Two months ago, this year’s race for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award looked as competitive as any in recent memory.
Jokic, who has not missed a game this season, took 90 of the 101 first-place votes cast in ESPN’s latest MVP straw poll, conducted this past weekend. If that result holds when the official ballots are cast next month, Jokic would be the first center to win MVP since Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal in 2000.
To gauge where the race stands with a month left in the season, ESPN asked 101 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.
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, five points for third, three points for fourth and one point for fifth.
Votes were tabulated from Friday through Monday night, when the Nuggets were hit with their own devastating news. Star guard Jamal Murray, in the midst of his best NBA season, tore his ACL in the final minute of Denver’s loss to the Golden State Warriors and will now miss the rest the season. In Denver’s first game since Murray’s injury, Jokic posted his 15th triple-double of the season, finishing with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists in a 123-116 win over the Miami Heat.
Jokic, has been spectacular this season, averaging career highs of 26.0 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.8 assists while also shooting career bests from 3-point range (41.8%) and the free throw line (85.3%). He was off to a strong start when this straw poll was last conducted, in mid-February, coming in third behind LeBron James and Joel Embiid, with just 164 points separating the trio. However, James and Embiid have missed significant time since then, allowing Jokic to pull away.
Jokic finished with 964 points and was the only player named on all 101 ballots. Embiid (82) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (81) were the only others named on more than 70.
Since the league shifted to its current voting format before the 2016-17 season, no MVP winner has finished more than 224 points ahead of second (when James Harden outpaced James in 2018). Jokic, by comparison, has a 568-point advantage over Embiid, who is now a very distant second.
That advantage, while a nod to Jokic’s incredible season, is also very clearly a product of the chaos spawned by the injuries virtually every other contender for the honor has dealt with this season. James has been out for weeks with a high ankle sprain and is still some time away from returning. Embiid has missed 18 of Philadelphia’s 54 games, including 10 recently for a bone bruise in his knee.
Kevin Durant finished fourth in the last version of the straw poll but has played in just four games since that poll was conducted and failed to get a single MVP vote this time around. Antetokounmpo hasn’t played since April 2 due to a nagging knee issue. Harden was playing as well as anyone in the league since his arrival in Brooklyn before he, too, suffered a hamstring injury last month that he recently aggravated, and he has played just four minutes in April.
While Jokic is miles ahead of the field, his point total is right in line with where the winners landed each of the past few seasons. What is different, however, is that there is no clear second-place finisher. Since the league shifted to the current voting format in 2017, second place has earned at least 738 points. Embiid, who received five of the remaining 11 first-place votes, was second with 401 points — not much more than half of that typical amount. Antetokounmpo (no first-place votes, 375 points), the two-time reigning MVP, was a close third, with Damian Lillard (two first-place votes, 67 total votes, 283 points) in fourth and Harden (one first-place vote, 62 total votes, 231 points) in fifth.
James, meanwhile, went from getting more than half of the first-place votes in the last straw poll to getting none this time. He was left off nearly two-thirds of the ballots entirely, garnering just 37 total votes and 105 points. He was just ahead of Chris Paul, who had two first-place votes and 98 total points, with Kawhi Leonard (80 points, including one first-place vote) in eighth, Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (28 points) in ninth and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (26 points) in 10th.