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The Knowable Unknown Of The 2023 NBA MVP Discourse Is Breaking Our Brains

BELGRADE, SERBIA - AUGUST 25: Nikola Jokic (L) of Serbia in action against Giannis Antetokounmpo (R) of Greece during the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 Qualifier game between Serbia and Greece at Stark Arena on August 25, 2022 in Belgrade, Serbia. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)
Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

Ten minutes and 40 seconds into a recent First Take debate segment with J.J. Redick, Kendrick Perkins posed the question. The two former players had talked past each other as Stephen A. Smith stared off into the middle distance for the entirety of the segment, neither pundit willing to accept the rhetorical terms of his opponent, until Perkins brought the discussion to its confusing apotheosis. "How in the hell do you know how another man is feeling inside?" A discussion that was ostensibly about Nikola Jokic's 2022-23 season had moved, slowly and contentiously, to the unknowability of the minds of others. Nice work guys.

"Who has earned the NBA's Most Valuable Player award?" is a seemingly straightforward question that has often generated a straightforward answer despite the glaring lexical uncertainty (how do you tabulate "value"?) at its center. The bloc of NBA media members that vote on year-end awards tends to act with great cohesion, and since 2007, no runner-up has earned half as many first-place votes as the winner. This year, however, the question has fractured the NBA media landscape, in a different way and to a more acute degree than even the famously contentious MVP debate of 2017.

The pitched battles fought over whether Russell Westbrook's triple doubles were illegitimate and how closely they could compare to James Harden's scoring, Kawhi Leonard's defense and 61 wins, or LeBron James's LeBron Jamedness were at times contentious, though the soldiers who fought those battles (including me) were at least forced to make a basketball case. A pro-Westbrook argument was fundamentally about basketball as spectacle. The Harden and Leonard cases were each other's opposites, and the MVP award is defined ambiguously enough for anyone's case to be a fundamentally rational one. The same should be true this year, though you would not know that if you tuned into the discourse.

Media luminaries like Perkins, Redick, and Bill Simmons aren't the only people making this all feel dumber and more high-pitched than it should be. People affiliated with MVP candidates will always campaign for their guys, though the tenor of the campaigning this season has soured to match the tone set by First Take. Nuggets coach Mike Malone has adopted a prematurely aggrieved posture in his defenses of his center. Sixers GM Daryl Morey is out here posting up a storm about how Jokic voters are dipshits, which is faintly nauseating for three reasons. He is suggesting that people are being stupid and misreading an obvious truth, when Joel Embiid's season is not unimpeachably better than Nikola Jokic's or Giannis Antetokounmpo's, and to do so makes him seem unreliable. Second, Morey is Mr. Too Damn Advanced Stats, and the advanced statistics universally support Jokic's candidacy. Finally, and most importantly, sir, you are an NBA general manager, stop posting. I don't want to make Twitter chatter the load-bearing strut of any opinion, but it's pretty histrionic there too.

That may be because the First Take kerfuffle is by far the most attention the MVP race has gotten this year. Notice that Perkins and Redick, red-faced and committed as they are, are not really arguing about basketball. If one were to boil down Redick's smug arrogance and Perkins's malignant confusion to a common substantive nugget, what they are arguing about is perception; whether the achievements of Nikola Jokic—the criteria of which they can't even agree on—are being adjudicated the correct amount of credit. Is he, as Perkins suggests, stat-padding and being rewarded for it by a mostly white NBA media subconsciously eager to gratify their unchecked internal biases? Or, as Redick asserts, is Jokic being blamed for the sins of others, standing to lose an MVP award he's obviously earned because voters, who in this telling are now more apt to make the correct decisions because of advanced stats, are squeamish about the ramifications of naming him the first back-to-back-to-back MVP since Larry Bird?

Perkins's unwillingness to make a basketball case for another player and Redick's inability to grapple with the question of race without reflexive defensiveness means the debate has stalled out, halting to a stop before considering the incredible seasons Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo have put together. The MVP meta-debate has thus eclipsed the MVP debate itself. To cherrypick a particularly illustrative example, white podcaster Bill Simmons and white podcast guest Chuck Klosterman recently discussed the MVP race, making a slim case for Jokic, bemoaning the fact that they'd be expected to bring "race stuff in this stuff that doesn't seem to have anything to do with race," while eliding said "race stuff." Then they talked about UFOs for a while.

