Should Luka Doncic be an MVP Candidate?

It’s the question that no one is asking. Inexplicably, I might add. It’s the question that, inexplicably, no one is asking. Why is it inexplicable? Because Luka Doncic might actually the most valuable player in the NBA right now. But in the interest of fairness, let’s look at things a little more closely.

Who’s Immediately Out?

We immediately rule out anyone on the Lakers or Nets for MVP. The Nets have too much talent, and if you took Kevin Durant away I’m sure the team would be worse, but not as bad as the Mavericks would be without Luka. On the West Coast, the Lakers are terrible. The Lakers without LeBron would be a last place team, but with LeBron they might make a play-in playoff game. I suppose that should mean LeBron is in the conversation for MVP, but is saying that your already underperforming team would be even worse without him a real vote of confidence in his ability?

We can also likely rule out any other players who have a legitimate second star on the team. This rules out Joel Embiid because James Harden decided he wanted to play this year. I know that is a controversial ruling, and frankly prior to the Harden deal I think Embiid would probably have been a great candidate, but he is no longer the most valuable player on his team because if he goes down there is still a legitimate scoring threat on the floor. This also rules out Devin Booker because even though there’s not a true second star on the team, he relies almost entirely on big man Deandre Ayton for rebounding and needle-threading aficionado Chris Paul for assists.

Who’s Left?

In my mind there are really only four true MVP candidates:

Nikola Jokic, Ja Morant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Luka Doncic.

Let’s take them each in order.

Nikola Jokic

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The Joker. What a great nickname, right? I have a real soft-spot for Jokic because I, too, never looked as athletic as I was and prided myself on being a big man who could pass. There’s something about watching a slow, lumbering guy who looks like in different circumstances he’d be a low-level enforcer in the Serbian Mafia make younger, more athletic dudes look foolish by leveraging his size and basketball brain. He’s an incredibly smart player, as one has to be to get to the best basketball league in the world while also being unable to jump over a deck of cards.

More importantly, however, the Nuggets would be awful without him. He’s averaging 25.9 points, 13.8 rebounds, 8.1 assists, 1.4 steals, and 0.8 blocks per game, each of which leads the team. Let me restate that: A guy who is 6’11”, weighs 284 pounds, and would undoubtedly record the slowest every forty-yard dash time in NFL combine history had he played football, is leading a playoff team in the best basketball league in the world in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. the Nuggets are 10–16 all time when playing without Jokic, and frankly I can’t believe the record is that good. But that’s the deal: Jokic is by far and away the most valuable player on the Denver Nuggets roster.

I make no secret of being a Mavericks fan, but right now I would have to say Jokic is the frontrunner. There aren’t even very many good arguments against him. At one point in the season we could have pointed out that Denver wasn’t performing well, but they’re 9–1 in their last ten games and have a 2.5 game lead over seventh-place Minnesota in the West. He’s the best player on a hot team that will make the playoffs, and it’s tough to argue with that.

Ja Morant

Ja Morant is averaging 27.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 6.6 assists per game for the Memphis Grizzlies, who are currently in second place. Ja is electric. He can hit jumpers, he can leap, he can even have an absurdly impressive block every now and again.

I mean…right? Holy crap, dude. That is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in a basketball game. It actually adds to the beauty to know that the only reason he was in a position to make that block is because he turned the ball over. But wow. Even the still shot is nuts. Look at where his head is relative to the backboard. Unreal. To me that block should be enough to just mention him as an MVP candidate, and personally I think that should make some “100 best defensive plays in the history of professional sports” list somewhere.

But onto the actual discussion of most valuable player. Ja has a solid support system, with three other Grizzlies averaging at least 15 points per game. But there is a very glaring flaw in all arguments for Ja: The Grizzlies are 12–2 without him this year. A team that goes 12–2 without its best player on the floor is a good team, and their consistency really provides an unfortunate but very logical argument against Ja as an MVP candidate. After all, how can anyone claim to be the most valuable person to any organization if that organization succeeds 61.5% of the time with them (32–20 record with Ja on the floor) and 85.7% without them (12–2 without Ja on the floor). Ja is undoubtedly a phenomenal player who I am looking forward to watching for the next several years, but I don’t think he’s your MVP this year.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

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Giannis is so, so good, man. He leads the Milwaukee Bucks in points per game (29.2) and rebounds per game (11.6), and the Bucks are also the third-best team in the Eastern Conference right now. Lately they have played under their potential, going 6–4 in their last ten games. But Giannis also has a really great sidekick in Texas A&M product Khris Middleton. Middleton is averaging over 20 points per game this season, and is coming off a 44-point explosion in a win over the Phoenix Suns this past Sunday. Oh yeah, Middleton is also averaging 5.5 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game, meaning his impact is being felt all over the court and not just with regard to buckets.

