25 Nov 2021 | 08:49 | NBA
It doesn’t feel like it, but we’re nearing the quarter pole of the 2021-22 NBA season. It’s still early, obviously, but some things are at least beginning to take shape. The MVP race is one of them. Entering play on Monday night, in my estimation, the top three is clear, though the order is up for debate.
After that, perhaps the most interesting conversation is between teammates in Chicago. And who ya got so far? Jimmy Butler, Paul George or Giannis Antetokounmpo? Let’s get into it.
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GS • PG • 30
Curry, relatively speaking, had an erratic shooting start to his season. Then he got cooking. He’s up to 41 percent from 3 on career-high volume (13.1 attempts per game). Entering play on Monday, Curry is second in the league in scoring, behind Kevin Durant, and is on pace to make more than 415 triples, which would break his own NBA record of 402.
You could argue Curry has not been the league’s best traditional player this season, but his intangible effect on games and his team still seems impossible to properly measure. Either way, he’s been spectacular. He’s already made at least nine 3-pointers four times. That’s almost half the amount of nine-3 games that Damian Lillard and James Harden have in their entire career.
Curry’s gravity is as devastating as ever, his assists are up with more scoring and shooting around him, and even his defense has been really good. With the Warriors owning a league-best 15-2 record entering play on Monday, Curry is the pretty clear early favorite to capture his third MVP trophy.
DEN • C • 15
For my money, Jokic has been the league’s best player so far. He was off the charts in winning the MVP last season, and he’s been better this year in the absence of Jamal Murray and, recently, Michael Porter Jr. Once again, Jokic leads just about every advanced metric, and the ones he doesn’t lead he’s second. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player in the league averaging anything close to Jokic’s 26 points, six assists and 13 rebounds.
Entering Monday, Jokic is shooting 59 percent from the field, 41 percent from 3 and 65 percent from 2 with a 66-plus true-shooting percentage, all absolutely elite marks and career highs by a mile. The Nuggets are outscoring opponents by more than 29 points per 100 possessions when Jokic is on the floor, and 18 of those points are gained on defense. That is not an empty metric. Jokic has been legitimately good on defense this season.
Jokic’s huge-bodied, space-eating presence has always been underrated as people have ragged his defense over the years, but this year he’s moving noticeably better in ball-screen actions, playing at the level when appropriate, retreating to stop lobs, moving his feet one-on-one.
When facing a speed demon like Tyrese Maxey, he’ll drop deep. If a shooter is coming off, he’s often in something of a soft drop, in between a drop and a full double or hedge, not giving the ball-handler a clear decision to pull up or attack the rim, almost the same way a lone defender on a 2-on-1 break will wait as long as he can to commit. This way he can contest shots while still giving himself a chance to stay in front and/or retreat to stop lobs.
The Nuggets have been a top-five defense most of the season, and it’s not a coincidence they’ve dropped with Jokic out for the past two games with a wrist issue, the most recent of which saw Denver surrender a season-high 126 points to Phoenix.
None of this means Jokic is an elite defender by any stretch, just as Curry’s strong defensive metrics don’t say that about him. He’s not a stout rim protector. He lacks athleticism to legitimately guard on the perimeter. But he’s as smart as he is huge. He understands spacing and has a great feel for how to navigate the gray areas of coverage. The time is here for us to stop talking about Jokic as a one-way player.