NBA MVP race being led by Joel Embiid from reigning winner Nikola Jokic, say league insiders

The NBA’s MVP race is becoming a battle of two big men but a surprise third option was named by one league insider, writes RIC BUCHER.

Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers drives to the basket against Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets. The elite centres are leading NBA MVP contenders. Picture: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers drives to the basket against Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets. The elite centres are leading NBA MVP contenders. Picture: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

For an award that is hotly debated from start to finish of the regular season — and sometimes beyond — it is rare that the NBA Most Valuable Player race is hotly contested when the votes are counted. Three of the five closest races were in the 1990s. Only one of those was in the past 15 years, when Russell Westbrook edged James Harden by 135 points (888 to 753) for the 2017 award.

If the 100-some media members who vote share the same view as the executives, coaches and scouts I contacted, though, this year promises to be no different. More than a half-dozen players have been mentioned as being worthy of the award — Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, DeMar DeRozan and Jayson Tatum — but there was a clear-cut first choice among the majority of my panel: Philadelphia 76ers’ centre Embiid.

It’s not that there’s a perceived distinct separation in talent or respective impact on their teams between Embiid and his closest rival for the award, Denver Nuggets’ centre Jokic; it’s that Embiid is given extra credit for overcoming more challenging circumstances.

The 76ers were not expected to come close to last season’s Eastern Conference-best 49-23 record after All-Star guard Ben Simmons refused to play for the team, ultimately leading to his trade at the February deadline to the Brooklyn Nets for Harden. But the Sixers are third in the East at 41-26, three games out of first, and if they simply split their final 16 games, they will match last season’s win total.

Battle of the big men: Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are this season’s leading contenders for the NBA’s MVP award. Picture: David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images
Battle of the big men: Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are this season’s leading contenders for the NBA’s MVP award. Picture: David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Jokic won last year’s MVP award by leading Denver to 47 wins and the third seed in the Western Conference. The Nuggets currently have the same win total as Philly, at 41-28, but they are sixth in a Western Conference in which the Phoenix Suns hold a 7.5-game lead over everybody else. The Eastern race is far more heated, with 6.5 games separating the top seven teams.

“Embiid has carried that team in a tougher conference,” one Eastern Conference GM said, ”and he has played through all the distractions.”

An Eastern Conference scout concurred with both the choice and the reason for Embiid’s edge over Jokic.

“All the stuff that has been going on around that team, and guys being in and out, Embiid has been consistent in putting the team on his back,” he said.

One Western Conference coach cited a circumstantial reason for picking Jokic: the absences of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., two of Denver’s most dynamic scorers, due to injury.

“I’d give it to Jokic over Embiid just because I think Embiid has got a better team around him,” the coach said. ”Jokic has all role guys. The game just comes easy to him, and he makes everyone better.”

Philadelphia 76ers centre Joel Embiid blocks a shot from Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets during an NBA game this week. Picture: David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images
Philadelphia 76ers centre Joel Embiid blocks a shot from Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets during an NBA game this week. Picture: David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The disparate strengths of Embiid and Jokic were on full display Monday (Tuesday AEDT). Embiid was clearly the more dominant scorer, with a game-high 34 points, while Jokic showed his artistry as a passer, adding eight assists to his 22 points in the Nuggets’ 114-110 win.

One-on-one, especially at the start, Embiid was too much for Jokic, outscoring him 12-6 in the first quarter and making four of his six shots while Jokic missed four of his six. Embiid’s makes included two 3-pointers, and Jokic appeared hesitant to guard Embiid closely on the perimeter, presumably because of Embiid’s edge in foot speed.

Embiid’s overall superior defence is another reason cited by those favouring him as MVP, though Jokic did everything he could Monday to dispel the notion that there’s a difference, matching Embiid with two blocked shots and posting two steals to Embiid’s one. It was only the 16th time Jokic has blocked two or more shots in a game; he has had 30 games in which he failed to block any shots. It was the 22nd time Embiid has recorded two or more blocked shots this season, and he has gone block-less only 13 times. Plus, his one steal was when he poked the ball away from Jokic, one of his five turnovers for the game. (Embiid also had five.)