Weirdly, I think Khris Middleton might be the weak point in any argument for Giannis as MVP. Middleton has missed twelve games this year, and the Bucks are 5–7 without him. Giannis has missed 11 games and the Bucks are 6–5 without him. Of course, those are not end-all, be-all statistics, but it does show to some degree how important a guy like Middleton is to Milwaukee’s overall success. I’m not sure Giannis could carry the Bucks without some help from Middleton. Basketball is a team sport and none of the players currently in the league could legitimately carry a team like LeBron carried the Cavs in the 2006–2007 season. But Giannis is more reliant upon teammates than, say, Jokic, which at the very least means Giannis should be second in MVP voting at the very highest. But there’s still one more guy to talk about.

Luka Doncic

A breakdown of every reaction to Luka Doncic's put-back dunk - Mavs  Moneyball

The reigning Western Conference Player of the Month is averaging 28.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game, each of which is a team best. In his last ten games the Mavs are 8-2, and Luka has averaged 35.7 points per game, which includes outbursts of 41, 45, 49, and a career-best 51 in that span. Last night he grabbed SIXTEEN rebounds, doing his best impression of Charles Barkley as an undersized rebounder. In the sixteen games he has missed this season the Mavericks are 7–9. And sure, he started slow and looked like he might have indulged in one too many meals from McDonald’s during the offseason, but for the past couple of months he has been the Luka we have come to know and love.

And sure, the Mavs had Kristaps Porzingis complimenting Luka before he was traded to the Washington Wizards about eight games ago. But Porzingis actually played in fewer games than Luke did during that same stretch, and frankly the two of them never really seemed to be on the same page. I love KP’s game and I hope he has a lot of success in Washington, but this is Luka’s team and getting KP away from Luka might have been the MVT (most valuable trade) to happen in the NBA this year. Now Luka has help in the scoring and ballhandling departments with the addition of former Wizard Spencer Dinwiddie, who aside from having my favorite name in the NBA has also allowed Luka to be more of his MVP-caliber self.

Since the addition of Dinwiddie the Mavs are 1–0 in games without Luka, but to be fair that was a nail-biter of a win against the abysmal Sacramento Kings, so I don’t think we can honestly say the Mavs don’t lose a huge portion of their team chemistry when Luka isn’t there. Removing Luka from the Mavs makes them a play-in game team at the most optimistic, and even that is only because of how inconsistent the Lakers are. I’ve been able to watch about 80% of the Mavs games this year and I can tell you from years of watching basketball that the Luka-less Mavs would struggle to get to .500, and likely wouldn’t get above .400 or so.

Conclusion

There are other people who should get some love. Devin Booker, DeMar DeRozan, maybe even the injured Kawhi Leonard now that we’ve seen how very average the Clippers are without him (kidding). But really in my mind it’s a two-man race between Jokic and Luka right now. If you removed either of those guys from their respective teams, what’s left would be unrecognizable as a passable basketball team.

Maybe Luka isn’t getting the MVP love he deserves because of some of his behavior. He whines WAY too much at officials, he tried a laughably bad flop last night in an effort to upset Rudy Gobert, and despite the fact that the frequency has gone down, he still takes very bad, unnecessary step-back threes on occasion that make him look like the all-hat-but-no-cattle type of player you see at LA Fitness on any given Sunday afternoon.

Who knows, though? People love a dark horse candidate, and right now that’s what Luka is. Whoever wins, this is going to be an exciting stretch of basketball for everyone in the league, and ultimately MVP awards don’t stack up to NBA championships, so I suppose we could be revisiting this in June to see how things played out.

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