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Analysis: On the NBA MVP Race, and Its International Flavor

The votes are in. Over the coming days and weeks, the NBA will announce the various award-winners for this regular season. And while nobody knows with absolute certainty where any of the trophies are going yet, this much is known: The MVP is going to be an international player.

Again.

Prepare for history, because it’s coming. The consensus seems to be that this season’s MVP will be either Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Jokic is from Serbia. Embiid from Cameroon. Antetokounmpo from Greece, with ties to Nigeria. When the winner is revealed, it’ll be the fourth consecutive season in which the MVP won’t have been born in the U.S. — something that has never happened.

Nor has this: If Jokic, Embiid and Antetokounmpo finish 1-2-3 in the voting, in whatever order, it’ll mark the first time in NBA history that the top three MVP vote-getters are foreign players.

Jokic is the reigning MVP and made a brilliant case this season. Averages of 27 points, 14 rebounds and just under eight assists per game are crazy numbers. Nobody has ever finished a season with those averages, which only further strengthens the arguments for Jokic to go back-to-back.

“I know I’m very biased. I admit that wholeheartedly,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “The MVP isn’t even a competition. I mean, there’s other great players. I’m not saying they’re not great players. But what Nikola Jokic has done this year, with this team, with everything we’ve had to go through, is incredible. He was good last year. He’s even better this year.”

Embiid won the scoring title, averaging 30.6 points and almost 12 rebounds. Throw in the four assists per game, and Embiid finished with averages that nobody has had since Bob McAdoo in 1975-76.

“I don’t do a lot of campaigning,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said. “Joel has campaigned enough with his play.”

Antetokounmpo’s final numbers in a season in which Milwaukee is defending the NBA championship were 29.9 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. The numbers are eerily similar — right down to his 55.3% field goal rate — to Antetokounmpo’s MVP season two years ago. And in terms of per-game averages, nobody has averaged that many points, rebounds and assists since Wilt Chamberlain in 1965-66.

“He sets the tone for everything,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

The international flavor of the NBA isn’t so much of a flavor anymore. It’s not a sprinkle, not a garnish. It’s a very real — and highly talented — segment of the NBA player population, with the MVP leaders and Dallas’ Luka Doncic among those deservedly carrying the superstar banner into these playoffs that start with play-in games Tuesday and then in earnest with first-round games beginning Saturday.

Only Stephen Curry, who finished third last season, stopped the Jokic-Embiid-Antetokounmpo 1-2-3 finish in the MVP race a year ago. This year, nobody figures to have a real chance to break up the trio. FanDuel Sportsbook says Jokic is the heavy favorite, with Embiid and Antetokounmpo the only others with a realistic chance. After that: the fourth choice is Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns, at 100-1.

It wasn’t an easy choice. Most of the award choices weren’t this season. The panel of 100 sportswriters and broadcasters who cover the league and did the voting probably won’t be in unanimous agreement on anything. And serious arguments can be made in many cases, particularly defensive player of the year and the All-Defensive team, quite possibly the most subjective of all the categories.

Coach of the year has a slew of candidates. Rookie of the year got muddled toward the end of the season. The All-NBA team will be a circus, especially since Embiid and Jokic are both centers and one of them will either not make the first team or make the first team as a forward. Either way, that’s a travesty. The NBA still insists on choosing an All-NBA team by position — two guards, two forwards, one center — in a league that has largely gone positionless.

But the MVP is the big one, obviously.

If the definition is player most valuable to his team, then it almost has to be Jokic. Without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets still made the playoffs because their center can do just about everything and do it all better than just about everyone else.

If the definition is player that was most dominant, the argument shifts toward Embiid. When he was at his best this season, he couldn’t be guarded.

And if the definition is best player — which is what the award seems to have become — then it should be Antetokounmpo. He can get to the rim whenever he wants on offense, and he’s in the conversation again for best defensive player. The dominance at both ends can’t be understated.

 

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