Despite the four-point win, the Nuggets were outscored by eight points with Jokic on the floor, while the Sixers with Embiid were a plus-2.

Jokic, listed as 6-foot-11 and 284 pounds, is one inch shorter and four pounds heavier than Embiid, but there’s a distinct difference in how they use their size. Jokic wields his to pass and score over and around opponents, and his pass-first mentality is why teams are reluctant to double-team him. Meanwhile, Embiid creates openings for other Sixers by punishing teams that dare use a single defender on him.

The consensus, though, is that Embiid is the better defender.

“NBA success comes with two-way players,” a second Eastern Conference scout said.

“Offensively, Jokic has a slight edge with his variety, but Embiid is the superior defensive presence. In today’s non-physical NBA, defence on the vertical plane is critical. So Embiid’s ability to block shots is the key difference because they are so close in other areas.”

That was the scout’s reason for picking Embiid over Jokic if he had his choice of which one to build around — “by a whisker,” he said. Both Eastern Conference GMs agreed.

“The Joker is incredible,” one GM said, ”but Joel is elite. He impacts the game more on both ends. Joker is more polished offensively and makes others better with his playmaking. Joel makes others better because you have to double him to have some type of success. You can blitz Joel and force turnovers, while the Joker doesn’t get rattled. But when it comes to rim protection and blocks, that’s the difference. That’s what makes Joel elite.”

Embiid‘s injury history also makes his continued availability suspect, which is why the first Eastern Conference scout went with Jokic as his chosen cornerstone.

One NBA insider has named rising superstar Ja Morant, of the Memphis Grizzlies, as an MVP contender. Picture: Justin Ford/Getty Images
One NBA insider has named rising superstar Ja Morant, of the Memphis Grizzlies, as an MVP contender. Picture: Justin Ford/Getty Images

But while there might be a host of worthy MVP candidates this season, only one of the NBA people I spoke to picked someone other than Embiid or Jokic.

The first Eastern Conference scout went with Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant.

“He has had the biggest impact on a team that has been in the top five all year and made the biggest improvement of all the top teams,” the scout said. ”Plus, he does not have a Robin to his Batman act. He is a solo act that has to bring his A-game every night.”

The other Eastern Conference scout mentioned Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo as a third candidate for MVP. Basketball Reference, which ranks MVP candidates based on the statistical profiles of past winners, actually has Antetokounmpo as Jokic’s closest competitor, with Embiid third, Chris Paul fourth, Luka Doncic fifth and Morant sixth.

Dual NBA MVP winner Giannis Antetokounmpo, of the Milwaukee Bucks, dunks against the Utah Jazz. Picture: Jeff Swinger/NBAE via Getty Images
Dual NBA MVP winner Giannis Antetokounmpo, of the Milwaukee Bucks, dunks against the Utah Jazz. Picture: Jeff Swinger/NBAE via Getty Images

This would not be the first time the depth of MVP competition influenced who won the award. There are five slots on the ballot, with each worth one point more than the previous — one point for fifth, two for fourth, etc. — and it has happened that the player receiving the most first-place votes did not win the award. In 1990, seven players received a first-place vote, led by Charles Barkley with 38, Magic Johnson with 27 and Michael Jordan with 21. Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson all received at least one first-place vote as well.

Magic won the award by a mere 22 points over Barkley in the closest race ever.

Analytics did not have the same impact back then, but those I spoke to weren’t influenced by statistical comparisons the way many media voters seem to be today. If it comes down to advanced analytics, Jokic has an excellent chance to become the latest back-to-back MVP winner.

If Embiid wins, though, it could be in part because of Simmons’ desertion. In a season with so many unexpected developments — Kyrie Irving being a part-time player, the Lakers cratering with four of the league’s 75 all-time greatest, the James Harden saga — it almost seems fitting.

It also means that while Big Ben might no longer be on Joel’s Christmas card list, he could very well be sending Simmons a thank-you note.

– FOX Sports US