Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Last Friday, we published our most recent MVP Ladder, which is voted on by four members of our NBA.com Staff on a biweekly basis. For the first time this season, Giannis Antetokounmpo didn't crack the top five. In fact, he didn't make a single one of our ballots.
Then he went ahead and dropped 36 points and 14 rebounds in a win over the LA Clippers on Sunday, making us all look quite silly.
😤 36 PTS, 14 REB, 4 BLK for Giannis- NBA (@NBA) February 28, 2021
😤 17 PTS, 3 BLK in the 4th quarter@Giannis_An34 TAKES OVER in the @Bucks 5th-straight win. pic.twitter.com/psd1RD9dIr
It speaks to how ridiculous the MVP field is this season that Antetokounmpo isn't being talked about as one of the front-runners right now, but it feels as though what he's doing is being taken for granted, doesn't it?
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): I don't think we can be too hard on ourselves in this instance. At the time we submitted our votes, we had fresh in our minds that the Bucks went through the worst stretch of their season. Five straight losses do something to you. And while Jrue Holiday was out for that entire stretch, an MVP candidate should step up and make sure five-game losing streaks don't happen.
Also, let's not act like the five that made the list - Joel Embiid, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Kawhi Leonard and Damian Lillard - didn't deserve to be there. There wasn't anyone that stands out as a ridiculous selection. So we have to be cut some slack.
That being said, Giannis should've never really left the MVP convo and if he did then shame on anyone that didn't have him a part of the discussion.
Rafferty: I do think that is what's tricky about checking in on the MVP race multiple times a month, though. It's easy to get caught up in the moment when it's a season-long award. (Also, I think them going on a five-game losing streak had more to do with the Bucks being without Holiday and Khris Middleton hitting a bit of a rough patch than Antetokounmpo, but that's a conversation for another day).
Gay: That's part of the fun. All we're doing is giving a snapshot of what the race is like at the moment.
I think the bigger discussion is around taking Giannis' season so far for granted. I'll be honest and say that that has happened to me, and I've had to snap out of it a couple of times this year. I'm aware that Giannis is an MVP candidate, as most people are, but I'm afraid that people have either grown tired or are holding his playoff failures against him, which shouldn't be the case when talking about his candidacy this year.
We've seen it happen over and over again in the past. That's why there are only three players who've ever three-peated as MVP.
Rafferty: Right. It feels very much like Giannis has got to the point where what he does in the regular season doesn't matter because of what has happened to him in the playoffs, but that's not how these awards work.
Like, if I showed you these numbers any other season and told you that one is No. 1 in our MVP ladder and the other didn't even make the list, you'd think I'm either trolling or losing my mind:
(The top one is Antetokounmpo and the bottom one is Embiid, by the way).
And, sure, numbers don't tell the whole story and team success has a lot to do with all this - the Bucks were destroying teams the last two seasons and have been a little up-and-down this season, some of which had to do with Holiday's absence - but Giannis has been the one constant for them.
Gay: That's what's funny about all of this. The Bucks have been up and down this year and they're still in a position to be the No. 1 seed in the East when the playoffs begin. In fact, FiveThirtyEight projects that Milwaukee will have the best record in the East when all is said and done.
If Giannis' numbers haven't taken a hit and the Bucks end up with the No. 1 seed in the East, he'll have a good argument to win the award again.
I'm worried, though...
Rafferty: About what?
Gay: I'm worried that if all that happens, the voters won't give him the credit he deserves, almost punishing him for his lack of playoff success.
There are two times in my lifetime that I really remember voter fatigue sticking out with a potential three-peat on the line. One was in 1992-93 when Charles Barkley won the award. I have no beef with the win, but it felt like voters penalized Michael Jordan and the Bulls because they weren't as dominant as they were the two prior years. When you look back on it, Jordan was just as good and Chicago finished with the third-best record in the league.
The second time happened to LeBron when Derrick Rose won the award in 2010-11. LeBron made the decision to go to Miami and voters made up their mind that he wasn't going to win the award that year. Again, I have no beef with Rose winning the award. My problem was that voters made their minds up that it would be anyone other than MJ and LeBron's awards to win. Both of them finished third in voting those years.
This feels like that's what's happening to Giannis, that voters are making excuses not to pick him.
Rafferty: I mean, the historic part of this has everything to do with it, right? Like you said, only three players have ever won back-to-back-to-back MVP awards: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird. If Giannis did it this season, he would have done something LeBron, Jordan, Magic and many other legends never did, and I think that scares people.
And really, the MVP race feels like it's starting to open up a little bit. The consensus seems to be that LeBron and Embiid have been the front-runners to this point of the season, but LeBron has cooled off a little lately and the 76ers aren't head and shoulders above everyone in the Eastern Conference anymore. Jokic has been incredible, but he doesn't have the team success right now. Same for Lillard and Curry. Antetokounmpo could absolutely make this race even closer than it has been.
You know what's interesting? Basketball-Reference has an MVP Tracker that ranks candidates based on a model built using previous voting results. Jokic has a pretty sizable lead at No. 1, Embiid is in second and Antetokounmpo is a close third.
I wouldn't put too much stock into that, but ... yeah, it's interesting.
Gay: Yeah, normally the Basketball-Reference MVP tracker gives us a good gauge of who might win the award, but I really think this year that tracker points to why computers can't take over voting just yet. I do appreciate that the tracker seems to be giving Giannis more credit lately, and hopefully as we approach the All-Star break voters can cleanse their palates a bit and take another look at the race overall.
If you had a vote, what would it take for Giannis to earn it? What are the things you need to check off on your list to feel comfortable with him winning the award three straight years? Because you're right, a lot of people might feel uncomfortable with him being in the class of Russell, Wilt and Bird.
Rafferty: There are a couple. Antetokounmpo's numbers speak for themselves, but I think the Bucks would have to finish at the top of the Eastern Conference again for him to win the award, if only because it would help his case against Embiid. They aren't far away, trailing the 76ers in first by 1.5 games and the Nets in second by 1.0 game as of this writing.
Secondly, the Bucks need to be better against good teams in the second half of the season. Sunday's victory against the Clippers was their first time beating an opponent over .600 this season, believe it or not. (They're now 1-5, having lost twice to the Utah Jazz, once to the Nets, once to the Lakers and once to the Suns). With several matchups against the 76ers and Nets looming in the second half of the season, those will be important games for Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, both because it will give them an opportunity to gain ground on those teams in the standings and they'll serve as a good measuring stick.
What about you?
Gay: Honestly, this is where it's tough. It feels like it actually has more to do with the field than Giannis himself. A third MVP award puts him in such an elite company that he would have to be head and shoulders above the field for people to comfortably vote for him. Is that right? No, but it's where we are.
In the last two years, there was no question who the MVP was. I know LeBron and Harden made late pushes, but Giannis was the right call. But the difference between a two-peat and a three-peat is significant. Because this would be history, I'd need to know that no one else had a real argument for this vote. The field this year seems significantly better than it has been the last two seasons. Some of that is due to the shortened season and might sort itself out over the next month or so.
So my question when all said and done, aside from all the things you mentioned about the Bucks' record and numbers, is who else is left standing between Giannis and history? And did this person do enough to keep him out of the history books? That's going to be what I ultimately ask myself.
Judging by our last MVP ladder, at least five people stand in his way at the moment, haha.
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