A little over a month ago, “Courtside” noted the unhealthy interest being paid in the so-called Most Valuable Player race. At the time, the All-Star break led to a dearth of news; in a vacuum, pro hoops habitués found themselves engaging in the favorite pastime of idle minds: speculating on who would win the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. All the back and forth was premature, to say the least; half of the games in the 2020-21 campaign had yet to be played, and anything could — and would — still happen.
True enough, the landscape setting up the determination of the winner has changed in the five intervening weeks, and dramatically so. Just as early pick Luka Dončić quickly fell out of favor in light of the Mavericks’ roller-coaster performances, midseason leader Joel Embiid suffered an injury that had him sitting for a stretch even as the Sixers kept on winning. Sentimental favorite LeBron James followed suit, downed by a freak injury that the Lakers remain hard-pressed to address. And in the midst of the tumult has emerged Nikola Jokić, whose outstanding numbers appear to make him a cinch for the accolade.
Unfortunately, no one is immune from change. And in the face of the National Basketball Association’s compressed schedule and effect on the fitness of marquee names, change has become the only constant. Taken in this context, the end to the season of Jamal Murray, Jokić’s fellow starter and frequent pick-and-roll partner, figures to throw a monkey wrench on the proceedings. Currently, the three-time All-Star seems well on his way to running away with the award. On the other hand, the Nuggets’ projected difficulty in maintaining their momentum following the indefinite exit of a vital cog may yet affect his standing.
Make no mistake. The advanced numbers make Jokic the smart choice. And if there’s anything the recent straw poll conducted by ESPN’s Tim Bontemps has underscored, it’s that voters agree. The fact that the other hopefuls have fallen out of grace for one reason or another while he keeps on chugging along serves only to highlight the chasm between him and his closest pursuers. Certainly, his continued presence helps keep him top of mind; he has yet to miss a single Nuggets outing.
At this point, nothing short of a collapse will prevent Jokić from wrapping his arms around the hardware. And it has to be a monumental one. Else, he will be making history; he will be bucking the odds at a time when there is no sure thing. That’s how much of a long shot he was heading into the season, and how much he is, well, just being himself in the process: exceeding expectations and proving that he not only has the skills to rub elbows with the acknowledged elite, but deserves to be feted as the best of the best.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.