The Long Two NBA Awards, part III: MVP and All-NBA teams

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

This season delivered a fascinating and unique MVP race, but only one of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokić can take home the most sacred of the individual NBA awards.

With Rookie, Coach, Sixth Man, Most Improved, All-Defense and Defensive Player of the Year awards taken care of, it’s time to wrap up the week with MVP and All-NBA picks. Before we start, a note on criteria and process:

I interpret “Most Valuable Player” as the player who contributed the most to his team’s success on the court over the full 2021-22 season. Where a player’s team ranks in the standings only matters insofar as the player in question has influenced that success and a great team is not entitled to an MVP candidate solely because of its record. Availability is also a key part of the value, so the number of games each candidate played weighed fairly heavily into the MVP analysis.

All-NBA, to me, is more about identifying the best players than the most valuable, so games don’t play a significant role unless a player missed a huge amount of time (roughly 30 games or more). These picks are based on publicly available data and my own observations from watching the league this year; I also don’t have an official vote, so don’t sweat too much if we have disagreements.

All stats are courtesy of Cleaning the Glass, Basketball-Reference, and unless otherwise indicated.

NBA Awards: MVP

  1. Nikola Jokić
  2. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  3. Joel Embiid
  4. Jayson Tatum
  5. Trae Young

This season delivered one of the most fascinating MVP races in recent memory — three big men, all pushing the sport into uncharted territory with styles uniquely their own. The Sixers, Nuggets and Bucks are separated by two games in the standings (as of April 8), and Ginnis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokić have all posted historic individual numbers as clear heartbeats of their respective teams.

Antetokounmpo is a fire-breathing monster who gives Milwaukee incredible flexibility on both ends of the floor. His ability to teleport across the floor and erase shots at the rim makes Giannis the most versatile weak-side defender in the NBA, and he should appear on every All-Defensive ballot this season. (More on his Defensive Player of the Year case here.) Offensively, he might be the best scorer in the NBA: he narrowly trails Embiid in the scoring race, and Giannis’ true shooting percentage is over two full points higher than Embiid’s. He has added a more reliable mid-range jumper and post hook this season, and Milwaukee has scored 118 points per 100 possessions with Giannis on the court — a six-point improvement over when he sits.

His passing dexterity has also improved since he won his second MVP two years ago, and Mike Budenholzer has unleashed him more as a roll man and dribble-handoff operator this season. He’ll sling no-look dimes to corner shooters, feather bounce passes to cutters and fire lasers in transition, and working more often from the wings rather than the top of the key has helped clarify Giannis’ passing reads and made it more difficult for defenses to swarm him. Still, he trails Jokić by a significant margin as a playmaker, which was the main differentiator between the two on this ballot. Giannis also doesn’t have to do quite as much heavy lifting as his Serbian counterpart and has played eight fewer games on the season — not a disqualifier, but enough to count.

Embiid started the year relatively slowly but has clearly been one of the three best players in the league since December. Despite increased usage and assist rates, Embiid has maintained his scoring efficiency and reduced his turnovers, and it’s clear he’s processing the game faster than ever before. He’s become a reliable scorer from everywhere on the floor — including the foul line, where Embiid leads the league in makes and attempts — and demands that opponents send help when he goes to work on the block. It’s against those double-teams that his improved playmaking is most evident; Embiid’s ability to spot open teammates and even manipulate help defenders has helped the Sixers produce a 116.6 offensive rating when he plays and Philly is almost 12 points per 100 better overall with him on the court.

That offensive growth, however, has come at the expense of his dominant defense, which prevented him from offering the same two-way value Giannis does, and Embiid is still a level or two below Jokić offensively even with all of his new upgrades.

That leaves Jokić, who put up one of the best offensive seasons in NBA history, at the top of the ballot. His case, in a nutshell, is this: With Jokić on the floor, the Nuggets have the equivalent of the best offense, sixth-best defense and highest net rating in the NBA; without him, Denver’s marks would rank 28th in offense, 29th in defense and last in net rating. The reigning MVP’s individual numbers are up across the board, and even with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. playing nine combined games, Denver owns the seventh-ranked offense and 12th-best point differential in the NBA.

Though not touted as a dominant scorer, Jokić averages more points per 75 possessions than LeBron James or Kevin Durant, with a true shooting percentage nearly 10 points above the league average (the best mark among high-volume scorers). Yet his best skill, by far, is his ability to create for teammates, which has a greater impact on overall offense than individual scoring. Jokić is a singular passer who sees every cut, screen and defensive rotation and exploits them with surgical precision. That presents opponents with an impossible conundrum: let one of the best scorers in the league cook one-on-one, or double-team the best passer in the world. Either option is a losing proposition, which is what makes Jokić such a lethal offensive weapon.

