Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander building irrefutable case for MVP

Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander building irrefutable case for MVP

The MVP award is basketball’s most hallowed individual prize.

It takes a team to win a championship, but in a sport where one player can affect the outcome of a game more than in any other — the exception being hockey goalies, arguably — having the best player, or close to it, is the prerequisite for winning a championship.

Over and over again, the NBA champion is led by a player who either has won the MVP award, will one day win one or in the case of, say, Kawhi Leonard, would likely have won one had injuries not interfered.

The exceptions are few and far between. The award will be given out for the 59th time this spring, and over all those years, only Steve Nash retired without having at least made an NBA Final, a shortcoming attributable to ill-timed injuries and plain old bad luck.

All of this is a preamble to make clear the sacred ground that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is treading on this year. The Hamilton, Ont., product has followed up his breakout season from a year ago when he became the first Canadian other than Nash to earn first-team all-NBA honours with a break-in year, as in, SGA has broken into the conversation for MVP.

Tim Bontemps of ESPN conducts a poll of 100 likely award voters three times each year (I have been both a participant in the informal ‘straw poll’ and the league’s end-of-season awards voting) to gauge the temperature of the MVP race. The most recent edition came out in mid-February, and the Oklahoma City Thunder star was second in the voting behind two-time MVP winner Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets.

But the gap is surprisingly small, given Jokic’s pedigree and the momentum he earned with his romp through the NBA playoffs last season. Jokic was named on 100 ballots, Gilgeous-Alexander on 99, though the Serbian centre led the Canadian point guard in first-place votes, 69-24. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo (two) of the Bucks and the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic (four) earned more than one first-place vote.

It’s heady stuff for a 25-year-old in his sixth season, but he’s getting used to the thin air.

“For sure (winning MVP) would be up there (as a personal goal),” Gilgeous-Alexander told me in early February, when I asked him how he’s navigating the buzz in the midst of a breakthrough season for the Thunder as a group. “I think for every basketball player, it is. Obviously, I’m not naive, I can hear (the talk), but right now I channel it out and I try to focus on the day in, day out. It’s what got me to this point. I’d be stupid to focus on anything else.”

That’s the thing with Gilgeous-Alexander, who takes the Western Conference-leading Thunder into Scotiabank Arena Friday night for his one visit to his (Hamilton-adjacent) hometown: for all his athletic gifts and extraordinary skill, it’s his ability to narrow down his field of vision to what really matters that is most impressive to those who know him.

“He’s the most consistent professional with his habits — working out in the morning,  taking care of his body, eating properly … it’s very special,” said Canadian men’s national team head coach Jordi Fernandez, who saw SGA at his best this summer when he led Canada to a bronze medal at the FIBA Basketball World Cup. “It’s not easy to do at his age, being that young and that mature. There’s no surprise why he’s so good. And he’s right, I’ve experienced it. He’s a super pro, a great teammate and a good leader.”

What Gilgeous-Alexander and Jokic — his primary rival to make history this season — have in common is that their basketball brilliance doesn’t seem to overwhelm their personality as a whole, or those around them. They’re different players with different interests — Gilgeous-Alexander is as fashion-forward as they come in the NBA, spending parts of his off-season at Fashion Week in Manhattan, while Jokic prefers quiet time with his horses in Serbia — but neither of them gets too swept up by the bright lights or the attention, if at all.

Is SGA really as chill as he seems? Turns out, yes.

“On and off the court, that’s who he is. It’s pretty special to see,” said Raptors forward Kelly Olynyk, who will be joining Gilgeous-Alexander on the Canadian Olympic team this coming summer. “You would never know he’s in the MVP [conversation]when you’re hanging out with him and just having lunch or in the locker room. You don’t feel that kind of ‘I’m better than you’ attitude or persona or aura. He just lets his game speak. Great guy, great team guy. He’s a pleasure to be around.”

But only so many players ever have a chance to stand apart and win an MVP award, and with less than a month left, Gilgeous-Alexander is as close as anyone can get.

The numbers support this case: he’s averaging 30.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists while shooting 54.4 per cent from the field and 37.6 per cent from three while leading the NBA with 2.1 steals a game. His stats actually compare favourably to Jokic’s box score line: 26 points, 12.3 rebounds and nine assists while shooting 58.2 per cent from the floor and 35.4 per cent from three.

Typically, Jokic dominates any advanced statistics argument, but Gilgeous-Alexander holds his own there too, as he’s just a hair behind Jokic in Win Shares per 48 minutes and leading the NBA in Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM) on, another catch-all measurement that tends to correlate well with the MVP vote.

If consistency is your bag, how about this one: Friday night will be Gilgeous-Alexander’s 69th game and he’s scored at least 30 points in 50 of them, breaking a Thunder team record for 30-point games in a season held by none other than Kevin Durant, and giving him a chance to pass Michael Jordan’s mark of 59 30-point games, set in 1987-88, the highest such mark in 50 years.

And team performance? The baby-faced Thunder have been at or near the top of the crazily competitive Western Conference all season and at their current pace will surpass last season’s win total (40) by 18. The year before that, OKC won just 24 games.

How? SGA, that’s how.

“He’s just so dynamic,” said Olynyk. “The thing about Shai is that even two years ago, three years ago, when I first started playing with him on the national team, everything is so effortless and so easy. He’s so smooth, you can’t speed him up and he just gets things done; he makes plays in big moments. He’s always alive, you can’t rest or break, ever, when you’re guarding him. It’s tough.”

Gilgeous-Alexander makes it tough on defenders and this season should make it tough for those trying to determine the NBA’s MVP award.

But when you factor in the individual brilliance, the Thunder’s emergence as a contender and Gilgeous-Alexander’s mind-blowing consistency, it’s not that hard to imagine.

Twenty years after Nash became the first and only Canadian to win the MVP award, in 2004-05, Gilgeous-Alexander will have this writer’s vote to be the second.

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