Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Jalen Brunson has become the second Knicks player in three years to be nominated for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award. Julius Randle capped a career season two years ago when he took home the same trophy.

But the two also have something else in common. They were nominated for the award in years when they played more like MVPs.

And yet, the favorites there are Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Giannis Antetokounpmo, all dominant centers. Brunson isn’t even in the conversation when he has the Knicks back in the playoffs and looking like proper contenders?

Think about it. Where would the Knicks be without Brunson this year? He came over from the Mavericks and immediately stepped in as the floor general New York craved for nearly a decade. For context, the Knicks are 46-33 on the year but 6-5 without Brunson, basically .500 basketball.

The numbers support Brunson’s case too even if he isn’t among the league leaders. He’s averaging 24 points and 6.2 assists per game, plus is shooting 41.6% from three. Those are all career highs and Brunson has also shot an efficient 49.1% from the field.

Now, let’s talk about one of Brunson’s more unique statistics. Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) is basically basketball’s version of baseball’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and a valuable tool in measuring a player’s overall value to a team. The aforementioned Jokic, the two-time defending MVP, actually leads the league with an 8.8 VORP, or an eye-popping 23.8 WAR.

Brunson is a bit more modest in this department. His VORP is only 3.5, or a 9.4 WAR. That’s well behind all three of Jokic, Embiid, and Giannis.

Now, what do all four of these players have in common? They’ve all missed time this year, so how have their teams fared? We’ve already discussed the Knicks but the Bucks, Sixers, and Nuggets have all fared differently without their stars this year:

  • Sixers without Embiid: 9-5
  • Bucks without Giannis: 10-6
  • Nuggets without Jokic: 4-7

Granted, Denver is still the No. 1 seed in the West despite Jokic’s missing time earlier this year, but he’s just that dominant a player when healthy. Milwaukee and Philadelphia, on the other hand, are deep and coached well enough that they’ve fared just fine without their supposed MVPs.

And we’re supposed to think that Brunson doesn’t belong among this group? Most Improved Player is a nice gesture but not quite fitting. Unlike Randle, Brunson didn’t break out after a subaverage season. He just went from going back and forth between starting and the bench in Dallas to being a full starter in New York.

This really just proves that the concept of a Most Valuable Player has become biased towards the biggest producers as opposed to who brings value. The NBA (and all professional sports, while we’re at it) should thus have two awards: Most Valuable Player and Most Outstanding Season.

It makes perfect sense. Most Valuable Player would go to absolute difference-makers. Their team is basically all or nothing without them. Most Outstanding Player would go to the Jokic, Embiid, and Giannis types who consistently stuff the stat sheets and are otherwise dominant. If they find their way into the MVP conversation on merit, congratulations to them.

But at a bare minimum, Brunson should at least be considered an MVP dark horse. The Knicks probably would have won 50 games were it not for his missing time with injuries. He’s an MVP, pure and simple, even if the league doesn’t see it.

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Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.