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Nikola Jokic vs. Joel Embiid square off as the MVP debate heads to Philly

It’s just another regular season game, but don’t tell that to the MVP voters

2022 NBA All-Star Game Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

There are a million reasons why Joel Embiid winning MVP would be an incredible thrill. He’s the crown jewel of the process, as Brett Brown used to say. It will further force those who insisted it was somehow dumb to stockpile multiple, high, lottery picks to double-down on their terrible takes, and move some goal posts. Have they won anything yet? If they never win a title, I was right about keeping Michael Carter-Williams and sending the message to the young core you play to win.

It would force those who once argued it was dumb to take a player who they knew would miss time rehabbing to move some goalposts as well. I only meant Nerlens not Joel, they got lucky Cleveland didn’t want him! Let’s face it, the most ardent Process Trusters probably didn’t know the half of how good Joel would become and they were more right than everyone else.

For Embiid’s standards, he didn’t play well in Orlando. He didn’t! And yet, lol:

We have come so far from the “he only played X number of games in Y number of seasons, he’s out of shape, blah blah blah” days. We don’t hear the “if healthy, in shape and engaged” requisite condition before all praise anymore.

Joel Embiid is just one of the very few best players in the entire world. Simple as that. This season, he might actually be the best. He’ll get to make his case for that during the playoffs, long after MVP votes are mailed in.

Nikola Jokic is an incredible story in his own right. His current run is up there in the annals of history already. He has a chance to become one of just a few players to win back-to-back MVPs, even though a couple others who never did that may have deserved to.

(Ask James Harden, who in my opinion, probably should have shared the award with Kawhi Leonard in 2017, the year Russell Westbrook won it). Michael Jordan and LeBron James both suffered from the “we’re bored of voting for you” dynamic or they’d have more back-to-backs too.

But who’s keeping track. Embiid and Jokic, as well as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic remind us how much of an international sport basketball has become. And how much more exciting that fact makes everything. It’s fun when they’re not all from the US. It’s fun when the best players are generous, playful, and genuinely likable.

Sam Anderson, once wrote for The New York Times:

“N.B.A. scoring champions are, as a rule, weirdos and reprobates and in some cases diagnosable sociopaths. Something about dominating your opponent, publicly, more or less every day of your life, in the most visible aspect of your sport, tends to either warp your spirit or to be possible only to those whose spirits are already warped.”

And who knows, maybe there’s still more than a little truth to all that. And maybe some of it applies not just to scoring leaders but to MVPs.

Ironically, Anderson was contrasting Kevin Durant’s personality from these “sociopaths,” although I’m not sure many today would argue KD is the sweetie he fooled reporters into thinking he was back in 2012.

And sure, maybe if we asked Ben Simmons, Markieff Morris, or Kyrie Irving about Embiid, Jokic, or Giannis we’d hear a different story. But these dudes are all very likable to me, even if you need to be a bit ruthless and wild to be so impossibly good at hoops.

It’s tempting to get into a back and forth with other fans. It’s tempting to put down the players you’re not rooting for. I do it too sometimes, guilty. I whine about the amount of contact Giannis gets to initiate relative to the amount of contact defenders can dish back. I think as a big man who plays on the perimeter, he is sometimes officiated like he’s a small guard. He can occasionally maul you, and you can barely touch him back. But I try to put that stuff away and think more objectively too.

Embiid, Jokic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo all have claims at MVP here. And it will probably (hopefully) come down to the wire, and not be determined by two or three games that happen to be on national television, since that stands out.

(Hopefully, the voters get bored with the non-local candidates who have already hoisted the trophy too).

The case for Jokic probably goes something like this: he’s breaking our metrics, topping out on so many of them. He’s a center, who initiates his team’s offense. His points-plus-assist totals make him perhaps the best offensive player in the NBA right now.

(Kevin Durant might have something to say about that whenever healthy, but he missed 21 games with a knee issue, likely thwarting his claim). Shout outs to LeBron James and Steph Curry but it doesn’t seem like either have a great case or chance now. Shoutouts to Ja Morant, who has a solid case but likely won’t win it.

Jokic has improved defensively for several years now, and makes game-saving stops nowadays too. He is truly the total package. He’s doing it all without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. They have no business being as good as they have been.

Preemptive mini-rant: if voters don’t jam both Joker and Process on the All-NBA First Team card because they’re reluctant to call one a forward (even though they could) it would be sinister. We celebrate these guys for their versatility all season but then it apparently counts against them somehow on an All-NBA vote? The type of accolade which can make someone supermax eligible? That’s nuts to me. We’ll see.

For Joel Embiid he has one heck of a claim as well. His offensive numbers aren’t quite as eye-popping as Jokic’s. But there aren’t many outside of Colorado who’d argue there isn’t a significant difference between the two players defensively.

On many a night, Embiid can simply occupy the paint, and by reputation alone, force a mid-range and kick out parade. Lots of players don’t dare challenge him. When they do, it’s routinely game saving rim protection:

He can also switch out onto a wing, and provide more-than-credible perimeter defense in a pinch.

Joel also has some key narratives on his side. Carrying a team I might have expected to hover around .500 all year while Ben Simmons was out, has been no small feat. With Simmons out, Jo instantly improved as a passer, playmaker, finding ways to hit kick outs and cutters on what might have been turnovers in the past. He’s also more willing to make the quick, simple, pass to spring shooters open.

To my untrained eye, he’s also made an important change in the way in which he’s finishing around the rim: prioritizing deceleration, eurosteps, and layups. He has mostly changed from what used to be (even the first few weeks of this season) too many bull-rush, full-speed dunk attempts or track-down blocks that culminated with scary falls that give fans ulcers. He’s playing better than ever. And importantly, for fans buckled in for the long haul, he’s playing safer than ever, which has kept him in that lineup more often than not this season. He might have won MVP last season by being as careful as he’s been this year. His team is second in the East and he’s only played a few games ith Harden.

I’m really hoping Embiid wins the MVP. But I’m hoping he’s fresh for the playoffs even more so. Finals MVP is the real goal.

Right now, the Nuggets are feeling the effects of this regular season grind. They dropped two games in a row, after logging 5 games in seven nights. Embiid, as well as James Harden, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris all saw 40-plus minutes on Sunday in an ugly overtime win over the Orlando Magic.

Nobody is going to be at his very best Monday. (Will Barton game, incoming?) It’s yet another reminder of what every fan knows intuitively: we don’t get the best quality basketball when the league forces a ludicrous amount of games into the regular season. And that feels a bit unfair since voters seem to place a ton of weight on match ups that include lots of randomness. If either big man is prudent, he’ll probably allow his coach to limit his minutes in this game. But they know there’s some MVP voter out there who doesn’t watch them night in, night out and who’ll tune in for this game and perhaps make a decision off of it. Boo to that voter. Be better.

What these two big men are doing in today’s game is astonishing. That they’re competing for MVP in a year nobody would fault them for load managing formulaically in order to keep up with the NBA-in-time-lapse pace we’re seeing, is crazy. Patrick Ewing’s knees must think these guys are certifiably insane running around so much.

If you’ve been tracking the MVP race with us on Draft Kings, you know Joel Embiid had a bigger lead. And then after a string of big performances by Joker, starting with a monster game vs. the New Orleans Pelicans, following the Sixers collapse vs. the Brooklyn Nets, the race is much tighter now.

According to Michael C. Wright, at, Joel missed a chance to move up in that game vs. the Nets.

He’ll have a chance to regain his lead tonight. The MVP race takes center stage in Philly tonight. But hopefully tonight won’t determine much. Unless Joel BBQ’s Denver.

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