NBA Debate: Is Luka Dončić the new MVP front-runner?

NBA Christmas Day did not disappoint, with Nikola Jokić leading the Denver Nuggets to a win against the Phoenix Suns in overtime to cap the night off. However, the Nuggets’ win wasn’t the most exciting game of the week, nor was Jokić’s 40-point triple-double the most impressive individual performance of the week — those titles belong to the Dallas Mavericks and Luka Dončić, respectively.

This week, our panel of NBA reporters — Melissa Rohlin, Ric Bucher and Yaron Weitzman — look back at how the latest batch of brilliant performances changed the MVP race, if at all, and discuss the true contenders in both conferences.

1. Describe Luka Dončić’s 60-point, 21-rebound, 10-assist performance in one word. 

Weitzman: I’ll say two things. One is that I actually turned this game off with about two minutes left and the Knicks up by nine because I’m old, and it was late, and I figured the game was over — which is a long-winded way of saying that the best way I can describe this performance is that, at the time, it seemed inconceivable.

The other thing I’ll say is that this was just the latest example of how much the Mavericks have failed Luka. Think of it like this: He put up one of the greatest single-game performances in NBA history and the Mavericks still almost lost. If you take Luka off the roster, is there another team in the NBA with less talent?

Rohlin: How about instead of one word, I go with one stat that puts the historical significance of his performance into perspective: Before that game, NBA teams were 0-13,884 over the last 20 seasons when trailing by at least nine points with 35 or fewer seconds remaining, per ESPN Stats & Info. Now, they’re 1-13,884.

Bucher: Karmic. Because it was against the Knicks, the team Jalen Brunson chose over staying in Dallas with Luka. I don’t know if Luka took that personally, but I wouldn’t blame him if he did. I understand why Jalen would make the jump: he’d always be No. 2 to Luka in Dallas, his dad is on the Knicks staff and, well, it’s New York. But let’s be clear: he decided he didn’t want to play for a legend at his position, former point guard Jason Kidd, with one of the league’s up-and-coming superstars, Luka, to play for Tom Thibodeau and … RJ Barrett? 

Karmic is the word also because this is a Knicks organization that always seems to be on the wrong end of historic milestones. Karmic because it was against Thibs, who believed he could beat Doncic with Miles McBride, Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes all playing 46-plus minutes while Derrick Rose played 12 and Cam Reddish and Evan Fournier collected DNPs. And karmic because it was in Dallas, Brunson’s first appearance there since he went to New York, only he couldn’t play because of a hip issue. All of it is just so Knick-appropriate, no?

If I had to go with another word it would be exhausting. Scoring 60 points is one thing, but 21 rebounds? Against a Knicks’ front-line rotation of Mitchell Robinson, Julius Randle, Jericho Sims and Isaiah Hartenstein?

Luka Dončić post historic triple-double vs. Knicks

Luka Dončić post historic triple-double vs. Knicks

Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe react to Luka’s historic night.

2. Nikola Jokić is nearly averaging a triple-double for the West’s top-seeded Nuggets. Is it possible he wins a third straight MVP? Who is your favorite right now?

Weitzman: Jokić is playing as well as ever. His numbers are, per usual, video-game-like. The Nuggets are winning. They’re in contention for the No. 1 spot in the West, despite Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray missing tons of games. Want to see an unbelievable stat? With Jokić on the floor, the Nuggets have outscored opponents by 10.9 points per 100 possessions; with him off the floor, they’ve been outscored by 13.4. According to the stats website Cleaning the Glass, that translates into the Nuggets performing like a 65-win team with Jokić and an 11-win team without him.

So, yes, Jokić deserves to be in contention for a third-straight MVP. The problem is that, historically, voters have shown a reluctance to vote for a player for a third straight year. No one has won three straight MVPs since Larry Bird (1984-1986). Not Jordan. Not LeBron. I expect that trend to continue this season. My money right now is on Jayson Tatum.

Rohlin: After Jokić had a 41-point, 15-rebound and 15-assist performance on Christmas, the internet said he was the unequivocal MVP. Then, when Dončić had a 60-point, 21-rebound and 10-assist performance a few days later, he immediately became the front-runner. Meanwhile, Joel Embiid’s trainer, Drew Hanlen, was quick to weigh in over Twitter amid all the buzz, making the case for why his guy deserves the honor. My point is there are multiple guys near the front of the line for this award right now — and there’s a lot of season left. Could Jokić win a third straight MVP? I agree with Yaron that it’s unlikely as long as he has some very stiff competition, which he currently definitely does. Right now, my vote would either go to Dončić or Tatum. But heck, that could change tomorrow. 

Bucher: I don’t have a favorite right now. My candidates are Giannis, KD, Jokić, Embiid and Tatum. I would have no problem putting Jokić at the top of my MVP ballot this year because he was second each of the last two years, so I don’t feel any kind of way about him winning this year. In fact, if he doesn’t win this year because he won the previous two years, explicitly or implicitly, it’s an awful look for the voting body. This is the issue when voting is driven by statistics — to abruptly abandon the statistics to avoid giving a player a historical status he hasn’t earned (i.e., being on the same level as Larry Legend and above Jordan and Kobe and LeBron) points up the flaw and danger of stat-driven voting. Because let’s face it, you can’t name another two-time MVP, much less a three-timer, whose postseason accomplishments are as meh as the Joker’s.

3. The Sixers are 8-1 in their last nine. Brooklyn is on a 10-game winning streak. Which team is a greater threat to win the East?

