Nikola Jokić and Joel Embiid showed on Monday night why they are the two front runners for MVP in the NBA. Embiid scored 43 points and tallied 14 rebounds and three blocks while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to an important 121-106 victory over the Chicago Bulls that vaulted them past the Milwaukee Bucks to second place in the Eastern Conference. The Denver Nuggets had to turn around the night after an overtime win against the surging New Orleans Pelicans and play against the shorthanded Golden State Warriors — no Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson or Andrew Wiggins. The Warriors put up a fight, but Jokić’s 32 point, 13 assist, 15 rebound triple double led the Nuggets to a 131-124 win, their ninth in 10 games. In Sunday night’s victory against the Pelicans, Jokić tallied a 46-point, 11 assist, 12 rebound triple double.
The best bet to win MVP is Embiid. He’s leading the league in scoring, and kept the 76ers near the top of the Eastern Conference while dealing with their second-best player, Ben Simmons, not playing a single second, and his trade demand looming over the team every day. The 76ers survived half a year of drama with Simmons and are looking at a top-2 seed in the playoffs and James Harden providing some much needed reinforcements at the trade deadline. In Embiid’s eighth season, fifth as a full-time player, he has blossomed into arguably the most dominant two-way player in the league and this year would be an ideal time to crown him with the NBA’s most prestigious individual award.
However, the best player in the NBA for the last two seasons has been Jokić. It’s unfortunate that he got stuck with an undermanned team this season with no Jamal Murray from the start, and Michael Porter Jr.’s back going bad on him early. With the Nuggets battling for most of this season to stay out of the play-in tournament, they’re currently the sixth-seed in the Western Conference, and most of their home fans not able to view the channel that broadcasts the games, an effort has to made find the games and learn that the 2020-21 MVP is playing far better than he did last season.
Once again, Jokić is leading the NBA in most advanced metrics, and this season he’s added some new ones. The repeats: PER, win shares, offensive win shares, win shares per 48 minute, box plus/minus, offensive box plus/minus, and value over replacement. With a 25.9 points per game scoring average he’s the only player in the NBA this season who averages more than 16 points to be in the top-10 in true shooting percentage, and this season, Jokić’s name can be found atop the defensive metrics as well. He leads the NBA in defensive box plus/minus and trails Jayson Tatum in defensive win shares by a tenth.
Of course, the beauty of basketball is in the play on the court and not the Basketball Reference league-leaders page, but it has to be acknowledged that he has statistically pole vaulted over the rest of the NBA. For those who can access Nuggets games, they’ve seen that one of the most unique players in NBA history has become even more difficult to match up against.
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At 6-foot-11, Jokić regularly brings the ball up the court and initiates the offense. When he does this, the only hope is that he makes a mistake with the ball or the shot is missed. With him being that tall, there is no way to impede his vision. He sees the rim and the entire floor, and as a special treat for defenders, he can cross them over as easily as he can back them down to the basket. Toss in a great jump shot along with the strength and touch to make every pass on the floor, there’s nothing to take away from him because he can do everything.
In the past, teams would try to exploit Jokić on the defensive end, especially in the pick and roll, because his only weakness is that he’s a little slow. It was certainly a problem last season when the Nuggets were swept by the Phoenix Suns in the second round. When the playoffs come around this season, good luck trying to duplicate that. It was noticeable from day one this season that he is moving much better defending pick and roll action. Jokić can’t man the paint like he’s on a ladder in front of the basket like Embiid, but now he can hold his own down there as well as disrupt ball handlers and shooters on the perimeter if he gets switched onto them, as well as get his hands on the ball in critical times. One more statistic: Jokić is third in the NBA in contested shots per game trailing only Rudy Gobert and Jakob Poeltl.
It is not common for the NBA MVP to come from a team with the sixth seed in the playoffs, but Jokić’s performance to keep the Nuggets in that spot is at least every bit as impressive as Embiid keeping the 76ers near the top of the East. The three top teams in the Western Conference are the Suns, Memphis Grizzlies, and Golden State Warriors. The Suns have an eight game lead in first place, and while the Grizzlies and Warriors are duking it out for second, the Nuggets are the next tier in the West where they, the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz are are all within 1.5 games of each other.
There was a point this season when there were 2.5 games separating the top six teams in the Eastern Conference. All the 76ers had to do was hang around and at least Embiid had some offensive help with Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, and Seth Curry — for most of the season. The Nuggets second best scorer is Will Barton and they’ve won only one less game than the 76ers.
It makes sense to vote Embiid for MVP. It’s easier to watch him on television and it would be fitting that, in his most trying season since he’s been healthy, he wins that award. Jokić not winning a second consecutive MVP is far from a travesty, but do not get it twisted. The man with the red arms in Denver played the best basketball in the NBA this season.