With less than two weeks to go in the NBA's regular season, the race for the game's Most Valuable Player award is wide open. And so is my vote.
There are several reasons for that, and perhaps a few things that can happen over each of the candidate's handful of remaining regular-season games to sway me, the other voters and the direction of the award itself.
For starters, at least for me, this year's MVP award is a three-way race between Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic.
All three have strong cases for their candidacy. And if you must -- and we must -- there are cases to be made against each of them. This is the trickiest MVP voting ballot in memory, and certainly my most difficult one.
It's a conversation for fans, players and the league -- and a similarly stressful assessment for voters -- that's been super-charged with issues and optics that may further confound and confuse voting.
There's Jokic's pursuit of a third straight award and the noise behind that. There's the former player attention-grabbing on TV, insisting race has swayed past ballots in Jokic's favor. There's Embiid and his supporters' past frustrations with his close calls. There's the possibility, at least from my vantage point, too many are looking past Giannis.
So what to do, and how to vote?
For me, the tight race between these three deserving players blurs the process by which I try to make my decisions. First, I treat voting, which is a serious responsibility, as largely a reporting assignment. I talk to NBA general managers, scouts, former players and others about how they would vote and why. During this stretch, I try not to consume too much other NBA media on the MVP. I would rather have a base viewpoint that comes from reporting rather than my NBA media colleagues.
Then, I crunch the numbers, and try to understand the context of each candidate's individual statistical success -- where their teams finished, the help they did or didn't have, how their own greatness merged into the team, and so on.
That process is ongoing, but this award vote is shaping up to be brutally difficult.
Here's one exchange with a former GM, who has been happy to offer his thoughts in the past, and has never been shy about having an opinion on the matter.
Him: "It's wide open."
Me: "If you had to vote for one, who would it be?"
Him: "Close call this year valid arguments for all in my opinion. No clear cut choice."
So I gave him my very tentative -- and constantly shifting -- MVP vote, No. 1, 2, and 3 -- just typing it, unofficially, felt awful. He still wouldn't bite.
"No wrong answer which is good and bad."
And no right answer, either. Or so it seems.
I also, and this one is tricky, try to consume as much smart coverage and other information late in the process without falling into the groupthink that sometimes can infiltrate NBA media coverage.
I have voted on and off for about a decade, and while it's easy to be high-minded when you don't actually have to vote, here's an example of how sometimes momentum can pull voters in the wrong direction.
In 2017, when I did not have a vote, I believed wholeheartedly that Russell Westbrook did not deserve the MVP award, a point I pushed nonstop in the places I was writing and talking about the league.
The voters got that one wrong, and that's a sentiment that I think is now shared by many. But it's easy to type that on a laptop, or preach it on a radio show, when your words and views don't actually matter, and everyone else is insisting in the moment it's what should happen.
I don't have that luxury this year.
Take Giannis, who I think is very much in this race even if Vegas disagrees and many of my colleagues seem to feel differently. He is, for my money, the best player on Earth. He is the leader and best player of the best team on Earth. His 31.1 points per game, 11.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists speak to his greatness.
But there's also the fact that his most important teammate, Khris Middleton, has played only 29 games for the Bucks this year. And in 23 of those games, Middleton played fewer than 30 minutes.
Still, Giannis has played just 59 of his team's 74 games so far this year. That counts for something, right?
Then there's Embiid. On any given night, he can be the most impactful player on the planet, a fact he has underlined all season long, whether by 50-point games or his utter domination versus Jokic earlier this season.
Embiid is also the scoring leader right now, and his numbers are gaudy as well -- 33.3/10.2/4.2, plus 1.1 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. Embiid, like Giannis, is also a defensive force.
As Draymond Green argued this week, he's "the hardest guy to guard in the league."
But Embiid has played just two more games than Giannis, at 61. That means he and Giannis, if either win MVP, will fail to cross the 70-games-played threshold for only the seventh time in NBA history.