In its purest form, the MVP debate is incredibly fertile discursive ground. The subjective nature of the award presents voters, observers, and fans with a sometimes pleasant, sometimes noxious degree of ambiguity. It also necessarily requires some grasp of NBA history. So when Kendrick Perkins repeats, as he has for as long as he's talked about this sort of thing on ESPN, that the goalposts are moving, he's half-right, in the sense that there's no objective basis by which to judge various candidates. Where he falls short is that there was never goalposts in the first place; it's not football, it's a free-response essay question.

The assertion that Nikola Jokic's case for the award is a fiction puffed up by vacuous statistical accumulation and reinforced by a complicit media elite willing to, at best, look the other way should be self-evidently false to anyone who was watched the Nuggets this season. Hell, the case for Jokic relies on statistics way less than it did last year, when his team was the sixth seed, as he is currently the best player on the best team in the Western Conference. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player on the best team in the Eastern Conference and Joel Embiid is the best player on an A1 title contender, so separating the three does rely on stats this year.

In this sense, Perkins's claims about the biases of the mostly white NBA media are worth taking seriously, not because he's right, but because the notion that basketball can be quantified by inaccessible statistics requires you to acknowledge the racial makeup of the quants behind it. Redick, unable to tell a point about systemic bias from a personal accusation of racism, took great offense to Perkins, and Perkins has gotten enough pushback that First Take issued a rare correction regarding the racial makeup of the NBA awards voting bloc. It's true that voters bring their subconscious biases to the subjective work of awarding the MVP. I don't think you can argue otherwise, though I also don't think that necessarily means it's an operative factor in Jokic's MVP candidacy.

The cases for the top three guys are each compelling. Antetokounmpo's team has the best record in the NBA, he is the best player in the NBA, he's putting up 31, 12, and 5.5, and he's a killer defender. Jokic is averaging a 24-point triple-double, is completely carrying his team when he's on the court, and that team has been in first place in the Western Conference throughout 2023. Embiid is at 33 and 10 with 1.6 blocks, the Sixers are awesome, and when he is locked in, he is probably the burliest defensive force in the league. Jokic holds a significant edge in all the advanced stats categories, and, to look in the opposite direction, Embiid's narrative candidacy is the strongest. Antetokounmpo has probably put together the best single-game performances. They're all perfectly defensible choices.

Wow, what a boring paragraph! Who wants to know that many things are possible and that some questions can't be answered? Maybe I should blame Nikola Jokic for getting scratched so often.

Here's something: The strongest evidence one can marshal in favor of any candidate isn't statistical, it's what you see when you watch the games. Advanced statistics have advanced to the point that we can approximate someone's flesh-and-blood production to a finer degree than we could 20 years ago, but it's still an approximation. The advanced stats say Nikola Jokic is one of the best defensive players in basketball. Considering how the Nuggets play exactly one coverage when he is on the floor and Jokic repeatedly gets blown by in the lane, perhaps the stats are just noise. Jokic is the current MVP favorite, which is interesting because one might point to the notion of voter fatigue, fatigue that plagued LeBron James at his prime yet is absent in Jokic's case. Jokic's candidacy is remarkably strong, and to have a superstar player miss out on a no-shit MVP solely because only a few guys have won three MVPs in a row, or because LeBron didn't get his, or because it would present uncomfortable questions would ultimately be a failure of judgment.

However, it's not a no-shit MVP case, and I am sympathetic to the idea that winning three in a row necessarily requires the winner to answer larger-order questions—Are you the best player in the league? Have you won in the playoffs?—that don't have anything to do with a regular season award like this. VORP alone can't transcend that, which is why it's good for the Jokic faction that his normal-ass case is so strong this year. I'm glad I don't have a vote, and, as a fan, I'm glad the race is so close that everyone will have to go all-out for the last 14 games of the season to sew up their case.

So, I think it's worth raising an eyebrow at everyone's stats. Not to ask "Are any of these guys stat-padding," but rather, "How accurately are their stats capturing what they do on a basketball court," or "Does it matter?" You can only answer that by watching basketball, which is supposed to be fun, unlike the MVP discourse.

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