Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player on the NBA’s best team. Nikola Jokic is nearly averaging a triple-double as a 7-foot center on the Western Conference’s top seed. Joel Embiid is the perennial bridesmaid who’s having the best year of his career on a serious Eastern Conference contender and, unlike Antetokounmpo and Jokic, has never won a league MVP award.
Jokic, in fact, has won back-to-back MVPs, something Antetokounmpo did in the two preceding seasons. In a close three-way race such as this, voter fatigue is a real thing — and it helps explain why, as of Thursday, Embiid was a consensus favorite (-150 at FanDuel) to win his first MVP award, with Jokic (+230 at DraftKings) and Antetokounmpo (+275 at BetMGM) in a close race for runner-up.
But anyone who felt confident that this was Embiid’s race to lose — a group that previously included Eric Raskin, managing editor of Sports Handle sister site US Bets — could not be pleased by news that a calf injury had Embiid sit out the second half of Wednesday’s blowout win over the Bulls. Embiid said he expected to play Friday against the Warriors, but he and coach Doc Rivers also made it clear that postseason health was the priority — and the MVP is a regular-season-only award.
Hence, it could be argued that the race is still wide open with just a few games to go. That sense of fluidity is supported by the loss of Jokic’s months-long vise grip on favorite status after his team went on a four-game losing streak despite the center’s continued stellar play. That was just last week.
As for next week, Embiid and Jokic will face one another for the second and final time this season in Denver on Monday. Embiid dominated their first matchup, notching 47 points, 18 rebounds, and 5 assists in a 126-119 Sixers win (Jokic tallied 24, 8, and 9 in the same game). Could Jokic getting the better of Monday’s matchup shift the odds in his favor one last time? Will Embiid even play? Is Giannis a real threat to win the award for a third time?
Raskin and his Sports Handle colleague (and notable Jokic stan) Mike Seely discuss how things may play out.
Getting defensive about Jokic
Seely: The biggest knocks on Jokic’s three-peat candidacy are voter fatigue and that he’s nowhere near as good a defensive player as either Embiid or Giannis.
He can’t do anything about the first factor, but I actually think he’s a brilliant positional defender who compensates for his lack of athleticism with extreme intelligence — which describes how he operates on offense as well. His defensive rating isn’t on par with Joel or Giannis, but it’s pretty dang good.
You have to be health conscious
Raskin: In all sports, the advanced metrics tend to shed light on certain elements of the game while obscuring other facets.
This is my vague way of saying I have no idea how well “defensive rating” really represents Jokic’s ability on that end of the court, but I will say the following with zero hesitation: If Jokic is a better offensive player than Embiid — who, by the way, is leading the NBA in points per game for the second straight season, for those weirdos who think scoring points still matters when talking offense — the margin by which Jokic tops Embiid on offense is far smaller than the margin by which Embiid is superior on defense. Embiid’s defense affects most other teams’ offensive strategy. Jokic is, at best, smart and serviceable, while scaring off nobody who wants to drive to the hoop.
That said, MVP isn’t about who’s the “best” player — if it were, Giannis would get my MVP vote this year and perhaps each of the last five years. If you’re drafting an NBA team from scratch right now, Antetokounmpo has to be the first pick. Jokic and Embiid both go top five, and you can debate which one you’d select first, but Giannis is, and has been, the guy you want to build around ahead of anyone else.
Assuming perfect health, I’m firmly in the camp of Embiid > Jokic, but (a) I’m a Philly homer, and (b) there is no assuming perfect health. And health seems destined to be a big part of the final MVP debate. So let me get your take on this aspect of the conversation, Seely: Giannis has played in 57 of his team’s 72 games. Embiid has played in 59 of 72. Jokic has played in 65 of 73. What number do the first two need to hit to get consideration? Is 65 of 82 the minimum? Is it 68? In short, can Embiid win MVP if he misses more than one or two more games? Is all the value out of betting on him right now, at -150, because of the supposedly minor calf injury?
One horn, three trophies?
Seely: The odds in this race have shifted enough in the last two weeks to where I think that if you want to grab Embiid, you may be able wait until he gets to even money or fatter. That may well happen if he sits against Golden State on Friday, so you may not have to wait long.
As for the minimum game threshold, the load management era has thrown that metric so far out of whack that I think you can miss around 20 games and not be disqualified. But I think playing 63 out of 82 is the proper benchmark, because voters can rationalize their pick by saying a player missed fewer than 20 games.
Shifting back to offensive prowess, I think Embiid is an incredible offensive force, but what he’s doing has been done before by men of his size. What Jokic is doing is truly unprecedented for a player of his size and position.