The Sixers are also four games behind the Bucks in the Eastern Conference -- though just behind the Nuggets mark -- even if Denver is tops in the Western Conference.
Speaking of the Nuggets, and Jokic: He is a statistical marvel all his own. His 24.9/11.8/9.9 has him on the cusp of being only the third player in NBA history to average a triple double.
He's a sabermetrician's dream, and a sure thing for those who want those numbers to translate to victories. Denver just keeps winning, and Jokic is the primary reason. As Tom Haberstroh at Meadowlark pointed out, Jokic does not have a single teammate who has ever been an All-Star or All-NBA player.
But the combo of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. is not that dissimilar in its help and excellence from Philadelphia's James Harden and Tyrese Maxey. And while Denver leads the West, it has not won as many games as Milwaukee.
So it's a swirling, difficult, close and hard-to-call MVP race -- overall, and certainly for me.
Here, then, are a few things that could help sway my vote, and perhaps those of others, from each of the players over the final few games of the regular season:
Win: First and foremost, hold onto the game's best record. Staving off the Celtics, who are two games back in the loss column of the top spot in the Eastern Conference, is important. But so is the three-game lead Milwaukee has on Denver for the best record overall. Leading a team, minus some of the help you would expect, to the best record in the league is a key piece of an argument for Giannis.
Stay healthy: As noted, Giannis has played the fewest games of the top contenders, and getting as many games in -- 67 if he plays the rest on Milwaukee's slate -- is a small but noteworthy part of this.
Circle March 30 and April 2: Those are games against the Celtics and Nuggets. Dominant performances against great teams and MVP rivals can reinforce the singular excellence -- the value -- of a would-be MVP.
Catch Denver ... or even Milwaukee: The Sixers are four games behind the Bucks with eight to play and the Celtics between them. So finishing atop the East is hardly likely. But being one game behind Denver, if those standings existed, matters, at least to me. And finishing second ahead of Boston would also be a small but worthy factor. This will be a razor-thin calculation, and Jokic or Embiid leading their teams to more wins might tip the balance.
Dominate your rivals: Embiid has the unique showcase of games left against Jokic's Nuggets and Giannis' Bucks. The Denver game is Monday night. If Embiid utterly dominates Jokic again, it could be big. If he does it to Giannis six days later, all the better.
Stay healthy: Same answer as for Giannis. Games played might matter some, and Embiid is sitting out against Jokic and the Nuggets on Monday. Seeing him out there regularly for the next two weeks, and pushing his total games played this year to almost 70, won't be nothing.
Dominate Embiid: Is this silly? A single moment that's asked to settle an 82-game, three-way puzzle? Maybe. But Jokic flipping the script and doing to Embiid what was done to him back on Jan. 28 could help. It's hard to assess three greats in a team sport over such a long stretch with so many important and fluctuating variables. So a little head-to-head action can be illuminating, and impactful.
Win: Just like his challengers, how many wins his team finishes with will mean something. Having the worst record of the three teams with a legit MVP candidate, while not decisive, may be pivotal if things remain so tight. If the margins matter, the win-loss record is an easy one to measure.
Get that triple-double average: This isn't a thing for me, but it will be for others. As with the sense Jokic should be penalized for having won the past two MVP votes, I find the idea of voting for someone because of a decimal-point statistical accomplishment ... well, stupid. But we love round, even, simple-to-understand numbers. If he nudges up that assists-per-game line with a burst of dimes, it'll help, even if it shouldn't.
Truth? All three players deserve a first-place vote. That's the excruciating fact weighing on all those who are holding ballots this season. Perhaps, years from now, we'll look back on the 2023 MVP Award and recall how whoever finished second or third could have just as easily been the one receiving the hardware.
Maybe. But that's not how these things usually work. Winners are etched into our memory, and like it not not, the also-rans typically wind up being erased from it. So here's hoping that the final two weeks can provide a measure of clarity that the previous 23 weeks have not.