Last season, the Denver Nuggets' Nikola Jokic surpassed Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid in the closing weeks of the NBA's regular season to win the Most Valuable Player award, as injuries to Embiid and Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James cleared the path for Jokic to become the first center to win the award since Shaquille O'Neal in 2000.
As the 2021-22 regular season winds down, it appears Jokic has the inside track to repeat.
After Jokic finished just behind Embiid in the previous edition in mid-February, the four-time All-Star claimed 62 of 100 first-place votes in the third and final iteration of ESPN's MVP straw poll, giving Jokic a clear -- though narrow -- lead over Embiid and Milwaukee Bucks forward and most recent back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
To gauge where the race stands with less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, ESPN asked 100 media members to participate in an informal poll that mimics the postseason awards voting. To make the balloting as realistic as possible, there were at least two voters from each of the league's 28 markets, as well as a cross section of national and international reporters. Votes were collected from Thursday to Saturday.
As with the NBA's official vote at the end of season, voters were asked to submit a five-player ballot, and results were tabulated using the league's scoring system: 10 points for each first-place vote, followed by seven points for second place, five points for third, three points for fourth and one point for fifth.
Jokic finished ahead of the pack with those 62 first-place votes and a total of 860 points, followed by Embiid, who had 29 first-place votes and 719 total points, and Antetokounmpo, who had nine first-place votes and 593 total points. They were the only players to be named to all 100 ballots and the only ones to receive a first-place vote.
Jokic, Embiid and Antetokounmpo have so clearly separated themselves from the field that they claimed 291 of the 300 votes for first, second and third place in the poll. (Antetokounmpo had six fourth-place votes, and Jokic had three fifth-place votes.) No other player was named to even half of the ballots.
Following the three unanimous selections was Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, who finished with 103 total points and received one of the two second-place votes recorded for someone besides Jokic, Embiid or Antetokounmpo. (Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker received the other.) Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum placed fifth with 93 points, Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic was sixth with 87 points and Booker seventh with 82. Morant, Tatum and Booker were the only players to receive third-place votes outside of the top three finishers.
After leading the first edition of the straw poll this season, Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry finished eighth with 34 points, followed by Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (13) and Suns guard Chris Paul (seven).
James, the NBA's current scoring leader who hadn't received a single vote in either of the first two polls, got one fourth-place and two fifth-place votes to finish 11th with five points, followed by Chicago Bulls guard DeMar DeRozan and Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young.
Outside of James entering the mix, the focus remains on the top of the ballot, where Jokic has once again gained a slight advantage heading into the season's final weeks after he and Embiid were in a virtual dead heat six weeks ago.
Essentially, the difference this time is Jokic taking 16 of the first-place votes Embiid carried in the previous poll and getting back on the five ballots he was left off in that round of voting.
There is still more uncertainty remaining in this race than there usually is at this time of the year. Many voters stressed how tough it was for them to choose which way to go, both among the positioning of top-three finishers and fourth and fifth places.
And while the leader in the final version of this straw poll has gone on to win the league's MVP award the past four years it was conducted, there is reason to believe Jokic still has work to do to officially sew up consecutive awards.
This year's voting most closely mirrors the 2017 race, the first year that this straw poll was conducted. In that year's final ballot, then-Houston Rockets guard James Harden held a similarly narrow lead over then-Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook with a few weeks to go, only for Westbrook to capture the MVP by becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for a season.
Because of how compact the races are in both conferences, where Jokic and Embiid finish in the standings is likely to play a role.
Jokic's Nuggets sit in sixth place in the Western Conference, two games ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves in seventh and a half game behind the Utah Jazz in fifth. All three voters who placed Jokic in fifth highlighted his team's position in the standings as a contributing factor.
In the Eastern Conference, Embiid's 76ers and Antetokounmpo's Bucks are among the four-team logjam near the top, with both one game behind the No. 1-seeded Miami Heat.
Jokic is averaging 26.3 points, 13.6 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game, ranking 12th, second and eighth, respectively, and is the only player in the top 12 in all three categories. Embiid is averaging 29.9 points, 11.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists, as he pushes to become the first center to lead the NBA in scoring since O'Neal in 2000. Antetokounmpo is averaging 29.7 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists.
All three have excelled while dealing with challenges. Jokic has played all season with the team's two other max players -- Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. -- either not playing at all or missing significant time. Embiid had to lead the 76ers through the roller coaster that was the Ben Simmons trade saga, while Antetokounmpo has navigated Milwaukee through a series of injuries to key contributors, most notably center Brook Lopez.
The uncertainty at the top of the ballot also is likely to trickle down the list: The Grizzlies announced Thursday that Morant will miss most of the regular season's final two weeks with knee soreness.
Tatum and Doncic, meanwhile, have been two of the hottest players on two of the hottest teams in the league over the past couple of months, while Booker has picked up plenty of support for how he has led the Suns with Paul sidelined for more than a month due to a thumb injury before his return late last week. All three could easily surpass Morant in the final stretch.
It all sets up a frenetic finish of the regular season, with plenty to play for -- on both team and individual levels.