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Analysis: Early NBA MVP race has crowded field of candidates

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Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo drives past Dallas Mavericks' Christian Wood and Dorian Finney-Smith during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic may just be putting together his best season.

It still may not be enough to get the Denver Nuggets' big man a third straight NBA MVP.

Chalk that up to MVP fatigue. Or to the glaringly good numbers of a crowded field of early candidates, including Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and Stephen Curry.

Jokic isn't having to shoulder as much of the load with the return this season of fellow Nuggets stars Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. He's also taken his unselfish play to another level, which may not do him any favors in the MVP race, but it sure does help the Nuggets.

That's just fine with coach Michael Malone. He’ll gladly take this version of the player nicknamed “Joker,” the one averaging a career-best 8.8 assists to go with 23 points and 9.8 rebounds through the first quarter of the season.

“I don’t worry about the MVP buzz,” said Malone, whose team moved to 13-7 after a 129-113 win over Houston on Monday night where Jokic had 32 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. “If we continue to win, Nikola is going to be in the MVP conversation because of the fact that he impacts the game on so many different levels.”

Last season, Jokic put up 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds, 7.9 assists because that was the best way for Denver to win. The Nuggets didn't have Murray (knee) and barely had Porter (back).

These days, Jokic lets the game dictate which stat category he dominates. Sometimes, it's through his pinpoint passes. Others, with his deft shooting touch.

To illustrate: He took nine shots and had 14 assists in a win at Oklahoma City on Nov. 3. Twenty days later, and back at Oklahoma City, he erupted 39 points in another win.

It is fair to say it hasn’t exactly been a great start to the season for the Golden State Warriors.

Jokic is trying to join the company of Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell as players who’ve each won the MVP award in three straight seasons. But Jokic is well down the odds list of early favorites.

Antetokounmpo and Doncic are both the favorites at +280, according FanDuel Sportsbook. Behind Tatum, Curry, Joel Embiid, Donovan Mitchell, Ja Morant and tied with Kevin Durant, is Jokic (+2700).

Nuggets point guard Ish Smith, who's crossed paths with former league MVPs Russell Westbrook and Durant during his 13-team excursion, has a theory of why Jokic is not a front-runner.

“People like to see something different. He’s a two-time MVP, so obviously people are advocating for Luka, he’s playing at a high level. Giannis, too,” Smith said. “Sometimes people like the new ‘It,’ the new thing.”

Much like Jokic last season, Doncic needs to produce in a big way for the Mavericks to succeed. He is, too, averaging 33.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and 8.4 assists.

Antetokounmpo, a two-time MVP winner, is on pace for his highest scoring average (30.9). Curry, another two-time winner, continues to shoot lights out from everywhere — 52.2% from the floor, 44.1% from 3-point range and 91.1% from the free throw line. Then there's Tatum, who's averaging more than 30 points a game as his Celtics have won a league-best 17 games.

The Nuggets don’t mind the throwback play of Jokic, who has the most triple-doubles of any center in NBA history.

“He’s such a dominant force,” Smith said. “He’s pretty special.”

Unassuming, too. Smith caught a glimpse of that when a few of the Nuggets attended a Los Angeles Dodgers-Padres game while in San Diego for training camp. There was Jokic, just walking around like any ordinary baseball fan.

That’s just his personality. Don't forget: He accepted the MVP trophy last season from his horse stable in Sombor, Serbia.

“He’s not flashy. I love it,” Smith said of Jokic, the second-round pick in the 2014 draft. “I don’t think I’ve ever been around a superstar like that.”

Malone doesn't have any plans to talk with Jokic about being more aggressive. No need.

“I trust Nikola,” Malone said. “He’s proven over eight years that he’s going to make the right play time and time again. ... He knows how to play the game. He knows when he needs to be aggressive and score for us.

“The beauty of having a player with his unselfishness and IQ is just trusting him to make the right play over and over and over again. As a back-to-back MVP, he’s done that better than most.”

The return of Murray and Porter (who's currently dealing with a bruised heel) has cut down on some of Jokic's responsibilities, which may not help Jokic's MVP chances but could help him accomplish something he hasn't done: win an NBA title.

The last time Jokic, Murray and Porter were all on the court for the playoffs, the Nuggets made it to the Western Conference Finals (inside the bubble in 2020).

“I don’t want him to be at the top of his level now,” teammate and friend Vlatko Cancar said. “I need him to be at the top of his level when the playoffs come.”

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