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The MVP Conundrum

Ron Chenoy / USA TODAY Sports

There is no bigger organization in the sports world than ESPN. The company name is synonymous with sports globally. Popular media has long shifted from factual discourse to click-generating headlines that permeate the internet on an hourly basis, quickly shifting to whatever generates more buzz. The brand’s headliners through the years have become celebrities in their own right, and almost generate more interest through their on-screen theatrics than the actual athletes they cover.

Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless’ debate show First Take was perhaps at the forefront of this shift, with the latter eventually leaving ESPN for an equally popular gig alongside Shannon Sharpe at Fox Sports. Bayless was eventually replaced by Max Kellerman, a solid yet unspectacular partner to Smith’s hyperbolic performances. ESPN has struggled to find a permanent partner for Smith since Kellerman left the show in 2021, and that has led to a rotating cast of personalities filling in throughout the week.

The heavily featured members are also the most flamboyant and controversial, because without controversy or comedic outrage, First Take does not work. The show has enjoyed large success throughout the 2010s, in large part due to the show’s ability to generate snippets online. Smith himself is one of the most popular memes on countless social media platforms, due to his expressions lending themselves in a variety of different situations. What may have started as a program designed to generate intelligent sports discourse has now fully bought into its highly comedic format, with many of the show’s recent absurdities clearly by design. This brings us to this season’s MVP discussion. 

The Debate

The current frontrunner Nikola Jokić, a somewhat unpopular winner of the past two awards, with opinions split on whether Jokić is truly the generational force that the stats suggests. The twenty-eight year old Serbian, now in his eighth season, is averaging a triple-double of 24.6 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 10.0 assists per game with the Denver Nuggets currently the first seed in the Western Conference. Jokić just recorded his 100th career triple double and is threatening to become only the third player ever to average a triple double after Russell Westbrook and Oscar Robertson.

ESPN’s basketball panelists have expressed doubts over Jokić’s legitimacy as a potential three-time MVP in vociferous fashion, similar to their coverage of last year’s award race. The most recent being Kendrick Perkins and his take on the current MVP race. Perkins has dismissed Jokić’s MVP case for two main reasons: stat padding and racial bias.

Addressing The Claims

The first carries zero factual analysis behind it, as Jokić has never been accused prior to Perkins nor does it appear that he has ever chased stats if one actually watches Nuggets games. Furthermore, the accusation of stat padding is usually one of placing the individual’s success above the team. The Nuggets are 24-0 on the season when Jokić records a triple double, effectively debunking that claim.

Perkins’ main argument on First Take seemed to be that since Westbrook won an MVP while averaging a triple-double and was heavily criticized for stat padding, the same should apply to the Nuggets’ superstar. Westbrook didn’t deserve the condemnation that he received then, so why should the media repeat the same mistake for Jokić’s 2023 season? And yet, as wild and inconceivable as this take was, it was the second take that has caused a frenzy across social media platforms, and not only among sports people. 

Manipulating The Numbers

Perkins reveals to Smith that he believes that Jokić being white equates to an almost insurmountable MVP case. Perkins brought up other white MVPs Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash as equally-illegitimate to bolster this claim. This added a whole new layer to an already heated discussion that has carried on for the majority of the NBA season.

Jokić is not on pace to finish top ten in scoring, similar to Nowitzki and Nash. Perkins stated that this would only be the third time that a player has won the MVP that isn’t in the top ten in scoring since 1990. That is factually correct, yet as many have pointed out in recent days, why did Perkins set the parameter at 1990? Magic Johnson won the MVP averaging 22.3 points per game in 1989, a mark only good for eighteenth best in the NBA. 

The Conversation

The game has also evolved beyond seeing scoring as the ultimate benchmark for success, or else we would have seen very different MVP candidates across recent years. JJ Redick, an ESPN commentator, went viral in his most recent First Take appearance, vehemently dismissing Perkins’ argument that race is a factor in the voting process. Jokić’s case for MVP is as strong as anyone’s has ever been. The seven-year veteran is on pace to put up one of the greatest offensive seasons of all time. Jokić is also leading his team to the top spot in the Western Conference.

Race does not have a role to play in Jokić’s looming third MVP, yet we cannot dismiss these comments as unfounded and without merit. The NBA has always promoted the black athlete as the face of the league, and rightfully so, but that doesn’t mean that racial tensions throughout sports in America do not exist. Redick’s anger at Perkin’s unsupported claim has sparked a new audience’s interest in this debate.

Right-wing media outlets have begun reporting on this story, hailing Redick as an “anti-woke” hero for standing up to the “mainstream media”. Although it’s clear that Redick was not dismissing racial bias in American sports as a whole and rather in this specific instance, any clip or snippet can be manipulated in this day and age and paraded as something completely different to fit a specific  narrative. Hence why it’s important for media members to carefully phrase their argument, no matter how outlandish the situation may be. The precedent that this now-infamous First Take clip has set may now hurt the conversation when there will undoubtedly be a case where racial bias is prevalent.

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