As the leading candidates for the NBA’s MVP award, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are on a collision course—first in a string of heavyweight head-to-head matchups, and then as convenient champions in the many culture wars being waged around them. Things have gotten pretty testy of late, to the point that the players involved have tried to back away from the discourse, and their coaches have made public pleas for a little civility.
None of the candidates asked for this. For as much as Embiid wants to be the league’s MVP, he didn’t exactly sign up to be front and center in a debate about racial bias or the limitations of one-number metrics. And for as much as Jokic doesn’t seem to care about the award, his case for a third straight MVP has become a crusade for so many other parties. The race is no longer about them. Yet here they are, along with Antetokounmpo, in the middle of it all—standing in for some worldview or another in all sorts of proxy battles.
The worst of them seem to swirl around Embiid and Jokic—betting favorites and natural foils who play the same position in completely different ways. Antetokounmpo would be a perfectly worthy MVP, but in this case, he feels like the moderate candidate between radical (and confrontational) extremes. If this race were just a comparison of the top players in the league, it would look like it does most years: with some fairly mild disagreements, a few comments and retorts from the players involved, and some standard-issue, horse-race coverage on who’s trending up and who’s trending down. Instead, every week of the MVP debate seems to tap directly into some hot-button topic that basketball fans already feel fervently about.
Analytics. Tough shotmaking. The fetishization of efficiency. The role of a modern center. Measuring defense against offense. Weighing the regular season against the playoffs and the present moment against the full heft of history. This season, there is no MVP debate. There are dozens, all happening simultaneously, spreading and feeding into one another like wildfires.
Earlier this month, ESPN’s JJ Redick and Kendrick Perkins had a heated, on-air exchange about the MVP race and the demographics of the media members who vote for it. Their argument went viral. Yet within that same First Take segment—before the 56-second-long clip that made the rounds on social media—Redick made a show of presenting some optical tracking data from Second Spectrum as Perkins’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. The two wrestled with the ambiguity of the voting criteria for the award and whether it should adapt to certain historical circumstances; Perkins brought up whether the team construction around an MVP candidate should be a qualifying factor in their candidacy; and, eventually, the conversation turned to Perkins’s previous claim that Jokic, the two-time MVP, had been padding his stats.
Any of those topics could, on its own, be the crux of a spirited argument to decide the MVP. Yet this race refuses to be boiled down, instead sprawling to agitate every subculture of NBA fandom.
It doesn’t exactly help with all the indignation going around that:
- (A.) There’s a position-breaking savant averaging 24.9 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 9.9 assists per game for the best team in the West.
- (B.) The most overwhelming force in the sport is putting up 33.3 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 4.2 assists a night to carry one of the top teams in the East.
… and at least one of those gold-plated statistical résumés won’t be enough to win the MVP. Or maybe neither will be enough, considering Antetokounmpo is also averaging a ho-hum 31.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game for the team with the best overall record.
That said, the box score is only the beginning of our problems, and it hardly begins to capture why this debate has become so contentious. As Redick and Perkins demonstrated in performative fashion, one clear point of division in this race is how advanced stats are regarded and interpreted. Jokic leads the league in estimated plus-minus, value over replacement player, player efficiency rating, win shares, overall RAPTOR, and box plus-minus—somewhere out there, Perk just rolled his eyes again. It can all get a bit esoteric. Each of those measures has its limitations, but taken in total, Jokic’s dominance across the catch-all metrics surely means something. What, exactly, depends very much on whom you ask—and how they think about capturing the value in “valuable.”
The past 15 years have seen a sea change in the sport, from the data-driven ways that modern NBA teams operate to the incredible statistical resources available to any fan with an internet connection. Yet some are more interested in making math homework of basketball than others, and picking Jokic for MVP is often just as much about picking a certain kind of spreadsheet methodology. Choosing Embiid—who ranks just behind Jokic in most of the aforementioned stats, and ahead of him in some others—could be an outright rejection of that idea, or sometimes just a reluctance to use those stats as an end in and of themselves.
That tension can easily spill over into the holy war of separating basketball players from real hoopers, the hyper-skilled, honed-in-the-lab bucket getters who are as impressive as they are productive. These debates are as old as time. Twenty years ago we had Kobe Bryant (patron saint of the real hoopers) and Tim Duncan; now we have Embiid (who at times moves like a 7-foot Kobe) and Antetokounmpo, with Jokic falling somewhere in the middle. If you value a player’s ability to create a quality shot for himself first and foremost—as most of the NBA does—it’s hard to make a case for anyone over Embiid. He leads the league in scoring and has notched 30-plus points in an astounding 43 games this season—more than any other player, and in more than twice as many games as Jokic (21). Embiid’s technique is impeccable. A date with Philadelphia is a death by countless head fakes and half-spins—a constant test of focus wrapped in a bruising physical matchup.
Jokic has moves and counters to spare, but his place in that conversation is complicated by how selectively he shoots (just 15 times a game, compared to 20 for Embiid), which is itself a beacon for the true believers in his efficiency. Prepare the Kool-Aid. No player to average at least 15 attempts per game has ever posted a true shooting percentage as high as Jokic has this season—a marker of making the absolute most of every possession, or of refusing to press in the ways that Embiid and Antetokounmpo are all but required to.
