NBA MVP Straw Poll 2.0: Nikola Jokic is chasing history -- here's why he might capture it

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Thursday, February 16, 2023

Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell. That's the list.

In the more than 76-year history of the NBA, only three players have won three consecutive Most Valuable Player awards, and it has been nearly 40 years since Bird last accomplished the feat from 1984 to 1986.

There have been plenty of chances at a three-peat. Michael Jordan -- after whom the trophy was renamed earlier this season -- failed in his bid. So have repeat winners Magic Johnson, Moses Malone, Stephen Curry, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, forever linked atop the NBA's all-time scoring list, each fell short twice.

And, at the start of the 2022-23 NBA season, it was expected that Denver Nuggets superstar center Nikola Jokic would need a historic effort to join that exclusive club and win a third straight league MVP.

Well, Joker is coming through.

Not only is Jokic averaging a triple-double -- 24.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists -- something only Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook have done over the course of a full season in NBA history, but Denver is also sitting atop the Western Conference with the NBA's third-best record.

As a result, Jokic was the runaway leader in the second edition of ESPN's NBA MVP Straw Poll of the 2022-23 season, registering 77 out of 100 first-place votes and finishing with 913 total points, putting him in prime position to make history at season's end.

Following Jokic in the poll were Milwaukee Bucks forward Antetokounmpo (11 first-place votes, 552 total points), Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (six first-place votes, 490 total points), Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (five first-place votes, 410 total points) and Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (one first-place vote, 218 total points).

Rounding out the poll are Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (8 total points), Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (four), Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (three), Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (one) and Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant (one).

The first straw poll of this season, conducted in December, showed Tatum winning by 92 total points -- the second-smallest margin of any of the 12 straw polls that have been conducted since the 2016-17 season -- and receiving less than half of the first-place votes, despite his stellar individual season leading the Celtics to the NBA's best record.

That indicated the race was wide open for someone to seize control.

Enter Joker.

Not only did Jokic do that with his combination of incredible individual achievement -- averaging that triple-double while shooting 63.2% overall, 39.1% from 3-point range and 82.2% from the free throw line -- but the field was also significantly weakened by injuries to MVP contenders.

Four of the top nine finishers in the first straw poll conducted in December -- Curry, Durant, Suns guard Devin Booker and New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson -- have all missed several weeks because of injury and have fallen deeply behind in the race.

The second straw poll, meanwhile, revealed more votes concentrated among the top five finishers -- Jokic, Antetokounmpo, Embiid, Tatum and Doncic -- than in any previous poll. There are often three or four players who are near consensus -- or, in the case of Jokic and Embiid, unanimous -- selections, but there has never been a poll in which five players have been on as many as Doncic's 89 ballots. (The highest previous total for a fifth-place finisher was 70.)

For the third straight season, Jokic has surged to the top after starting the season in the middle of the pack:

  • Jokic finished fourth in December's poll.
  • He ranked fourth and second, respectively, across the first two polls last season, before taking the lead in the final vote.
  • He was third in the first poll of the 2020-21 season before winning the second and final poll of that season. (Due to the condensed season, 2020-21 featured only two MVP straw polls.)

Tatum dropped to fourth this time around, despite helming the team that heads into the All-Star break with the NBA's best record. Like all of the contenders for the award, Tatum is putting up absurd stats, averaging career highs in points (30.6), rebounds (8.6) and assists (4.5) per game.

Antetokounmpo, who finished second for a second straight poll, is averaging 32.5 points, 12.3 rebounds and 5.5 assists for the Bucks.

Embiid -- the MVP runner-up each of the past two seasons -- came in third, with he and Jokic also being the only players named to all 100 ballots. At 33.1 points per game, Embiid trails Doncic by 0.2 points for the league's scoring lead.

Morant placed sixth once again, while the surging Gilgeous-Alexander (13th) and Mitchell (11th) moved up six and three spots, respectively. Williamson, Booker and Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis all dropped off the ballot this time around.

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