Updating the NBA MVP race: Jokic, Embiid, Tatum, Giannis or Luka?

Is the MVP award a three-man race? (0:58)

Andre Snellings explains why Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are in a three-man race to win the MVP award. (0:58)

The MVP race, once thought all but over, has heated up at the top.

According to Caesar's Sportsbook, Nikola Jokic still the shortest odds to win the award at -130, but Joel Embiid (+130) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+350) have really closed the gap. Jayson Tatum (+6500) and Luka Doncic (+10000) have fallen to longshots at this point.

The public discourse around NBA MVP has been heating up as well. There have been several heated debates on our own ESPN airwaves, including on First Take, as to whether Jokic should be the first player since Larry Bird in the mid-80s to win three straight MVP awards.

One point that I've been seeing on social media is that 10 of the last 11 MVP winners led the league in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), and that since Jokic is leading in PER again this season that should solidify him as the frontrunner.

As an analytics guy, I love that an "advanced" stat is being given credence as a support in the MVP race. I think that's a positive step forward from the "best player on best team" or cherry-picked box score stat excellence (e.g. leading scorer or averaging triple-double) as the primary requisites for MVP.

But, since I am an analytics guy, I have to point out that PER, or any purely box score stat, just doesn't have the capacity to cover the entire impact of a player because the box score doesn't have categories for things like "stopped opponent from scoring" or "warped the defense so much that my teammates got easy shots." Or any number of other important basketball factors that just aren't in the box score.

That's why, when analyzing player impact, I find it vital to include scouting-based analytics like those found on Second Spectrum, and to also include +/- style data that correlates a player's presence on the court with changes in their team's scoring margins.

The ESPN +/- stat is Real Plus Minus (RPM). I've written articles that dig into the scouting-based analytics and impacts of all of the MVP frontrunners this season, so I won't necessarily replicate that here. But, here's a quick chart that includes the team win percentage, PER, RPM (per-100 possessions stat) and RPM WINS (+/- impact with minutes played factored in) for each of the MVP frontrunners.

I've been tracking the MVP race in this space all season, and my opinion has solidified over time. Doncic is having a strong season, but just realistically, you hardly ever see an MVP come from a team flirting with a .500 record. His individual production isn't so dominant with respect to his peers to overcome that, and when you factor in the late-season injury that has kept him out of the last several games, he's really out of it at this point.

I believe Giannis to be the best player in the NBA, and the Bucks have the best record in the NBA, so I could support Giannis winning his third MVP. But, by the metrics listed here, his impact has trailed the other three, so I could understand him not taking this one home.

Jokic and Embiid have been roughly the same player this season according to the metrics, with each having marginal advantages in certain areas. But, when we step outside of these stats, Embiid gets the narrative tiebreakers in my book.

Last season, one of the strong narratives in Jokic's favor was that he held his team together and kept them winning when the other best players (e.g. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.) were out injured. Well, by the same token, this season Embiid has kept the 76ers afloat even when his two best lieutenants and starting backcourt James Harden and Tyrese Maxey missed months of action in the first half of the season.

Then, there's head-to-head. I remember when Kobe Bryant solidified his MVP win over Chris Paul in 2008 by outplaying CP3 head to head in a key game. Well, when the 76ers and Nuggets faced off, Embiid dominated the matchup with 47 points, 18 rebounds and 5 assists (vs. Jokic's 24, 8 and 9) in a hard-fought 76ers victory.

Finally, there's the "it's his turn" narrative. Again, this is only something that factors in with players that are particularly close in a particular race, but I believe Jokic and Embiid are close enough for the narratives to play in.

And, in their case, Jokic has edged Embiid in each of the last two MVP votes; they've finished 1-2 in two straight seasons. In both of the previous seasons, it was Jokic with the slight edge in RPM that gave analytics support to his vote. This season, it's Embiid with the slight RPM advantage.

All told, if it comes down to Jokic vs Embiid, on my ballot, Embiid would finish ahead.

But, I would be remiss if I didn't point out... the man leading the league in overall impact as measured by both RPM and RPM WINS is none of the above. Instead, it's Tatum. The Celtics no longer have the best record in the NBA (now they're second), and Tatum's box score stats as composited by PER are the least impressive of the five. But, as I mentioned above, when looking at one-number player estimates, at least RPM and RPM WINS track a player's total impact as opposed to just covering the stats scored in the box score.

So, though the odds suggest his actual candidacy for this award may be over, I would also support Tatum's candidacy as this season's MVP.

Jokic absolutely deserves to be among the front-runners to win a third straight MVP. But if I had a ballot, he would currently be third on my list, with Embiid likely edging Tatum to take home his first MVP award.