Weitzman: I know the Nets look like world-beaters right now, but I still don’t fully trust them. They’re always one Kyrie Irving tweet/comment/”like” away from disaster, they’re still small up front and while it’s nice to see Ben Simmons moving well and performing, he’s still clearly reticent about going to the free-throw line (he’s taking just 1.6 per game and shooting just 43.9%), which will be an issue come playoff time. Kevin Durant is incredible, and you never want to bet against him, I just don’t believe in everything around him. Meanwhile in Sixers Land, James Harden and Joel Embiid have seemingly figured out how to meld their games. Also, they went on this winning streak without Tyrese Maxey, who’s due to return this weekend. I still think the Celtics are the favorites to come out of the East. But I wouldn’t be stunned to see Joel Embiid carry the Sixers to the Finals.

Rohlin: There’s something about the Nets that just feels tenuous. There has been too much drama, uncertainty and mayhem. It’s great for the league that they’ve finally turned things around and are competitive, but it feels as though the other shoe is going to drop at any moment. Kevin Durant has been the only reliable constant on that team, and here’s to guessing he’ll remain incredible throughout the season, the question is whether Kyrie Irving can avoid being a lighting rod for drama and Ben Simmons can maintain his level of play. As for the 76ers, it’s hard not to have the opposite sense about them. For the past few seasons, it has seemed as though they were destined to go far in the playoffs. But injuries have consistently derailed that from happening. It seems as though they’re due for a breakthrough, so long as Joel Embiid and James Harden can stay healthy.

Bucher: I love this question because I could make a case for either team. The Nets might just be the best small-ball team in the league right now, while the 76ers are as close to an old-school team in terms of relying on superior size and physicality. What they have in common are questions about their chemistry and leadership. Who gathers the troops and gives them the plan when they hit a rough patch? Who goes to the podium and quells the troubled waters? Kyrie, KD, Harden or Embiid might be more likely to create a firestorm with something they say as put one out.

But I’m going to give the nod to the Nets, simply because they’re a lot harder to prepare for on a nightly basis and they’ve got a little added hunger to string together regular-season wins. The Sixers have been there and done that, and I doubt they’re worried about securing home-court advantage throughout the playoffs over having Embiid and Harden as healthy as they can be.

4. Ja Morant said that the only team he thinks about going through to win a title this season is the Boston Celtics, that he’s “fine” in the West. What do you make of that?

Weitzman: That not only is he a superstar on the court, but that he’s an awesome entertainer as well. Also, he’s basically right. It’s not that there aren’t good teams in the West, but none are clearly better than the Grizzlies. That’s not just a Morant belief, either; the entire organization feels that way, and felt that way last year, even after losing to the Warriors in the playoffs. This team is loaded and well coached and plays hard and, of course, has an A-list star in Morant. There’s no reason it can’t reach the Finals. 

Rohlin: What Ja Morant succeeded in doing with that comment is deeply irritate the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors are the defending champions and even though they’ve struggled this season, they’re the team to get through in the postseason, as has been proved by them winning four championships over the last eight years. The Warriors made sure to put the Grizzlies in their place when they met on Christmas with a 123-109 win, even though they were playing without Stephen Curry and Andrew Wiggins. All Morant did was give the Warriors some great bulletin-board material, and if these teams meet in the playoffs, here’s to betting that the series is going to be especially chippy.

Bucher: If I have any problem with it, it’s that he made an exception with the Celtics. Ideally, a leader should be focused on leading his team to a title — however, wherever and through whomever that might require. There’s also a way of saying it that isn’t as flip and, thereby, antagonistic. I’m not a proponent of unnecessarily adding fuel to the opponent’s tank. We saw on Christmas what that can do.

Now, if he thinks the Grizzlies needed to hear their leader announce that to the world, not just to them in the locker room but to put everybody on notice, then I can see the value. Saying they’re the only team in the Grizzlies’ way is Ja believing in his team as much as he believes in himself. But until he and the Grizzlies back it up, they’re just words. The risk he runs is falling into that Patrick Ewing category of making boasts or promises that he can’t deliver. For now, it has added spice to the battle among the top teams in the West and I’m all for that.

5. What’s your favorite proposed trade to help a contender take a step forward? 

Weitzman: Let’s get John Collins to Phoenix. The Suns could really use another weapon and, well, it’s time to free John Collins from the purgatory he’s been stuck in while playing for a Hawks team that has been trying to trade him for seemingly 12 years. Collins isn’t perfect, but he’s a proven scorer who has shown the ability to knock down 3s and would off the Suns some much-needed depth.

Rohlin: The Lakers need to do something, fast. They’re wasting LeBron James’ unprecedented greatness at age 38. They need 3-point shooting, defensive help and someone to take the load off of James’ shoulders, especially while Anthony Davis remains hobbled. Some attractive prospects include DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, Kyle Kuzma and Bojan Bogdanović. At this point, the Lakers need to pull the trigger on something. They’re in 13th place in the Western Conference, wasting away in the cellar of the league. Anything is better than what’s happening now.

Bucher: I’d like to see the Warriors go for broke — deal James Wiseman and Jonathan Kuminga for Jordan Clarkson and Jarred Vanderbilt. Steph was playing out of his mind before he injured his shoulder, but he’s also about to turn 35; if anyone deserves another crack at a ring, it’s him. I’d like to see the Dallas Mavericks upgrade as well, I’m just not sure how they do that. Derrick Rose would help but he’s not enough. Acquiring Zach LaVine is a bit of a pipe dream; the Bulls may be a little disenchanted with him at the moment, but I don’t know that it’s enough to want a divorce. But considering what Luka gave us the other night, why would I not want to see him for as long as possible in the postseason?

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Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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