I’m already on the record as pro Nikola Jokić for NBA MVP, so don’t take this article as me piling on Joel Embiid — I know, says the person who is expressing more negative thoughts about him. With the regular season in its final week, the Philadelphia 76ers struggled with three consecutive losses, two of them to championship contenders in the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns and the other to the improving, but far away from contending, Detroit Pistons.
Those three losses sent the 76ers into a free fall in the Eastern Conference standings, dropping them from first to fourth. However, what happened should not be held against him in the MVP voting. In those losses he scored 37, 29, and 37 points again. He shot better than 50 percent from the field in each of those games, and 50 percent or more from the 3-point line in two. Doc Rivers sure didn’t blame him.
Following a win on Sunday that clinched a playoff berth for the 76ers, and a 44 point, 17 rebound, 5 block game from Embiid, he was asked about the MVP race.
“If [winning the MVP] happens, great,” Embiid said to the media. “If it doesn’t, I don’t know what I have to do. I’ll feel like they hate me. I feel like the standard for guys in Philly or for me is different than everyone else.”
That MVP award is important to NBA players, especially people who have not yet won it. Embiid has been a monster the past two seasons. In 2020-21 he averaged 28.5 points, and 10.6 rebounds, on 51.3/37.7/85.9 shooting splits, was named second-team All-Defense, and the 76ers had the best record in the NBA. It’s reasonable for him, his family, his friends, and anyone who cares about the 76ers to feel that he was wronged by not winning last season, and for them feel gut-punched if he again doesn’t win in a turbulent season in which his averages went up by necessity and his efficiency didn’t take a tremendous hit.
But here’s the rub, the Denver Nuggets won one less game than the 76ers did last season and while Jokić averaged two fewer points than Embiid, he averaged more rebounds, had 56.6/38.8/86.8 shooting splits, and also averaged 8.3 assists per game while dominating the advanced analytic numbers.
They find themselves in similar positions again this season. The Nuggets currently have two more losses than the Sixers, but are further down the Western Conference standings because the top of it is far better than the muddled East. Jokić has also had to shoulder more of a load because of injuries, which has resulted in a huge increase in turnovers, a slight decrease in his free throw percentage, and his 3-point percentage tumbling. However, his scoring average has bumped up slightly, his rebounding numbers are way up, he’s shooting 58.3 percent from the field, and, as I’ve detailed before, his advanced numbers have improved as well as his defense.
MVP voting can be strange in every league, and the NBA might be the strangest. Shaquille O’Neal leaves the Los Angeles Lakers, and signs with the Miami Heat in 2004. Their record improves by 17 games, he plays in more games than he has played in four years and shoots 60.1 percent from the field on 22.1 points per game. Steve Nash joins the Suns the same season, takes them from nearly worst to first while not being nearly the dominant force that Shaq was, and got that MVP. Shaq could’ve won in 1994-95 when he led the Orlando Magic, a franchise that had existed for less than 10 years, to the best record in the East, but the award went to a less efficient, lower scoring David Robinson whose San Antonio Spurs had the best record in the NBA, with their record improving by only seven games. Dirk Nowitzki scored 26.6 points per game on 48/40.6/90.1 splits and the Dallas Mavericks won seven more games than the Suns in 2005-06 but Nash got a second-consecutive MVP.
A scientific process, MVP voting is not. Biases do come into play, as they do in all walks of life. What’s ironic, is that those biases should favor Embiid winning the trophy. He’s averaging more than 30 points per game on a team that faces intense media scrutiny on a regular basis, every night he looks like he plays basketball at a different level of elevation than his competition, and his story is the best in the NBA this year. Young star reaches new level when team needs it most, after drama threatens to derail everything that they’ve built.
Us media folks love a good narrative accompanied by impressive counting stats, but the biggest knock against Embiid is the traditional bias against players who miss a lot of games. Jokić is going to play the least percentage of regular-season games of his career this season, somewhere around 75 out of 82. Embiid has already passed the highest number of regular season games he’s ever played with four games remaining and he is still not going to reach 70. Sixers’ legend Julius Erving expressed this particular bias recently in why he thinks the best player on the team he won an NBA Championship with should not win the award.
“I’m gonna pull for Embiid, cause he’s my guy,” Erving said on the Rich Eisen Show. “And Antetokounmpo, who knows how he’s gonna finish out, but Embiid and Antetokounmpo have missed several weeks of play. Jokić has been there every night.”
If there’s a bias that’s going to affect Embiid’s MVP chances it’s that. The edge that people always give to the player in the race that has played the most games. It’s why Shaq only has one MVP despite being possibly the best player of his generation. In Tim Duncan’s back-to-back MVP seasons in 2001-02 and 2002-03, he missed one game.
As well as Jokić has played this season, he’s in Denver with a fan base that can’t watch him, and a team that was never in the hunt for the best record in the West. Embiid lugged his team near the top like he was the only person in his Oregon Trail party that didn’t catch dysentery, and he did it in Philadelphia. It would normally be a clear victory for Embiid, especially because Jokić won last year. But that total number of games played, that’s what’s going to keep him from winning an MVP, not any personal animus from the voters.