NBA stars on why Nikola Jokic’s prior awards shouldn’t hurt 3-peat chances: ‘He’s playing like an MVP’
Nearly 15 minutes into an All-Star interview session, the Denver Nuggets’ back-to-back MVP was starting to get a little punchy.
“Do you care about winning the MVP?” a reporter asked.
“Yes,” Nikola Jokic answered, with a hint of exasperation in his voice.
“Because the last seven times, I said no,” Jokic shot back. “Now I’m just going to change it up.”
The truth is, Jokic seemingly couldn’t care less about the possibility of becoming just the fourth player in NBA history to win three MVPs in a row, joining Larry Bird (1984-1986), Wilt Chamberlain (1966-1968) and Bill Russell (1961-1963).
The two MVPs he has already won were followed by a second-round playoff loss in 2021 and a first-round loss to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors last season in a gentleman’s sweep.
While the MVP is a regular-season award, players’ reputations are truly forged in the postseason.
And Jokic readily admitted that he would trade them in for the chance to lead the Nuggets to their first championship in franchise history.
“If you win something collectively and something that everybody is striving to win, of course you’re going to change that for any ring or any opportunity to win something big,” he said.
While the Denver big man might be downplaying the importance of a third straight MVP, the fact is Jokic could be the guy to break the streak of eight straight back-to-back winners failing to make it a three-peat.
“I think you should be judged not on what you’ve done in the past, I think you should be judged on what you’re doing that season,” said Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, a two-time winner who came in fourth in 2021 when Jokic won his first. “If you’re able to win 10 MVPs in a row, win 10 MVPs in a row. I feel like Michael Jordan was one of the best players to ever play this game and he was always great, but he only won five MVPs out of 15 years he played, or LeBron [James] has won four MVPs out of 20 years.”
James won two MVPs in a row twice, in 2009-2010 and in 2012-2013. He came in third in 2011, when 22-year-old Derrick Rose won it (Dwight Howard finished second).
“You hear sometimes ‘voters fatigue,’ voting for the same guy year after year after year,” James said last Thursday, asked about the rarity of winning three straight MVPs. “But at the end of the day, if he’s the MVP and he’s playing like the MVP, then you should get it year after year after year.”
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NBA awards are voted on by a panel of around 100 media members who cover the league. If the straw poll of prospective ballot fillers conducted by ESPN’s Tim Bontemps is any indicator, voters aren’t tired of Jokic’s story — averaging a triple-double, ranking third in assists average and leading Denver to the top record in the conference — and will vote for him again.
In the NBA’s hypercompetitive environment, it’s often folly to expect opponents to heap praise upon one another, but Jokic had the support of several fellow All-Stars who don’t want to see him repent for repetitive excellence.
“Obviously it’s something that, you obviously want to win the award, for sure,” Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell said. “But I can’t lie. I don’t know if you all have been watching what Jokic is doing, it’s f—ing outrageous. … I definitely feel like I’m in that conversation as well, but he’s otherworldly and he’s been doing it at such a level.”
Mitchell rattled off several other candidates he believes deserves consideration, including Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Dallas’ Luka Doncic and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, whom he put neck and neck with Jokic.
“I think Joel needs to be highly regarded as well,” Mitchell said. “I think he gets highly disrespected. He’s a guy that consistently, every night puts on for his group. Even in the past year with the whole Ben [Simmons] situation not knowing who is going to be on the floor, he continued to carry his team. … If I had to choose, it would be between Jokic and Joel.”
Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant, who won the award in 2014, said Jokic’s case is self-explanatory.
“Ain’t they No. 1 in the West?” Durant pointed out. “He’s playing like an MVP.”
However, Durant said it’s a crowded field full of worthy candidates.
“I feel like seven or eight dudes could get it, so it’s like, at this point, you could close your eyes and pick any one of these dudes and they become MVP,” Durant said. “It’s based off, really, who you like as a person. I think that plays a huge factor in it.”
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In an effort to remove personal preferences from the equation, ESPN asked Tatum, who led the race in the first straw poll of the season, what he would consider when filling out an MVP ballot.
“Winning. Numbers. Moments. Availability. Just how valuable you are to your team,” Tatum said. “I think that’s probably what most people think of, to some degree. But for me, I think those would be the main points I would look at for who’s the most valuable player.”
Doncic, when asked the same question about the ballot, couldn’t narrow down the criteria.
“I mean, everything. Everything,” Doncic said. “What you did to make the team better. So, really, everything.”
Considering how the conversation around the award can become so nebulous, maybe Jokic had the right idea when asked if the MVP discussion affects him at all.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Jokic replied, eager to change the subject.