24 Jan

Why Shai Gilgeous-Alexander deserves serious MVP consideration alongside Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic

Third parties haven’t historically experienced much success in this country. No candidate outside of the two major political parties has won the presidency since the 1800s. No third-party candidate has even won a state since 1968.

Oklahoma City guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, through his phenomenal play this season, is doing his best to flip that third-party narrative.

The 2023-24 MVP race, as it has for the past four seasons, features dominant centers Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid as the hands-down favorites, and with good reason. Nobody in their right mind can sit here and tell you that neither Jokic nor Embiid deserves the award. They’re outstanding, unstoppable, transcendent — choose your most laudatory adjective.

But if you’re not at least including Gilgeous-Alexander in the conversation, you’re leaving out a key component to the MVP equation. Let’s take a look at just a few reasons why.

First off, the sixth-year guard is one of the best and most unique bucket-getters you’ll ever see. He’s averaging over 31 points for the second consecutive year, and he’s largely done it without the aid of the ubiquitous 3-point shot. No guard has averaged over 30 points while making fewer than two 3-pointers per game since Dwyane Wade 15 years ago. Gilgeous-Alexander is doing it for the second straight season. His mastery of the mid-range and finishing ability around the basket continue to baffle defenses.

He gets wherever he wants, whenever he wants — and when he gets there, he shoots 52% on midrange jumpers, the most accurate of any player averaging at least four midrange shots per game, per NBA.com.

If you defend against the jumper, Gilgeous-Alexander uses his lithe 6-foot-6 frame to slither into the tightest of gaps and finish creatively with either hand.

He averages 1.383 points per possession around the rim, per Synergy Sports, putting him in the company of massive human beings like Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Zion Williamson. The only guard remotely in SGA’s league when it comes to efficiency at the basket is Tyrese Maxey, and there’s a large drop-off.

But don’t be mistaken — Gilgeous-Alexander is far more than just a scorer.

It’s one thing to put up massive numbers — if you want to be in the mix with guys like Jokic and Embiid, your team needs to perform when you’re on the floor. That’s not a problem for Gilgeous-Alexander, who does the heavy lifting for the Thunder’s top-five offense. When he’s on the bench, OKC scores 111 points per 100 possessions. When he’s on the court, that balloons to 122.5 points per 100 possessions — better than the league’s top offense.

Gilgeous-Alexander averages over six assists per game, a career-high, but his impact goes well beyond those numbers. As head coach Mark Daigneault readily professes, the entire OKC offense is built around SGA and the defensive attention he commands on every possession.

“We had players on the team that they weren’t guarding. They were just loading up on Shai,” Daigneault said. “And it’s like, OK, where do we space them? We learned different spacing from that. We learned the cutting triggers and how to activate that from that experience.”

Here’s an example of the kind of cutting Daigneault is talking about. Watch how Gilgeous-Alexander draws a second defender — not once, but twice in the same possession — and it leads to successive hard cuts resulting in an easy and-one layup for Josh Giddey. No assist for SGA, but he’s chiefly responsible for the bucket.

On this play, the Heat are so concerned with Gilgeous-Alexander on a simple back-screen that they leave two defenders with him and completely ignore a wide-open Isaiah Joe under the basket. Sure, it’s a horrendous defensive breakdown from a normally disciplined team, but that’s what a talent like SGA does to you.

Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t a one-way player, either. Nobody will ever confuse him for a lockdown defensive stopper, but he uses his length, quick hands and anticipation so well that he leads the NBA in steals per game this season. Watch as he moves his feet to stay with offensive dynamo Jamal Murray, avoiding fouling before he eventually picks his pocket.

When it comes down to it, Gilgeous-Alexander is a stout enough defender that other teams can’t effectively hunt him possession after possession — and that’s what’s going to matter as the Thunder attempt to make a deep playoff run. Speaking of which …

The Thunder were a cute story last season, winning 40 games and making the play-in after landing in the 20s the previous two years. But this season’s team has a legitimate chance to not only earn the top seed in the Western Conference, but also potentially win the NBA title. They’re in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency, a traditional marker of a championship contender. The Thunder are perhaps the premier feel-good story of the NBA season — and what is the MVP about, if not a feel-good story?

Clutch moments like this step-back 3-pointer to seal the win over the West-leading Minnesota Timberwolves only strengthen Gilgeous-Alexander’s narrative.

Stepback Shai for three 🎯 pic.twitter.com/XMva5LWjbb

— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) January 21, 2024
OKC’s only meaningful addition this season was rookie Chet Holmgren, and he’s been phenomenal. But ultimately this team’s success comes down to their superstar, and Gilgeous-Alexander has been the conductor of the NBA’s Little Engine That Could. Jokic and Embiid deservingly dominate the conversation, but there’s a strong argument to be made that Gilgeous-Alexander should be directly alongside them when it comes to MVP favorites.

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