Despite leading the NBA in touches per game, he ranks 47th in time of possession because he rarely holds or pounds the ball. Instead, Jokić constantly floats around the floor, pinging the ball to teammates, going back to retrieve it and pivoting into new actions until a shot materializes. Almost once every game, he throws a pass no one else in the league could even see, and that visionary playmaking creates demonstrable advantages for Denver’s offense.

Jokic leads all big men in points created via assist, and the Nuggets produce more than 12 additional assisted points per 100 with their center on the floor — mostly because they take way more layups and corner 3s. They shoot over seven percentage points better at the rim and 13 points better on floaters. Denver’s halfcourt offensive rating rises by nine points in Jokić’s minutes, and its efficiency in transition improves by 18 (!) points per 100.

Jokić doesn’t provide the defensive value Giannis or Embiid does, but he has been a solid defender this year. Denver’s 109.6 defensive rating with him on the court would rank seventh in the league, and a seven-point dropoff when he goes to the bench suggests Jokić has a lot to do with that. Opponents take a far lower share of shots at the rim, grab fewer offensive rebounds and get to the foul line significantly less often in Jokić’s minutes, and while he can’t challenge shots above the rim, he often turns would-be layups into floaters or short jumpers by meeting players higher out on the floor. Opponents take more shots from 4-14 feet and shoot almost six percentage points worse on those looks when Jokić plays, and he uses his quick, accurate hands to strip opponents as they go up to the rim.

Combine that with historic offensive impact and a seven- and eight-game edge over Embiid and Giannis, respectively, and the player who seems almost indifferent about the league’s highest individual honor has an exceedingly strong argument to claim it again.

Further down the ballot, the choices were less clear. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Ja Morant all missed over a quarter of the season, while Luka Dončić’s late surge still left his overall efficiency around the league average and Dallas’ offense merely above-average. DeMar DeRozan provided consistent, efficient scoring and crunch-time heroics for the Bulls, but he bleeds value on defense and isn’t a sharp enough playmaker to reach the absolute highest tier of offensive engines. Rudy Gobert is a generational defender and underrated offensive player, but his inability to create for himself or others caps his utility on offense. Devin Booker and Chris Paul have been almost equally central to the Suns’ dominance, and Phoenix’s strength lies more in its collective power than any one player’s contributions.

That left three candidates — Steph Curry, Jayson Tatum and Trae Young — for two spots, each with different but almost equally strong cases. Despite his shooting struggles this season, Curry remains a dominant offensive player capable of breaking defenses without even touching the ball, and a positive contributor to a top-three defense; he’s also missed 15 games, including the last nine. Young has been an even better offensive catalyst but remains an atrocious defender. Tatum has become an elite two-way wing without a clear weakness but also doesn’t single-handedly drive his team’s success on either end to the degree the others do. Which two you like most in that group is as much a matter of basketball philosophy as it is of each player’s value.

On a per-minute basis, even a diminished version of Curry is still better than all but four or five players in the league. Even in a down year, he leads the NBA in made 3s and ranks in the 100th percentile among guards in shooting efficiency, per Cleaning the Glass. As ever, he creates all kinds of openings for teammates with his off-ball movement and shooting gravity. Yet Golden State hasn’t been quite as devastating as in previous years with Curry on the court — a product of other players’ absences and Curry’s own decline — while Young has led the Hawks to a top-three offense despite several of his teammates taking steps back.

Atlanta has a 119 offensive rating in Young’s minutes, and only Dončić has higher usage and assist rates. Young ranks third in the league in assisted points created, has every pass in his bag, and is particularly adept at finding teammates underneath the rim for easy looks. His individual efficiency rose to a career-high despite the league cracking down on foul-baiting, and he diversified his shot selection to become a more reliable scorer against dialed-in defenses. Poor defense keeps him from cracking the upper echelon of the MVP ballot, but as offensive catalysts go, almost none were better than Young this season.

Tatum, meanwhile, derives his value from being an essential part of what the Celtics do on both ends of the floor. He doesn’t score or distribute as well as Young or Curry, but he’s become a reliable creator who played a more patient, team-oriented game this season. Tatum also provides significantly more value on defense than most offensive stars, and the Celtics’ plus-11.7 net rating flips to a minus-4.4 when he goes to the bench. In the absence of a clear pecking order, Young and Tatum’s edge in games played served as a tiebreaker, with Tatum’s high-end value on both ends narrowly edging out Young’s one-way dominance.

