Nikola Jokic emerges as threat to swipe top spot on Stein's Most Improved ballot

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What a difference a Trimester makes.

At Christmastime, I thought Giannis Antetokounmpo had the NBA's Most Improved Player trophy pretty much wrapped up. He had quickly put himself on a pace to become the first player in NBA history to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals and field goal percentage. ‎The Greek Freak had risen to such prominence so quickly that, within weeks of our first batch of Trimester honorees this season, he was not only selected to his first All-Star Game, but voted in as a starter.

Who in the world could compete with that?

Nikola Jokic, naturally!‎

Jokic was so freakishly good in his own right in the season's middle third that he would be fully justified to ring us up and ask why he isn't our West MVP for the same reporting period.

How freakishly good?

In Trimester 2, Jokic posted a PER of 31.5, which ranks as the league's best in that span, as calculated by ESPN research ace Micah Adams.

Jokic averaged 21.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting a seemingly impossible 60.8 percent from the floor in just 29.4 minutes per game over that slice of schedule. Compare that to his numbers in the season's opening third: 11.0 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 23.7 minutes per game.

The improvement was so sharp and sudden that the Nuggets felt compelled to first nudge bruiser Jusuf Nurkic out of the rotation and then ultimately trade the 2014 first-round pick to Portland.

Thanks to the rise of Jokic, furthermore, Denver is unexpectedly the team several other Western Conference residents have been forced to chase for the West's final playoff berth. The Nuggets were 13-11, to be exact, in the 24 games Jokic played in Trimester 2; they went 1-3 in the four games he missed.

Jokic, in case you'd forgotten, was selected with the 41st overall pick in the 2014 draft, 23 spots after Nurkic.

That's Giannis-level madness.

From here, then, we won't even dare to make predictions about what happens next in this crazy MIP race. It's been too wild.

Instead of the usual overflow of candidates in this category, with voters typically struggling to choose between all the various types of MIP contenders that surface, Antetokounmpo and Jokic have made such dramatic leaps in stature that players like Harrison Barnes and Tim Hardaway Jr. scarcely get mentioned in this race.

That's the same Barnes, for the record, who has merely supplanted Dirk Nowitzki as the No. 1 offensive option in Dallas by hiking his scoring average from 11.7 points per game last season in Golden State to 20.2 PPG this season.

How on Earth are we going to choose between The Greek Freak and The Joker when official league award ballots hit our inbox in six weeks' time?

Excellent question.

One Trimester removed from what seemed like a runaway for Antetokounmpo, Jokic just joined Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins as the only players in the league ‎to average 20-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and 5-plus assists during the second Trimester.

As predicted by no one.