Nikola Jokic beat Joel Embiid to win first NBA MVP award

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Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) celebrates a double overtime win against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 5 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series Tuesday, June 1, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Seven years ago, the Denver Nuggets used the 41st pick in the NBA draft on an unheralded center from Serbia.

On Tuesday, Nikola Jokic became the sixth international player to win the NBA’s MVP.

“To be honest, I didn’t even think about being in the NBA,” Jokic said on TNT’s “Inside The NBA” after winning the award. “My goal when I started to play basketball back home was to play in the EuroLeague because that was the closest top league to my country. I could play in some big clubs in Serbia and grind my way up. But then the Denver Nuggets drafted me, and it was an opportunity for me to become an NBA player.”

Jokic was given the news during a team meeting at the Nuggets’ hotel ahead of Game 2 of their second-round series with the Suns on Wednesday in Phoenix, with NBA commissioner Adam Silver making the announcement over a video conference call.

“It’s a big accomplishment,” Jokic said. “But it’s something that, like I said to the guys, it’s not just me. I couldn’t do it by myself. It’s something that it is an individual award but it’s the effort of everybody who is part of the Denver Nuggets organization.”

Jokic was the runaway winner of the award, claiming 91 of the 101 first-place votes and 971 total points. He played all 72 regular-season games this season, one of just 11 players to accomplish that feat in this pandemic-shortened campaign, while also putting together one of the best statistical seasons in NBA history.

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry finished second and third, respectively, behind Jokic in the final voting, followed by Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, the winner the past two seasons, and Phoenix guard Chris Paul.

“The difference between this year was I started this season really well,” Jokic said. “I played kind of the whole season really well stat wise. I think this was the best season of my life and the cherry on the top is the trophy that I got. This is the best season of my life.”

He also became the first center since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000 to win the league’s top individual honor.

In addition to being available every night for Denver, Jokic finished the season with career-best averages of 26.4 points and 8.3 assists and tying a career best by averaging 10.8 rebounds. He also shot 56.6% from the field, 38.8% from 3-point range and 86.8% from the foul line. He led Denver into the second round of the playoffs despite injuries to three of Denver’s guards — Jamal Murray, Will Barton and PJ Dozier — a feat that none of the other teams that made it to the conference finals of last year’s playoffs in the bubble in Orlando, Florida — the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics — were able to match.

The combination of Jokic’s play and availability gave him an unassailable case for the award in the eyes of the voters. He becomes the first player drafted in the second round to win the league’s top individual honor in the common draft era, and also joins Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Antetokounmpo as international winners of the award.

Winning MVP also means that Jokic will be eligible to sign a supermax contract extension with the Nuggets following the 2021-22 season — a five-year deal that would be well in excess of $250 million.

Jokic said the thought of winning the award never crossed his mind this season.

“I never thought about it. Like, even when the season was over, I was into the Portland series, so my focus wasn’t on that,” he said. “I didn’t want to even think about it because it’s just a trophy, and the season is not over. So I was just trying to keep my focus on the games.”

Asked if he was glad to he won’t have to be asked about the potential of winning the award again, Jokic said with a smile, “To be honest, yes.”

2020-21 NBA MVP Voting Totals

PLAYER (TEAM)1ST2ND3RD4TH5THTOTAL
Nikola Jokic (Nuggets)918100971
Joel Embiid (Sixers)1622383586
Stephen Curry (Warriors)523322313453
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)15344110348
Chris Paul (Suns)2281326139
Luka Dončić (Mavs)01071442
Damian Lillard (Blazers)00151838
Julius Randle (Knicks)0012920
Derrick Rose (Knicks)*1000010
Rudy Gobert (Jazz)000158
Russell Westbrook (Wizards)001005
Ben Simmons (Sixers)000103
James Harden (Nets)000011
LeBron James (Lakers)000011
Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)000011
* First-place nod via the fan vote

Shortly after Jokic finished his news conference, Nuggets coach Michael Malone spoke to the media and did so while wearing a custom-made T-shirt with a cartoon image of Jokic surrounded by many of the criticisms he has faced over the years. On the back of the shirt was the phrase, “MVP, and the joke’s on you.”

“I think the greatest thing I can say about Nikola is he fully represents the culture we’ve created here in Denver,” Malone said. “I’ve been here six years and to see the growth of our program, and obviously that definitely coincides with the growth of Nikola Jokic. The last three years in the Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets had the most wins in the Western Conference, [with] 147.

“That doesn’t happen without Nikola improving, and more importantly as he’s improved so has everybody around him and all you guys have heard me say countless times the reason why Nikola is a great player is he makes everyone around him better. We saw that all season, we’ve seen that for six years, we saw that in the first round against Portland. If Nikola was all about me, me, me, we wouldn’t have had the success and I don’t know if he would’ve had the success. He’s totally selfless, one of the more understated superstars in recent memory and as I told him today I love him and feel really fortunate to not only coach him but have the relationship I have with him because it is a special relationship and one I enjoy having with him.”

It might have been Embiid who won this award had he not suffered a bone bruise in his knee in March. He had the best season of his career and led Philadelphia to the best record in the Eastern Conference, but wound up missing 21 games during the regular season.

That was about the only thing that could slow him down, as he set career-bests in points per game (28.5) and all three shooting percentages (51.3% overall, 37.7% from 3-point range, 85.9% from the free throw line).

Embiid called the finish was “disappointing.”

“As a player you work hard for moments like this, but it’s out of my control. There’s nothing I can do about it,” he said.

Embiid, like Jokic, would have qualified for the supermax — which he is eligible to sign after this season — had he won MVP. Embiid will instead qualify for the extension when he is selected to one of the league’s All-NBA teams at some point in the next few weeks.

That deal, should Embiid sign it, would be a four-year extension worth $186 million, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks.

Curry, a two-time winner of this award, finished third in the voting after missing all but three games last season after breaking his hand. He led the NBA in scoring for the second time in his career, averaging an even 32 points per game while shooting 42.1% from 3-point range on a career-high 12.7 attempts from behind the arc per game.

If there were any doubts Curry, 33, was still among the game’s elite, he quickly dispelled them. He nearly single-handedly kept Golden State’s offense afloat this season without Klay Thompson, who missed his second straight season due to injury, this time with a torn Achilles.

Curry also is extension-eligible this summer. He can sign a four-year, $215.3 million deal, according to Marks, to stay with Golden State well into his late 30s.

Antetokounmpo got one first-place vote while finishing fourth, and Paul got two in finishing fifth. They were followed by Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, New York Knicks forward Julius Randle and guard Derrick Rose — who got the lone remaining first-place vote via the fan vote — and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert in 10th.

LeBron James received one fifth-place vote, tying him with James Harden and Ben Simmons for 13th in the voting. James had never finished lower than 11th in MVP voting before this season.

Like last year, the NBA has reverted to its traditional rollout of the awards during the playoffs, rather than having a large awards show at the end of the postseason, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Source: ESPN