The first European player to win the NBA regular league MVP was Dirk Nowitzki in 2007. For years, Nowitzki was kept participating in 3-point contests until they realized that, well, this guy was terrific. The German player had already been in the league for ten seasons when they gave him the award and had led the Dallas Mavericks to the final the previous year, a final they lost with high doses of controversy against the Miami Heat of Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal .
As in any popularity contest -and the MVP, as the Ballon d’Or is-, the fact that the organizers think they owe you something counts for a lot. Nowitzki was owed a ring and in return they gave him an individual award and a passport to history, which is no small thing either. What Happened Next? That the Mavericks, with the best record of the season, they lost in the first round against the Golden State Warriors of the “We believe”, the second time in history that the first seed lost from entry to the eighth.
It is said that Americans are very patriotic, even to excess, and part of it is right. When you occupy a continent and decide to create a state, you can already hold on very tightly to names and symbols or you will lose yourself immediately. If you add to a generally chauvinistic public a sport that they have invented and that of course they have dominated for more than a century, it is normal that the foreigner is viewed with suspicion. In fact, it took twelve years for another European to win the award: Giannis Antetokoumnpo, in 2019..
Antetokoumnpo was – and is – an unstoppable player in the open field, a man capable of going to 30 points and 15 rebounds without any problem, mate after mate, and also dry the opposing star on defense. A man who led the Milwaukee Bucks to the league’s best record that year and the next, when he repeated MVP for the first time since Stephen Curry. Now, the play-offs came and the Bucks flopped like the Mavericks had. Not only did they fail as a team, but Antetokoumnpo was the living image of that failure. Unable to generate spaces, condemned to medium and long distance shots that hit the rim over and over again, the Greek stopped being a differential player to become another star, period.
Perhaps because of this, because of this history of Europeans who walk through the regular league but do not know how to finish in the playoffs (in favor of Nowitzki, it must be said that he did achieve it in 2011, when nobody already had it), The recent award for Nikola Jokic has been met with some skepticism from the American press and fans. You can’t put a “but” on Jokic’s numbers: 26.4 points; 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists in 34 minutes of play. Despite the absence due to injury of his other star, Jamaal Murray, Jokic has managed to take Denver to third place in the Western Conference and has been key in the final minutes of many games.
Now, Jokic is not a player who hopes in the United States. His coach, Mike Malone, came out to a press conference last Wednesday with a shirt that listed the prejudices surrounding the Serbian player: he is too fat (or too thin), he is slow, he does not defend, he does not have good lateral movement … In a time of compulsive shooters and scorers, seeing an intelligent center, who is not overwhelmed by his physique but by his intelligence – something he shares, by the way, with the other great candidate, Joel Embiid – is difficult to digest. Jokic is not a guy who appears in the “highlights” or falls in love with the new generations because The NBA has long ago decided that the only thing that counts are the triples and the dunks, not the rectified ones, nor the feints, nor the first lethal step against a slower center, nor the pass to the corner where there is only one teammate.
Whether Jokic has been the best or Embiid has been can be debatable. I lean towards the Serbian but I admit the debate because, I insist, this is nothing more than a popularity contest, but it is difficult for me to hear the names of Chris Paul, Stephen Curry or even Dame Lillard at the same height. It is difficult for me because they are three fantastic players … but they have not been as valuable as Jokic. The only exception would be Paul, who has changed Phoenix from top to bottom, but his individual performance is intended to improve his teammates. It is an award that has been voluntarily discarded from the start of the season.
What has really set Jokic apart from Embiid this year is that Embiid has missed too many games through injury or discomfort. Jokic, no. Not one. He has been there every day of every month, giving it his all. Jokic’s good games are stratospheric. The bad guys are ok. Is the Serbian paying the prejudice of “is that then the Europeans do nothing in the playoffs”? Can be. The worst thing is that, in fact, the same thing is happening to him: The Nuggets are already 0-2 against Chris Paul’s own Suns and the tie looks like it won’t be very long.
Does not matter. You can’t change the rules when it interests you. When Derrick Rose won his MVP in 2011, no one waited to see what the Bulls would do in the playoffs. When Westbrook won it in 2017, three-quarters of the same. The award is given to the best of the regular season, not the best overall. If it were a recognition to the best player in the NBA, without more, Kevin Durant would win it every year, period. That’s why the Nets are going to win the league and the Nuggets aren’t. What is rewarded here is something else: it is perseverance, talent and knowing how to take a team as far as possible within minimums that, for example, the Warriors have not met this year. Accepting it with the Americans but ugly the Europeans is an unfair double yardstick. And Jokic, of course, is not to blame for it.
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