This year’s NBA MVP Award has several contenders: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ja Morant, Devin Booker, Luka Dončić, etc. However, most fans and analysts would agree that the award is really a two-horse race between Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and the reigning MVP, Denver’s Nikola Jokić. It’s been that way for a few months now. The Greek Freak is there, but he’s a ways back of his competitors.
On February 17, ESPN released a straw poll indicating their unofficial picks for the MVP. As expected Embiid and Jokić led the way with 45 and 43 first-place votes each. That’s a very close race. In fact, the article itself claims that it was the “closest the top two spots have been over the nine iterations of this poll over the past six seasons.”
From a strictly basketball standpoint (more on what I mean in a moment), the narrative hasn’t changed much. Most fans would tell you that the MVP Award is still a toss-up between Embiid and Jokić, perhaps Embiid has a slight advantage, but nothing massive. ESPN disagrees. In their latest straw poll — released yesterday — Jokić received 62 of the 100 first-place votes, a huge jump from where he was just a month and a half ago.
But why? What has Jokić done since February 17 that Embiid hasn’t? Since that date, here are each players’ numbers:
Jokić: 27.2 PPG, 8.3 APG, 12.8 RPG, 1.6 STL, 1.2 BLK, .599 FG%, .224 3PT%, .818 FT%, 11-6 record in games played
Embiid: 31.4 PPG, 3.6 APG, 12.2 RPG, 1.5 STL, 1.4 BLK, .485 FG%, .373 3PT%, .823 FT%, 11-6 record in games played
Based on those numbers, you might give Jokić a slight edge, just on field goal percentage and assist numbers alone. However, these aren’t far removed from the numbers each of these players has posted all season long. If anything, each of them has stepped their game up the last five weeks. Basically, while you might look at these figures and think one player has a slight edge, but definitely not as big as ESPN’s latest straw poll would have you think.
The advanced analytics also favor Embiid. Since February 17, per every 100 possessions, the Nuggets have posted a +2.5 net scoring differential with Jokić on the floor. That’s pretty good. However, without Jokić on the floor, the Nuggets have recorded a +5.9 differential, meaning the team is more than three points better per 100 possessions without Jokić on the floor since the previous straw poll. Embiid, on the other hand, has made the Sixers much better in that span. With him on the floor, the team has a +6.9 net scoring differential. Without him, it drops to +0.8. Embiid has made the Sixers over the last five weeks. The same can’t be said for Jokić and the Nuggets.
Now here’s where we get into the non-basketball part of this. Even though Jokić’s numbers might be slightly better than Embiid’s, Jokić’s hit on Markief Morris in November that forced Morris to miss four months of the season should be enough to turn everyone away to the player with slightly worse numbers, no? Praising Jokić in this manner only promotes that terrible outburst from Jokić that seriously hurt another player. Look at the video if you haven’t seen it already. It doesn’t take much from Morris to make Jokić go mad. Yet, in the eyes of MVP voters, that’s alright apparently. “It happened in November after all. That’s so long ago. Give him a break.” How about no?
Perhaps the voters are giving the edge to Jokić because, unlike Embiid, Jokić doesn’t have a superstar teammate like James Harden to ease the load. True, but in case you haven’t been watching lately, Harden hasn’t exactly been playing well. In his last ten games, Harden is shooting an abysmal 37.7 percent on 14.6 field goal attempts per game. He’s still recording over 20 points per game, but his efficiency is in a massive slump, thus forcing Embiid to shoulder more of the scoring recently.
Then, of course, there’s also team success, which as I noted earlier, Jokić and Embiid have been equal in since February 17. That being said, Philadelphia has a better record for the season (AKA including the part before Harden became a Sixer) and ranks fourth in the Eastern Conference standings compared to Denver ranking sixth in the West. I understand that the West is deeper and more competitive, but it’s not Embiid’s fault that his conference isn’t as difficult. If that’s a determining factor for the voters then why are Embiid and Antetokounmpo still being considered at all?
This isn’t a shot at Jokić as a basketball player, but for two players who’ve been neck and neck in the MVP race all season, I find it shocking that Jokić would jump out to such an enormous lead given what Embiid did in the same time span, and that’s not even accounting for the massive foul Jokić committed on Morris near the start of the season. Embiid may not be the MVP, but it should be much closer than ESPN’s straw poll indicates. It might sound crazy, but Embiid deserves more respect than he’s getting.