Narrowing down to one name for Most Valuable Player is widely billed as the primary source of agony for NBA year-end awards voters this spring.
Not so at Stein Line HQ.
For all of our collective MVP angst this season, I found myself wrestling with the Most Improved Player ballot just as strenuously. Trying to choose between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic is a struggle akin to spelling or pronouncing Antetokounmpo, which remains problematic for just about everyone in the league, even in our fourth year of trying.
The Greek Freak ultimately snagged our vote. We simply couldn’t resist rewarding him for hiking his player efficiency rating from 19.0 to a ridiculous 26.2; for emerging as the first player in league history to rank in the top 20 in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks; and for literally getting better at everything.
No matter which category you laser in on, Giannis did it better than he did last season, powering the Bucks to his first winning season in the NBA despite the fact that Antetokounmpo and his top two sidekicks — Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton — played in exactly one game together. (Less than one game, actually, as Parker got injured during Middleton’s comeback game.)
The transformation from League Pass curiosity with tons of obvious promise to All-Star starter is also one of the most impressive leaps we can remember.
Jokic made this increasingly tricky as the season wore on, sneaking up on his own team like pretty much no one we can remember. Entering December, Jokic sported a solid but modest PER of 16.3, ranking him 88th among players averaging at least 10 minutes per game at the time. Since then? Jokic has a PER of 28.8 from December on, ranking second in the whole league behind only top MVP contender Russell Westbrook (31.1).
You can thus make the argument that Jokic, as this season unfolded, morphed from a mere top-100 player into a legitimate franchise player. Which naturally makes you wonder — on top of Denver’s issues in one-possession games and on the defense that we detailed in the season’s final Power Rankings, as well as the ill-fated Jusuf Nurkic trade — how differently the Nuggets might have turned out had Jokic been made a full-time starter sooner.
Just settling on a third name for this ballot is a problem, thanks to the rise of Harrison Barnes in Dallas, Atlanta’s blossoming backcourt duo of Dennis Schroeder and Tim Hardaway Jr. and one of our favorite stories in the league: Miami’s James Johnson. (It’s reached the point that the mere mention of Johnson’s name, as a worthy candidate in both the Sixth Man Award and MIP races, has us wanting to call the Heat to see whether we can talk them into launching a program for making over sports writers’ bodies.)
This was also an unusual season in that several established players, who normally wouldn’t be candidates in this category, forced us to rethink those norms because they made such impressive jumps. (Just to name five: Isaiah Thomas, Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker, Bradley Beal and our 2016 MIP selection CJ McCollum.)
Yet we ultimately couldn’t resist Rudy Gobert in our No. 3 slot. Not after the considerable improvement Gobert made on offense (averaging career-bests in points, rebounds and field goal percentage) while also leading the league in blocked shots. He has established himself as one of the league’s consensus top-three defenders alongside Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard.
Jokic or even Gobert, frankly, would be a worthy MIP winner. But Giannis, in the end, has to trump them all. With as much room for growth as he still has, should he find a way to sharpen that outside shooting, Antetokounmpo exceeded even the most favorable projections for his development in Year 4. He probably should be a bigger factor in this season’s MVP discussion and presumably will be next season and beyond.
As we said after the First Trimester: Make it easy on yourself for the rest of the season while you can and just tell yourself that Antetokounmpo is pronounced M-I-P.
Official ballot: 1. Antetokounmpo; 2. Jokic; 3. Gobert.
October prediction: Aaron Gordon.