When you look at Embiid, you know exactly how he does what he does on offense. When you look at Jokic, you’re constantly wondering how in the hell he does what he does. He’s an absolute unicorn — historically, not just generationally — and he continues to ratchet up his level of play.
Does he deserve to three-peat, though? Only Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Larry Bird have done that, which may weigh rather heavily on voters’ minds.
Of ties and wins
Raskin: Yeah, that’s a vital question. Jokic is indeed a unicorn … and he’s been recognized for it by MVP voters twice already. It would be deceiving to look back on the NBA record books 20 years from now and see Jokic’s name as the MVP three times in a row, considering no one who was alive at the time ever considered him the best player in the world. If he finishes the season strongly and the Nuggets have several more wins than the Sixers and he’s played 10 games or so more than Giannis — in other words, if he deserves the MVP award — then so be it, he should get the votes. But if it’s a coin flip and they give it to Jokic again, that results in a particularly bizarre misrepresentation of the era.
And it’s not like Embiid is purely an old-school power center. He’s something of a unicorn as well, with a decent 3-point shot, exceptional touch from about 16 feet, and an 85.6% success rate from the free throw line. In today’s NBA, which favors wings and shooters, Embiid is, in his own way, a complete outlier.
Then again, you can’t talk unicorns without talking about Antetokounmpo, a 7-footer who can play just about any position and, like Embiid, is elite on either end of the court. As noted in the intro, the Bucks have the best record in the league. They head into the weekend with 52 wins, compared to 49 each for the Sixers and Nuggets. Philly has the toughest remaining schedule in the whole NBA — they just got done winning nine of 10 against mostly soft opponents, but of their final 10, even if Embiid and James Harden are both healthy, they’ll probably be underdogs four or five times.
So let’s say the Sixers finish 55-27. Let’s say Denver also finishes 55-27. And let’s say Milwaukee ends up 59-23. These are all reasonable projections based on their remaining schedules. If individual stats stay roughly the same and all three superstars are healthy, do you think Giannis could have the shortest MVP odds by season’s end?
And, each of these teams still plays the others once, so what matters more: final record, or one man asserting head-to-head dominance down the stretch?
Who should you bet your gold Nuggets on?
Seely: Given a choice between those two criteria while assuming all three players cross that 63-game threshold, I think it’s head-to-head dominance. All of these guys play for elite teams, and I don’t think the gap between the Bucks and the other two will wind up being large enough to swing the award in Giannis’ favor.
But am I super confident that Milwaukee won’t close out the season with some sort of winning streak while Denver and Philly coast into the playoffs? No, I’m not, which is why I think Giannis offers pretty good value for sports bettors willing to bank on such a scenario.
But what I expect to happen is that Philly will play it safe with Embiid’s health down the stretch, and that Jokic will redeem himself at home on Monday against the Sixers and reclaim pole position in the MVP race. So my money’s on a Three-cola, and the price is right — right now.
Trust the (voting) process
Raskin: It’s a cop-out to say “we’ll know a lot more after Monday night” … but we’ll know a lot more after Monday night. The Bucks and Nuggets play each other Saturday, then Jokic and Embiid go head-to-head on Monday. Plus, the Sixers will have played at both Golden State and Phoenix, and Embiid will either have logged his usual 30-plus minutes and scored his usual 30-plus points or he won’t have done those things and will have slipped from first to third in this race.
For your Three-cola (the pun is a reach, but I appreciate any Dad-joke-y effort) prediction to come true, Jokic needs to have a big game Monday night. If Embiid gets the better of him again, I think that’s just about the end of the case in favor of a third Jokic MVP.
Giannis is the one who has more margin for error. At the end of the season, if voters are staring at a Bucks team with around 60 wins and the three superstars have all completed comparable MVP-worthy campaigns, a lot of voters will break the tie by asking themselves, “Who’s the actual best player?” Then they’ll note that Antetokounmpo hasn’t won one of these in three years. That’s why I think at +275, he currently has the most wagering value.
But taking odds out of the equation, if I’m just guessing who wins the award, it has to be Embiid, who’s done everything anyone could possibly ask him to do this season. He’s hit memorable game-winners, he’s led the Sixers to a 3-1 record (so far) against the Nuggets and Bucks, and he didn’t get the award after leading them to the No. 1 seed in 2021 or steadying them through the Ben-Simmons-sit-out year in ’22. He doesn’t need another statement game. He just needs to stay on the court.
I wouldn’t bet him at -150 because of that “mild calf tightness” and all the Embiid injury baggage that’s attached to those words, but in a world in which all three players are priced the same, Embiid is who I’m picking.
Check back with me Tuesday morning, though. In this race, a lot can change in a few days — especially these particular few days awaiting us.