Don’t count MVPs before they hatch. Nikola Jokić’s third consecutive MVP has seemed like an inevitability during the first three-quarters of the season. Jokić’s triple-double averages, improved offensive efficiency, advanced statistics, and Denver’s No. 1 seed in the Western Conference all appeared to tip the scales toward Jokić walking away with the award.
Trench warfare in the 2023 MVP discourse has reached critical mass in recent weeks. Bleacher Report analyst Andy Bailey almost abandoned Twitter due to the backlash from Philly fans. Kendrick Perkins grasping for straws with his consistent bashing of Jokić sparked a war on First Take with JJ Redick that took the MVP conversation to ghost pepper levels on the Scoville scale.
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However, on Friday, NBA.com’s MVP ladder forecasted a shift in the atmosphere by anointing Joel Embiid as the new front-runner. Historical precedent dictates voters aren’t far behind. This latest development in the race is reminiscent of a year ago, when Jokić surged ahead of Embiid in one of ESPN’s final MVP straw polls on March 29 after leading the vote in February. Inexplicably, Embiid had also outplayed Jokić in the month and a half between straw polls, which added to the resentment among Embiid backers who believed that Jokić’s first two MVPs were stolen.
“What else I have to do to win it, and to me … at this point it’s like, it’s whatever,” Embiid wondered aloud last year after leading the league in scoring.
But this time, what Embiid’s been doing over the first 70 games of the season — and especially in the last 30 days — has been working. It turns out Embiid just had to overtake the reigning MVP in one single metric. Although MVP voting isn’t an exact science, player efficiency ranking has always been considered the most reliable benchmark.
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For a majority of the season, Jokić’s MVP argument hinged on the Nuggets’ record and the trove of analytics leaning in his favor. He still leads in true shooting percentage, VORP, box plus/minus, defensive plus/minus, win shares, and offensive plus/minus, but take those with a grain of salt. Any defensive metrics that have Jokić ahead of Embiid or the field by such a large margin are untrustworthy. PER is king though.
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Here are the last 10 leaders in PER and where they wound up in the final MVP vote tabulation at the end of their respective seasons.
- 2022: Nikola Jokić (1st)
- 2021: Nikola Jokić (1st)
- 2020: Giannis Antetokounmpo (1st)
- 2019: Giannis Antetokounmpo (1st)
- 2018: James Harden (1st)
- 2017: Russell Westbrook (1st)
- 2016: Steph Curry (1st)
- 2015: Steph Curry (1st)
- 2014: Kevin Durant (1st)
- 2013: LeBron James (1st)
The MVP trophy should have been named after basketball academic John Hollinger, who developed the all-in-one PER formula, instead of Michael Jordan because the metric is now tantamount to a basketball burning bush. It’s no surprise, then, that Embiid just surpassed Jokić’s previously insurmountable lead in PER.
How did Embiid catch up over the past month? By taking his game up a notch while Jokić and the Nuggets have sputtered.
Since March 8, the Nuggets rank dead last in defensive efficiency and Jokić has been helpless to halt their five losses in the past six games. Since Dec. 1, the 76ers have accumulated the best record in the NBA while competing in a more challenging division. Embiid has been downright unguardable in March averaging 36.1 points on 62.7 percent shooting from the field, 8.8 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per contest. Jokić’s numbers have been his quotidian 25/12.8/9.1, but Embiid has altered games on both ends of the floor.
Philadelphia’s eight-game winning streak, which began with Embiid outperforming Antetokounmpo in crunch time and draining a game-sealing triple on the Bucks’ home floor, was instrumental in altering the narrative of this race. Or it could have been Embiid’s obliteration of Ja Morant at the rim in a tightly-contested 110-105 win over the Grizzlies on Feb. 23. Following Philadelphia’s 141-121 win over the Pacers, Embiid earned the endorsement of Rick Carlisle. The eyeball test, the stars, and the stats are aligning for Embiid. Buckle up, these last 12 games are going to be a rollercoaster ride.
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