbers are inferior when compared to Devin Booker’s or even Deandre Ayton’s. But he is clearly responsible for being the leader of the team and provided the needed baskets during crucial times in the game where his younger might have folded had they were in charge.
Paul played 70 games and averaged 16.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 8.9 assists, and 1.4 steals while shooting 39.5% from the arc, 49.9% from the floor, and 93.4% from the line. The Suns outscored their opponents by 4.3 points whenever he is on the floor.
Not too shabby, huh.
Further, he is similar to Tom Brady’s value for the 2020-21 Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. [For non-NFL fans, Brady is an NFL quarterback who turned this professional football team with the worst all-time win-loss record into a Super Bowl champion during his first year with the team.]
Sure, Tampa Bay showed promise when they ignite a late 4-game tear during the 2019-20 season to finish 7-9, giving them lots of promise for the coming season.
Brady was not the only improvement the Bucs made during their run as they also acquired Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette and a number of rookies who went on to play a significant role during their title run.
But it was clear Brady was the main reason why the Bucs got the trophy.
Such is the case for Paul this year.
The Suns showed lots of promise this season as they went 8-0 during last year’s NBA bubble, missing last year’s playoffs just by a hairline to setup things for this year.
Paul was not the only improvement made as the addition of Jae Crowder and improvements in the games of Booker, Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and Cameron Johnson has a lot to do with Phoenix’s rise.
But it is clear Paul’s replacement of Ricky Rubio, like Brady in for Jameis Winston, is the main reason why the Suns reached the post season, ousted the Lakers in five games in the first round and swept Denver in the Western Semis.
It is still unclear when will he be eligible to be on the court again having been hit with COVID-19 but if he leads the Suns past the suddenly revitalized LA Clippers to get to the finals, the Brady comparison should be justifiable than ever.
Having a better finish breaks the tie
If I had been a voter, I am torn who to chose because both deserve the award.
I would agree to name Jokic as MVP based on the current criteria because he was undoubtedly the better player between the two this year. It is not even close as pointed out by many.
But when the word “valuable” rather than “best” is strictly considered, the Suns’ current impressive playoff run, including sending Jokic home himself, would justify me selecting Paul as this year’s real MVP.
This would be similar to what happened during the 1999 PBA awards. A more successful Benjie Paras and Danny Siegle beat the better player, more statistically dominant Sonny Alvarado for the MVP and Rookie of the Year award, respectively.
Teamwise, Paras and Siegle had far better results. Paras’ Shell appeared in two finals and won one, the All-Filipino conference while Seigle’s San Miguel bagged the other two conferences that year. Alvarado’s Tanduay Rhum lost to Shell in its only finals appearance.
Individual performance wise, Alvarado was undoubtedly the better player during the year. He led the league in scoring with 22.9 points, grabbed 13.1 rebounds, dished 3.9 assists, had 2.2 steals, and blocked 1.0 shot in 44 minutes while playing 48 games for the Rhum Masters.
In contrast, Paras averaged 15 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1 assist while playing 56 games for Shell and Siegle scored 19.2 points, grabbed 7.2 rebounds, issued 2 assists while playing 41 minutes in 55 San Miguel games.
The “valuable” word in “MVP” is more aptly applied to who causes his team to win it all. After all, winning the title is what teams are presumably playing for and these two franchises are still chasing their first ever title.
By Armando M. Bolislis