The Whiteboard: Giannis, Jokic, Embiid and the ‘big game’ case for MVP

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

The Whiteboard is The Step Back’s daily basketball newsletter, covering the NBA, WNBA and more. Subscribe here to get it delivered to you via email each morning.The 50-piece Giannis Antetokounmpo hung on the Indiana Pacers last night was noteworthy for more than a few reasons. It was the third 50-point game of his career and, on just 21 shots, one of the most efficient high-volume scoring games in NBA history — only three times in the 3-point era has an NBA player scored 50 or more on fewer shots.

Giannis’ huge game will also catapult him back towards the front of the MVP leaderboard, a race that (despite my caping for Ja Morant) has largely been winnowed to Giannis, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. Basketball-Reference’s MVP Tracker currently estimates the odds of one of those three winning MVP to be about 72 percent, with Giannis nestled just behind and Jokic and quite a bit ahead of Embiid.

The Basketball-Reference tracker is based on box score statistics and team record but past research has shown that stats like these only explain about 50 percent of the variation in final MVP voting results. The rest is, by extension, explained by narrative — the way voters evaluate the circumstances and context around a player’s performance. That aspect can be difficult to measure and predict but one way we can try to get at a piece of that puzzle is by looking at the propensity of each candidate for huge moments, signature games, like Giannis’ 50-point masterpiece last night.

Game Score is a single-game measure of player performance based on both positive (points, assists, etc.) and negative (turnovers, missed shots, fouls) box score stats. By Game Score, Giannis’ 50-piece against the Pacers was the seventh-best individual performance of the season. So far this season, there have been 46 games where a player has posted a Game Score of 35 or higher. Seven of those games belong to Giannis and four belong to Embiid. Jokic has posted just one — his 49-point, triple-double on Jan 19.

How often do MVP candidates Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic explode for a monster game?

This is part of a larger trend we can see if we look at a normalized distribution of each player’s Game Scores this season.

While each player has an average Game Score that is roughly similar, Jokic has been defined by his consistency while Giannis has been far more likely to explode for monster games.

For reference on what these levels equate to — Jokic posted a Game Score of 20.6 on Feb. 1 against the Timberwolves, with 21 points, 16 rebounds, 8 assists,1 steal, no blocks and 5 turnovers, shooting 6-of-12 from the field, 1-of-4 from beyond the arc and 8-of-9 from the line. He posted a Game Score of 29.8 on Nov. 15 against the Mavericks, with 35 points, 16 rebounds, 6 assists, no steals, 2 blocks and 3 turnovers, shooting 15-of-26 from the field, 2-of-6 from beyond the arc and 3-of-6 at the free-throw line.

This season, about 59 percent of Jokic’s games have come with a Game Score between 20 and 30, compared to 45.8 percent for Giannis and just 33.3 percent for Embiid. On at the high end of the spectrum, Giannis has posted a Game Score of 35 or more about once out of every seven games, compared to one out of every 11 games for Embiid and just once out of his 51 games for Jokic. If those rates hold we could probably expect another two or three games from Giannis on this level before the end of the season.

Things like voter fatigue, teammate injuries and how each team finishes the season will definitely play a part in the final vote. But right now, Giannis is making a strong push for his third MVP in four years.

Get The Whiteboard delivered daily to your email inbox. light. SUBSCRIBE

Other NBA stories:

Frank Vogel’s lineups, specifically how he’s used (or not used) Russell Westbrook, have gotten plenty of attention this season. But it’s time to get even more creative.

The Utah Jazz may have slipped out of the top three in the Western Conference, but there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their chances of finally breaking through in the playoffs.

Where would the Cavs be without Kevin Love this season? (And how fun is it that we get to say that again!)

The Bulls have been ravaged by injuries but the buyout market should be loaded with strong possible additions, even if they don’t land Goran Dragic.

Davis Bertans spotting up in the corner is going to be a very good thing for the Dallas Mavericks.

Looking for more good stuff to read? Sign-up for email newsletter service The Sample. You set your interests (sports, politics, science and more) and every day they’ll send you one edition of a new email newsletter to try. If you like it, subscribe with a single click. If you don’t, delete and you’ll never see that one again. Best of all, for every person who tries the sample through the referral link above, The Sample will help a new subscriber find their way to The Whiteboard.