NBA Awards: All-NBA

First Team

G: Steph Curry, Trae Young

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokić

C: Joel Embiid

Second Team

G: Ja Morant, Luka Dončić

F: Kevin Durant, LeBron James

C: Rudy Gobert

Third Team

G: Chris Paul, Donovan Mitchell

F: Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler

C: Karl-Anthony Towns

Booker and DeRozan will undoubtedly appear on some MVP ballots, and it feels somewhat uncomfortable to leave both off the All-NBA team. But there are only 15 spots, and I see a few other candidates’ high-end offensive creation and sturdy all-around contributions as slightly more valuable. Both players have been fantastic individual scorers, but not so efficient in that area as to overcome the absence of another elite skill.

That wasn’t the case for Durant, who posted another absurdly efficient scoring season, and because games played don’t weigh as heavily in my All-NBA criteria, he and James go in over Tatum on the second team. Tatum was more consistent and available than James this season, but LeBron was a far more efficient scorer and vastly superior playmaker who still exerts a level of control over the game that few other players can. The Lakers’ defense suffered with LeBron on the court, but he was asked to play center for a lot of the season on a team with zero defensive infrastructure around him.

At his best, I might take a healthy Draymond Green over Butler, but Green’s inconsistency on offense and 36-game absence diluted his candidacy. Pascal Siakam has been on fire lately and nearly cracked the third team as a forward, but ultimately wasn’t quite consistent enough as a scorer, playmaker or defender to make the cut. DeRozan was as much the victim of playing at a stacked position as anything else. Meanwhile, Butler was a two-way bully this season — a versatile disruptor for one of the league’s best defenses, an efficient scorer inside the arc and a heady playmaker who catalyzed Miami’s movement-heavy system. He didn’t close the season as strong as Booker, Dončić or Siakam, but his steady contributions throughout the year merited inclusion over a handful of excellent candidates.

Butler’s inclusion slides Dončić, who performed a less devastating version of Young’s super-volume scoring and playmaking, to guard, where he joins Morant on the second team. The Grizzlies are almost five points per 100 better with Morant off the floor than with him on, mostly because they’ve been a defensive juggernaut in those minutes. But while Morant has his flaws on that end of the floor and has probably received a hair too much of the credit for the Grizzlies’ success, he’s too central to Memphis’ offense for that defensive discrepancy to keep him off an All-NBA team. The idea that the Grizz are a better team without him is… a stretch. James Harden fell just short of third-team consideration for bailing on the Nets, tailing off on offense and continuing to stink on defense.

That leaves just two spots for five guards — Chris Paul, Dejounte Murray, Darius Garland, Jrue Holiday and Donovan Mitchell — and there’s really no wrong choice. Unfortunately, that means there’s no right choice either, and all five have such different cases that weighing them against one another only makes the decision tougher.

Paul is an eminently reliable pick-and-roll orchestrator, the primary initiator of the league’s second-best offense and, somehow, still a solid defender at age 36. Mitchell spearheaded the best offense in the league as an undeniable three-level scorer, though he’s still a poor defender who doesn’t distribute as well as the league’s best offensive engines. Garland became a passing and scoring threat from everywhere on the floor and shouldered a huge workload for a team without another efficient creator. Holiday is a two-way ass-kicker who lacks a clear weakness anywhere in his game, plays elite on-ball defense and has led the Bucks to a robust point differential even without Giannis on the floor. Murray is by far the least efficient scorer in All-NBA consideration but does everything else at a world-class level.

Reasonable minds can disagree, but I slightly prefer Mitchell’s ridiculous offensive impact and Paul’s sure-handed playmaking to Holiday’s supremely well-rounded complementary game or Murray and Garland’s less balanced offerings. Even with Gobert and Mike Conley off the floor, the Jazz have been nearly unstoppable with Mitchell at the helm this year, and the ability to drive offense at that level might be the most valuable skill in the NBA. These are tough choices, and I’d have no problem with either Mitchell or Paul missing out in favor of another deserving candidate.

With Jokić and Embiid eligible at forward and center (we should really just do away with positions entirely), Gobert and Towns fit neatly into the second- and third-team center spots (apologies to Bam Adebayo, Jarrett Allen and Deandre Ayton). Towns made a strong case for the second team down the stretch while Gobert and the Jazz faltered, but Gobert’s combination of all-time defensive impact and centrality to Utah’s pick-and-roll-centric offense was a touch better than Towns’ historically singular scoring ability and mediocre (though still improved!) defense.

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