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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s MVP case more about substance than pure style

Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets

HOUSTON, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 25: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder controls the ball against the Houston Rockets during the first half at Toyota Center on February 25, 2024 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

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LOS ANGELES — There is flash to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s game.

The man has style.

That’s not what has him as a top-two MVP candidate this season, what made him an All-Star Game starter.

Rather, it’s substance over style. It’s consistency. It’s going for the right play, not the highlight play. Maybe that’s why some fans don’t grasp why he is in a legitimate race with Nikola Jokic to win MVP (although Jokic thinks and plays much the same way).

TRYING TO DEFEND SGA

For example, check out his game-winner against Denver earlier this season — he took what the defense gave him.

SGA did not make an aggressive, reckless attack of the rim, he used a spaced floor to get to a shot he knew he could hit, which is what makes him so difficult to defend.

“I mean, he’s mastered the shot that you’re willing to live with, the contested two,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said of defending Gilgeous-Alexander. “And his ability to continuously play downhill, get to the free throw line. His size, he’s a really big guard. So just his physicality and his ability to stay on balance, when he’s bumped or whatnot still be able to finish.

“To me he’s one of the strongest players in the league at his position, probably as a whole, just based on his gravity and again, his size, and his ability to stay in motion and not off balance.”

Doc Rivers, the Clippers coach when SGA entered the league out of Kentucky (now the coach of the Milwaukee Bucks) has told anyone who would listen the past couple of years he hated giving up Gilgeous-Alexander in a trade to Oklahoma City for Paul George (which also netted the Clippers Kawhi Leonard as a free agent). Even if it is a bit of revisionist history, Rivers and many in the Clippers did not like giving up Gilgeous-Alexander and his potential.

“I did say, ‘Man, can we give them somebody else?’” Rivers said earlier this season when talking about the trade. “‘We cannot give up Shai.’”

NOBODY ATTACKS THE RIM LIKE SGA

Gilgeous-Alexander is aggressive, although it may not always look that way with his seemingly effortless glides toward the rim. He’s never seems rushed.

SGA leads the NBA in drives at 24.1 a game (5.3 more a game than Jalen Brunson, for comparison) and is shooting 57.1% on those, plus he’s getting an assist on 9.3% of them. This also gets him to the free throw line; his 545 attempts this season (8.9 per game) are second in the league (to Giannis Antetokounmpo).

His body control and aggressiveness in attacking are reminiscent of the game’s greats. Then there’s the stats. It’s not the 31.1 points per game, it’s the consistency — last season he led the league in 30+ point games with 45. This season he’s at 46 of those games with more than a month left to go. He’s also averaging 6.5 assists and 5.6 rebounds a game while playing strong defense on the perimeter.

IS SGA FOR MVP A GOOD BET?

All that has him legitimately in the mix to win MVP, something many fans haven’t fully gotten their heads wrapped around. In the latest ESPN straw poll he was second in the MVP chase to Nikola Jokic. While he was a distant second, remember that one year ago Joel Embiid was a distant second to Jokic at the same time and went on to win.

The betting market can be the most tuned into the legitimacy of these races, so I asked Jay Croucher, the lead betting analyst at NBC Sports, about it.

“The odds suggest that Jokic (-155) is more than twice as likely to win MVP than SGA (+240),” Croucher said. “On merit, this doesn’t seem particularly fair — given the teams are neck and neck in the standings and Jokic’s team won the title last year and SGA’s didn’t make the playoffs. SGA’s team was barely even favored to make the playoffs this season (-130).

“By most advanced stats the two are more or less a wash (SGA laps the field in EPM). SGA’s MVP price is currently longer than OKC’s 1-seed price, which illustrates the confidence the market has in Jokic. But If OKC close hotter than Denver and take the 1-seed, voters presumably would have a difficult time giving the award to anyone but SGA.”

SGA JUST KEEPS GRINDING

Gilgeous-Alexander is not oblivious to all this, but it also doesn’t faze him according to those around him — he just keeps his head down and keeps working. What SGA has in common with the other legends of the game is a voracious work ethic.

“It’s nothing complicated, but just the raw consistency of it,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “How diligent he is. For a guy that has a lot of stuff going on around him now because of the place that he’s elevated to, he never lets that stuff impact his priorities. He keeps his priorities straight all the time, and his highest priority is his craft.

“And then the other thing is, he has an incredible vision for himself. We’re not prescribing things for him. He’s in the driver’s seat of his career. He’s incredibly driven. But his work is all channeled towards something. It’s not just like aimless work, which I think happens sometimes guys want to work hard, but they have no direction, they have no focus to it. He’s got an incredible focus to what he’s working on why he’s working on it. And he drives that, you know, that’s not coming from anybody but him….

“He obviously wants to be a great player, but he also understands the ingredients and the parts that need to go in that. So he digs into the details of his game and identifies the things that are going to ladder up to him being a great player. He’s not just in the gym fantasizing about being a great player, he’s working on very specific things that are coming from him. That’s what’s most impressive. “

All that work leads to consistency, but it’s viewed through a lens of team success being the ultimate goal. In another game-winning situation against Portland earlier this season, SGA was happy to be a decoy that flashed across the court and drew defensive attention, which got Jalen Williams the matchup and shot he wanted to win it.

It was about substance.

That substance will have the Thunder as a top-three seed entering this playoffs, their first postseason run with this core. There will be lessons to learn, possibly painful ones. Figuring out how to win in the NBA playoffs is a full-contact sport. Maybe it takes a playoff run for some fans to grasp just how elite a player Gilgeous-Alexander has become.

Gilgeous-Alexander can take the bumps and bruises that will come and keep moving forward. His work ethic is not changing. He is not changing.

That’s what consistency and substance look like.