Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo: these are the names that have highlighted the Most Valuable Player race for the last five years. Antetokounmpo took home the award in the 2018-2019 season and the 2019-2020 season. Jokic was crowned MVP in the 2020-2021 season and the 2021-2022 season. Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers have been on the outside looking in since Embiid broke into stardom. Philadelphia is always seen as a contending team but comes up short, most notably when Kawhi Leonard hit the buzzer-beater that bounced on the rim four times in the 2018-2019 Eastern Conference Finals. Embiid is a six-time All-Star who missed the first two seasons of his career nursing a foot injury. In each of his six All-Star seasons that followed, Embiid has averaged 23-plus points and 10-plus rebounds per game. This season, Embiid has been exceptional, averaging 33.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, a career-high 4.2 assists and a career-high 54.4 field goal percent, only the second time in his career that he has averaged over 50 percent. Oddly enough, this still might not be enough to bring home the hardware.
Embiid has the points advantage over the other two competitors but trails in almost every other statistical category. Embiid has played 62 games, while Antetokounmpo has played 61, and Jokic has played 67. These numbers display relatively healthy seasons, health having been the downfall of Embiid before, but his health in this scenario doesn’t equal wealth. Antetokounmpo is averaging 11.8 rebounds and Jokic is averaging 11.9, a whole rebound and a half over Embiid. Antetokounmpo is averaging 5.6 assists which exceeds Embiid’s career high, while Jokic is teetering on a triple-double with 9.9. The only two players to average a triple-double on the season are Russell Westbrook and Oscar Robertson. Westbrook was rewarded with an MVP for his efforts while Robertson was not. The Sixties were a different time in basketball, and Big O had to compete with the Celtics dynasty who had Bill Russell averaging 20 points and 25 rebounds, and it was in that same season when Wilt Chamberlain had his infamous 100-point game and averaged 50.4 points per game. Antetokounmpo’s field goal percentage is 55 percent, while Jokic is sitting comfortably ahead at 64 percent paired up with a 39 percent three-point percentage, besting Embiid’s 34 percent and Antetokounmpo’s 27.6 percent, although Antetokounmpo is not known for his three ball.
These are the basic statistics. Let’s dive a little deeper. Player Efficiency Rating or PER measures a player’s positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments and returns a per-minute rating of a player’s performance. Antetokounmpo is the lowest in this area at a 29 PER; Embiid takes second at a 31.5 PER; Jokic leads at a 31.9 PER. Win Shares is a statistic that divides up a team’s win and accredits players for how much they contributed to that win. Antetokounmpo has the lowest number of win shares at 8.4. You could argue that Antetokounmpo lacks in this department because his supporting cast is the strongest among the MVP frontrunners. Embiid has 11.7 win shares and Jokic has 15 win shares. Jokic once again inches out the other two contenders in this department as these statistics show who is most valuable to their team.
Speaking of teams, team success is a major component of MVP voting. Over the past 40 years, the MVP’s team has finished as a top-three seed in their respective conference. The one outlier was in Westbrook’s triple-double season in which the OKC Thunder were a six-seed. Embiid’s 76ers sit at the third seed in the Eastern Conference while Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and Jokic’s Nuggets both sit atop their respective conferences.
If I were to just present you with these numbers, Jokic clearly wins, right? Well, there are a few variables that could sway the voters. Typically, Antetokounmpo gains bonus points for his defensive play. However, this season with Brook Lopez and Jrue Holiday taking the reins as lockdown defenders, Antetokounmpo hasn’t had to exert as much energy on the defensive side of the ball, allowing Jokic and Embiid to have similar defensive numbers. The Bucks having the third best defensive rating, compared to the Sixers at eighth and the Nuggets at fifteenth, may sway some voters. Additionally, recency bias plays a big part. Voters remember more clearly that Embiid has led the Sixers on an eight-game winning streak, scoring 31 or more points in Games 63 through 70, more than they will recall Jokic scoring 40 points four times over the span of two week in Games 27, 29, 31 and 34 or Antetokounmpo’s incredibly hot start to the season and how he exceeded Jokic’s numbers during the Pre-All-Star Break stretch, including a 55-point game. The third variable is voter’s fatigue. Fans and voters get bored of the same players winning over and over. Antetokounmpo has two and Jokic has two; Embiid is playing impossibly well, what more can he do? Let’s just give it to him this time.
For me, no matter how boring the pick, Nikola Jokic is my MVP. Another point I feel we should address when looking at this MVP race is the dispersion of NBA fandom across the world and how foreign players being brought into the league has only made the league more competitive and entertaining. The NBA didn’t allow foreign-born players into the league until after the Dream Team’s Olympic run in 1992. In 2023, we now have 120 players from 40 different countries and six different continents, including the three frontrunners. Jokic is from Serbia, Antetokounmpo is from Greece and Embiid is from Cameroon. This can only mean good things for the NBA and the sport of basketball because, as it continues to spread, more and more people will share in the comradery that is the MVP debate.
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