Reasonable basketball minds can disagree—even strongly—over what it means to make the right play. Jokic rarely forces up ill-advised shots, trusting instead in his ability to problem-solve collaboratively with his teammates. But sometimes the reason Embiid takes a shot over a triple-team is because it’s still legitimately the best option—and none of the three defenders has any real chance to contest his jumper anyway.
The irony, of course, is that Jokic picking his spots and Embiid carving out his own have taken their teams to the second- and fourth-ranked offenses in the league, respectively, separated by less than a single point per 100 possessions.
Is it more valuable that Jokic, whose passing elevates the opportunities of everyone around him, is determined to find the easiest shot possible? Or that Embiid, faced with swarming coverage and impossible odds, manages to convert the most difficult looks himself? It’s all a matter of philosophy—which takes it off of the hardwood and out of the TV debate shows and makes it acutely and distinctly personal. An MVP pick has become a means of expression, and is usually defended just as fiercely.
The MVP race this year is just different in so many ways. Defense tends to be an afterthought of MVP voting—worthy of an obligatory mention, but rarely budging the conversation in any meaningful way—and yet this year’s race has hinged on it for weeks at a time. Some of the skepticism of Jokic comes from the fact that he is targetable on that end of the floor in ways that Antetokounmpo (a former Defensive Player of the Year himself) and Embiid (who has made three All-Defensive teams) are not. No coach would tell his team to go at Embiid, over and over. Jokic, on the other hand, is a defender worth singling out—a big with good hands who positions himself well enough, but overall an unexceptional defender in an exceptional competition. The conversation around Jokic’s defense reached such a fever pitch that over a million people dialed up a reel highlighting his lazy efforts in coverage during a loss to the Spurs earlier this month. Much (deserved) roasting followed. Yet there’s really no greater illustration of how divisive this season’s MVP race has become than the fact that it made casual basketball fans around the world care deeply, for a moment, about regular season pick-and-roll coverage.
Nestled within that interest and the associated snark over Jokic’s defense is yet another debate about, fundamentally, how the center position should be played—and whether defensive ability is uniquely important to it. Russell Westbrook gambling for a steal or Steve Nash giving up ground just isn’t as damaging as a center who can’t anchor a defense from the inside. The biggest catch in Jokic’s case is that he is so clearly the reason the Nuggets have the best record in the West and also the exact source of so many of their defensive issues.
There is an open question as to how far Denver can go in the playoffs with Jokic at the center of its defense. That in and of itself has won some favor for Embiid, but if an MVP voter truly prioritized defense, they would probably cast their vote for Giannis—who is not only an incredible, game-altering presence on that end of the floor, but a more consistent one throughout the regular season. And there things get even more complicated, as the MVP discussion regularly veers well beyond the award’s regular-season limits, to how the idea of a particular winner might play after the unsparing scrutiny of a playoff run.
How would an MVP for Jokic look if he gets roasted by some other Western Conference team in the second round? Or, to take a broader view: How will a third straight MVP for Jokic read in the cold remove of the historical record? Only Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, and Bill Russell have won the award in three consecutive seasons. Whether that is crucial background for the voting process or completely irrelevant to its purview, it’s an especially charged issue. The very idea that Jokic could be ushered into a club so exclusive that Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Magic Johnson were denied entry feels like it was engineered for maximum outrage. It’s practically an open call to fans of other two-time MVPs to vent their frustrations.
Should Jordan have won three straight MVPs? Obviously. Should LeBron have? Of course. There’s a perfectly reasonable case that Giannis should have won his third straight in 2021 over Jokic, too, which in a paradoxical way would have spared us from needing to dissect whether Jokic is worthy of that same accomplishment today. There are some awards voters for whom the sanctity of the official record is THE fundamental issue in this year’s MVP race—voters who believe that there is and should be a higher standard for winning a third straight award. It’s fair to wonder what giving an award to a particular player means as part of the responsibility of casting an official ballot … unless you disagree with the very premise, in which case looking beyond this season for a single-season award probably feels like an infuriating overreach.
Taken in all, this is more than tribalism. Some want to support Jokic, but also what he represents. Others want to stand up for Embiid, in part because of what standing up for him says about them. The reason this MVP debate is so incendiary is because there are so many deeply invested parties fanning the flames from so many different directions. Yesterday, it was all about defense. Tomorrow, it’ll be all about Monday night’s head-to-head showdown that wasn’t. Every angle takes on a life of its own, channeling some existing feud to which Jokic and Embiid are only tangentially related.
There are ardent supporters, as we speak, reverse-engineering a case in support of a player they love. But there are broader masses of basketball fans embattled every day of this MVP race on the issues that are—and have been—at the heart of the sport, yelling loudly enough to be heard over the shouting match next to them.
This piece was updated after the Sixers ruled Embiid out for Monday night’s game against the Nuggets.