NBA Fact or Fiction: The MVP case for rising Memphis Grizzlies superstar Ja Morant
Each week during the 2021-22 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
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Ja Morant can win the MVP this season
Rising Memphis Grizzlies superstar Ja Morant was a 50/1 long shot to win the NBA's MVP award at the start of training camp. Eighteen players held better odds, including Zion Williamson, who was rehabbing from a broken right foot, and Kyrie Irving, whose vaccination status made him unavailable for home games.
Morant is an 11/1 favorite now, trailing only 7-footers Joel Embiid (-120), Nikola Jokic (+300) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+550), according to BetMGM. The case for Morant is simple: He is the most electrifying player in the league and the leader of a Grizzlies team no one figured for a potential No. 2 playoff seed.
There is no statistical argument against Jokic. The returning MVP is averaging a 28-15-9 per 36 minutes on 57/36/82 shootings splits. Nobody has ever come close to that level of production. His Denver Nuggets are 20.5 points per 100 possessions worse when he sits, and their 1-5 record without him backs the numbers.
Embiid is the odds-on favorite to win the award. His case may be more a matter of voter fatigue. Jokic and Antetokounmpo, who have combined to win the last three MVP honors, outrank Embiid in player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage, win shares (and win shares per 48 minutes), box plus-minus, value over replacement player, on/off rating and games played. They also both have a lower usage rate than Embiid.
The difference in their teams' records is negligible enough not to take into serious consideration.
Embiid: 29.8 PPG (49/37/82), 11.1 RPG, 4.4 APG, 33 MPG
31.7 PER, 61.3 TS%, 37.2 USG%, 9.0 WS (.266 WS/48), 9.8 BPM, 4.8 VORP
Jokic: 25.4 PPG (57/36/81), 13.8 RPG, 7.9 APG, 33 MPG
32.0 PER, 65.0 TS%, 31.1 USG%, 11.3 WS (.293 WS/48), 13.6 BPM, 7.3 VORP
Antetokounmpo: 29.3 PPG (54/30/73), 11.5 RPG, 6.0 APG, 32.7 MPG
32.2 PER, 62.9 TS%, 34.9 USG%, 10.3 WS (.292 WS/48), 11.3 BPM, 5.7 VORP
Morant: 27.8 PPG (50/34/76), 6.6 APG, 5.8 RPG, 33.4 MPG
25.4 PER, 57.8 TS%, 33.9 USG%, 6.3 WS (.181 WS/48), 6.3 BPM, 3.5 VORP
We know advanced statistics favor big men for scoring and rebounding at the rim, but if you really want to know why you can take them with a grain of salt, consider this: Memphis has been ever-so-slightly better in meaningful minutes (0.6 points per 100 possessions) without Morant this season, per Cleaning the Glass.
It takes 30 seconds of highlights from Morant's 52-point effort against the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night to know for certain that he is the reason bookmakers are giving the Grizzlies a better chance to win the title (28/1) than Jokic's Nuggets (30/1), Luka Doncic's Mavericks (40/1) or LeBron James' Lakers (40/1).
Where would the Grizzlies be without Morant? Their 12-2 record in his monthlong knee injury absence suggests they might be fine, but that is as deceiving as the on/off numbers. Take their 73-point win over the Oklahoma City Thunder as an example. I defy casual NBA observers to name a single player in OKC's lineup that night. That game alone is enough to swing any statistical breakdown. Memphis logged eight of their 12 wins without Morant against sub-.500 teams, and the other four came against the Embiid-less Sixers, the Doncic-less Mavericks, the Bam Adebayo-less Heat and a Raptors team missing two starters.
The Grizzlies are 5-3 against the Suns, Warriors and Jazz — the three teams with better odds to win the West — and one of those losses was in Morant's second game back from injury. Nobody believes Memphis would be that dangerous if Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane were not lining up behind Morant. Against Phoenix, Golden State and Utah, Morant has averaged a 28-6-7 with two combined steals and blocks.
You can make a similar argument in favor of Jokic, who has carried a Nuggets team that has been without Jamal Murray for the entire season and Michael Porter Jr. for much of it. Denver is a lottery team without Jokic, who has kept his team afloat long enough for Murray and Porter to threaten returns for the playoffs. Opinions vary on just how much value a candidate on a sixth-place team adds, but Jokic is maximizing it.
Memphis trails Golden State by half a game for the league's second-best record and owns the tiebreaker. The Grizzlies are five wins better than Embiid's Sixers or Antetokounmpo's defending champion Bucks. Milwaukee is the most talented team, and it will be interesting to see how James Harden's arrival in Philadelphia impacts Embiid's MVP case, especially if Harden is a more impactful player down the stretch.
Morant is a serious candidate for most valuable player in the most basic sense of the phrase, and he is getting better by the week. His ceiling by season's end is practically limitless. What a 22-year-old point guard has to do to win the award is another matter. The closest comparison has to be Derrick Rose, who at age 22 became the youngest player ever to earn the honor, edging two-time reigning MVP LeBron James.
Morant (2022): 27.8 PPG (50/34/76), 6.6 APG, 5.8 RPG, 33.4 MPG
25.4 PER, 57.8 TS%, 33.9 USG%, 6.3 WS (.181 WS/48), 6.3 BPM, 3.5 VORP
Rose (2011): 25.0 PPG (45/33/86), 7.7 APG, 4.1 RPG, 37.4 MPG
23.5 PER, 55.0 TS%, 32.2 USG%, 13.1 WS (.208 WS/48), 6.8 BPM, 6.7 VORP
That Morant is statistically more productive and more efficient than Rose was in 2011 may not matter in this year's race, since Antetokounmpo and Jokic are on pace for the two highest single-season PERs in league history, and Embiid is currently sixth on that list. Then again, voters ignored the fact that James led the NBA in every advanced statistical category during the 2010-11 season to put a fresh face on the MVP trophy.
The panel is more sophisticated now, but maybe there was something to voting more by feel in yesteryear. People want to erase Russell Westbrook's 2017 MVP from memory for winning on a 47-win sixth seed, but he was the focal point of that season. Rose was the headliner in 2011. Morant is stealing the show in 2022.
There is a real possibility that Harden steals some Sixers shine during another Embiid late-season swoon, or Jokic's Nuggets fall into the play-in tournament, and Morant only gathers more steam against one of the league's easiest remaining schedules. If Morant does more with Memphis than Antetokounmpo does with Milwaukee, who really was more valuable to his team this season? It would make Morant the most unlikely MVP since Sports Odds History began logging odds in 2007, but he has a shot, and so do his Grizzlies.
The face of the NBA is changing, and Morant has the next few months to make it his in Memphis.
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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach