Nikola Jokić versus Joel Embiid. Who is more serving the MVP? Who is the best player? Why do people assume Embiid is having a better season or he is more valuable to his team? Michael Pina and Rohan Nadkarni weigh in on the debate.
The following transcript is an excerpt from The Crossover NBA podcast. Listen to the full episode on podcast players everywhere or on SI.com.
Michael Pine: So this email comes in from Alex, who writes:
“All I seem to hear from the media is praise for Joel Embiid and how he has put the 76ers on his back and is “leading the MVP race.” I just can’t help but ask a question. Why is everyone seemingly pretending that Nikola Jokić is not doing what he is doing on a nightly basis?
“Jokić leads Embiid in every per 36 category, aside from turnovers with an almost negligible difference points. Not to mention, if you pull up advanced stats, it is ludicrous how many categories Jokić leads in. I understand that Jokić is not the “sexiest player” and from a marketing standpoint, he probably isn’t the best choice to label as the face of the NBA. But when you look at the numbers, he is almost undoubtedly the best player in the world.
“Why is everyone just ignoring what Jokić is doing without two of the three best players on his team? In my eyes, Jokić is running away with MVP. And I’m not trying to downplay the season Embiid is having at all, but he is simply just not the best player.”
So, I just want to say off the top, like every so often we get an email here that turns me into the Antonio Banderas gif from the movie Assassins, where he’s leaning back and exhaling after he takes a glance at the laptop. That was me after I read this because…
Rohan Nadkarni: You were a born Sixers hater.
Michael Pine: This has nothing to do with that, but I will say that I have noticed this wave of “Joel Embiid is the MVP” from certain media members and the narrative that is forming. And I’m just like, this is very annoying stuff.
I’ll throw it to you before I rattle off even more points about why this upsets me. What are your thoughts about the Joel Embiid-Jokic MVP race? And is it a two-person race for you, or are there more players involved?
Rohan Nadkarni: I’ll say in a macro sense, Embiid versus Jokić is truly one of the great basketball questions of our time. And I mean that genuinely. Don’t you want to see what happens if they switched places for a week? Like, give them each 10 games with the other’s team and see what happens? That would be a fascinating experiment. I have no idea how it would go.
Listen, I’ve picked Jokić as my midseason MVP. Alex, if you’re looking for “media members” or “national media guys” who are conducting the Jokić train, that’s me. We’re Chris Pine and Denzel Washington. We’re unstoppable, baby. That train is rolling down the tracks. And I made my case, I believe he’s still in the 100th percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass, in on-off differential; the Nuggets play like one of the best teams in the NBA when Jokić is on the floor, they’re one of the worst teams of the century when he’s off the floor. He’s made a massive impact.
At the same time, I think Embiid’s gaining ground. How can you deny that he’s put himself in the race?
I think it’s fair to say Kevin Durant’s almost certainly not winning MVP anymore. Steph Curry is close to Jokić in terms of impact, on-off numbers. There’s no doubting what Steph means when he’s on the floor. I believe I wrote this recently, the threat of his shot from him probably means more than whether or not his actual shots from him are going in or not. That’s how dangerous…
Michael Pine: Which is good news for the Warriors. They’re not really going in anymore.
Rohan Nadkarni: Which is terrifying for defenses at the same time. I just think that the shooting dip, I just think it’s ultimately going to hurt Curry in terms of MVP.
So I do think Embiid is in the race. You make it sound like it’s almost not close. I think it’s close. And there’s just a lot of season left.
Embiid I think obviously at the moment is scoring in a more exciting way at least. You wrote about his mid-range of him last year, Mike. I haven’t looked at the numbers. Anecdotally, at least I just think he’s shooting the hell out of the ball a lot more, a lot better than he was at the start of the season and that’s helped in terms of some of his scoring uptick from him. But it’s hard to separate those guys, it really is, because we will never know what they would do if they trade places.
Michael Pine: Embiid’s scoring in the last 15 games—I mean, he’s averaging 34, shooting 54% from the floor …
Nadkarni: It’s nuts.
Pineapple: It’s insane stuff.
Nadkarni: There’s a thing about Embiid that when you watch him, and this isn’t to take anything away from Jokić, who’s obviously incredibly effective as a scorer, and I think for a long time had the best effective field goal percentage in the league or he’s been high up there all year long, especially in terms of people who take as many shots a game as he does. There’s just a certain dominance to the way Embiid plays sometimes.
I feel like Nuggets fans are going to get mad at me for this—even though I picked Jokić as the MVP and he is still my MVP—I think you can more credibly guard Jokić one-on-one than you can Embiid. I just don’t think there’s anybody in the league who can guard Embiid, I don’t. That is not to say that that’s why Embiid should be the MVP. But I think that’s why he gets that extra bump that Nikola Jokić doesn’t get. There’s a brutishness to some of Jokić’s scoring, not his overall game of him, that I think people just, they do n’t know what to do.
Pineapple: I think Embiid is amazing. I think that he would be second if I had to vote right now. I agree with you that there is a lot of more basketball to be played. Embiid could easily shoot ahead. If he continues to average 34 and 12 and when he’s on the floor, his team is plus-8 or whatever it is, then yeah. Especially if the Sixers finish with the top seed in the East, he’s just going to win the award because the Nuggets aren’t going to finish in the top two in the West because of where the Warriors and the Suns are. And a lot of voters look at winning and they value that a lot.
I will say it’s really interesting for you to bring that specific point up about Embiid being unstoppable one-on-one which he is, no doubt about it.
The Milwaukee Bucks played the Denver Nuggets Sunday night. The Nuggets won in a blowout. And after the game Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday, both were upset about Mike Budenholzer’s defensive strategy against Jokić. Because they were showing help every single time Jokić touched the ball. They would double, they would shade over, they would pre-rotate. And Jokić was just picking them apart. Like that’s what he does. He loves passing, he loves finding open cutters, open shooters, and the Nuggets shot like 53% from behind the three-point line and ended up winning by a very large margin. And Jokić didn’t even have to score.
And after the game Giannis was like, I wish that we kept this guy straight up, one-on-one. And the reason that they didn’t is because Jokić would obliterate Bobby Portis one-on-one. Like he would score 55 points if that was the defensive strategy. And the Nuggets still would’ve won by probably a lot of points. So I get what you’re saying about Embiid and him being unstoppable. And I don’t think you’re discrediting Jokić but Jokić is truly unstoppable in the post. And in a different kind of way, viscerally and aesthetically, but he is also unstoppable.
Nadkarni: That’s a good way to put it. They’re both unstoppable. I think Embiid just somehow does it in a way that resonates more with people. We live in a society that is still quite not ready to know what to do with Nikola Jokić.
Pineapple: It’s true. We don’t.
Pineapple: Real quick, I said I would go back to this. You mentioned the on-offs, and I want to sit on this question for a while, ’cause I it’s really been bothering me as you can tell.
As you said, Jokic leads the league in on-off differential at plus-22.2. The next highest is George Hill at plus-18.3. Joel Embiid ranks 21st at plus-10.8. Steph Curry is 11th at plus-12.6. Jokic is plus-22.2. Like it’s just, I know on-off isn’t everything, and if you want to go through every other statistical measurement we can, and Jokic will be better.
But like that right there to me is like, it’s called most valuable player. That’s just what it’s called.
Nadkarni: They have a net rating with Jokic on the floor that I believe would be the best in the NBA. I mean, obviously the Warriors have a great net rating when Steph is on the floor, you know, there’s reasons for that, etc. But the Nuggets play like the Suns or the Warriors when Jokic is on the floor, and they are truly one of the worst teams of the millennium when Jokic isn’t playing. It’s that stark of a difference.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.