The pursuit for the National Basketball Association’s Most Valuable Player award for the 2021-22 season has come down to two candidates: reigning MVP Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers.
While there is still just about a month of regular season action left to be played, the battle between the Nuggets and 76ers on Monday night could be a cataclysmic event pertaining to the MVP award. On that night, Jokic and Denver will be heading into Philadelphia to take on Embiid and the 76ers.
At the time of this writing, Embiid has the best odds to win MVP at -130 while Jokic is right behind him as a close second with +140 odds to walk away with the award according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
Separating either candidate statistically is going to be an incredibly difficult task. That means moments like a late-season head-to-head battle could dramatically swing the odds of who becomes the MVP of the 2021-22 season.
So which center will come out on top? Will Embiid earn his first career MVP award for leading the 76ers through a season full of drama and uncertainty due to the Ben Simmons fiasco? Or will Jokic join the elite list of the 12 players who have won consecutive MVP awards despite being without Denver’s second and third-best players for virtually the entire season?
Let’s start with how Embiid and Jokic stack up with one another statistically.
Differentiating Embiid and Jokic statistically will ultimately come down to what each voter deems more valuable. So let’s just cut to the chase.
Joel Embiid: 29.7 points, 11.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists. 1.1 steals, 1.4 blocks, and 3 turnovers in 33.1 minutes per game on 48.9% from the field, 35.5% from 3-point range, and 81.9% on free throws.
Nikola Jokic: 26.1 points, 13.8 rebounds, 8.1 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.8 blocks, and 3.7 turnovers in 33.1 minutes per game on 57.3% from the field, 34.9% from 3-point range, and 80.6% on free throws.
When looking on the offensive end of the floor, either candidate can be argued for in some way.
On one hand, Embiid is tied for the league lead with 29.7 points per game which is huge for his MVP resume despite that number is boosted by his league-leading 11.9 free throw attempts per game. On the other hand, Jokic is 10th in the league at 26.1 points per game, but he is scoring much more efficiently — 8.4 percentage points better from the field to be exact — and going to the free throw line less than half as often as Embiid.
Of course that is without taking into account that Jokic is averaging an incredible 8.1 assists per game while Embiid is only finding his teammates for buckets a little over half as often with 4.3 assists per game, but that in itself is reductive.
Not only is Jokic stacking nearly twice as many assists per game than Embiid while remaining in the top-10 as a scorer, but he is doing it without Denver’s second and third-best players – Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. – by his side. Despite that hinderance – and a total of 271 games lost due to injuries and health and safety protocols which is third-worst in the league – the Nuggets have a 116.5 offensive rating when Jokic is on the floor which would be the best mark in the NBA this season.
Simply stated, it has not matter which four players are on the court around him; so long as they are on the court with Jokic, they are the most productive offense in basketball. That impact goes far beyond a measly four assists extra per game.
Still, to lead the league in scoring as Embiid is doing is incredibly powerful for voters and he has done so without Ben Simmons, who has now been traded for James Harden. Embiid has battled through his own fair share of adversity this season and he is still managing to average nearly 30 points per game while anchoring the 76ers on both ends of the floor.
Not a soul would argue that Jokic is a better individual defender between the two of them. Jokic cannot single handily turn the paint into a gauntlet of doom where all layups exist only to be swatted back down into the core of the earth as Embiid can. Also, Jokic is not as productive switching out onto guards as Embiid is. Despite being a worse one-on-one defender – and the Nuggets horrible injury luck up and down the roster hurting their defensive ceiling – the Nuggets are posting a slightly worse defensive rating with Jokic on the court (107.5) than the 76ers when Embiid is on the floor (107.4). Additionally – if counting stats are the voters more preferred method of analyzing each player – when adding together blocks and steals, Jokic (131) trails Embiid (132) by just one.
Is it really asinine to say that Jokic has led his team to becoming as good of a defense as Embiid has been able to do for Philadelphia so far this season? Maybe not. Again, when compared as individual defenders, Embiid is better by a landslide, but there is something to be said for the fact that Jokic has been able to lead a banged-up Nuggets team to virtually the same defensive rating with him on the floor despite his shortcomings. Both teams have virtually the same defensive rating over the full season as a team as well.
One thing is for sure, Jokic’s defense can no longer be used against him. He has grown immensely on that end and is in no way a negative anymore, but instead the anchor of Denver’s defensive system.
Monday night’s matchup
When Jokic and the Nuggets fly into Philadelphia to take on the 76ers on their home court, it will be the first time Embiid and Jokic have faced off in over two years. The last time they shared the court in a regular season game was December 10, 2019 when the Nuggets lost by five points in Philadelphia. So there is almost no usable data in battles between the two of them.
Denver had half of their roster turn over since the last time Embiid and Jokic battled it out down low. Back then, Denver was still starting Gary Harris and Paul Millsap with Malik Beasley, Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig coming off the bench. This Nuggets team is an entirely different entity now.
The same can be said for the 76ers, who had Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson still in their starting group in the last game they had against the Nuggets. Plus, now that Harden is in Philadelphia, everything has shifted for the 76ers.
There have been moments that the 76ers look completely unguardable with both Harden and Embiid sharing the court, but there have also been rough patches as well such as losing to the new-look Brooklyn Nets by 29 points while Embiid and Harden combined to shoot an atrocious 8-34 from the field for 34 points. That tandem is still trying to find their rhythm which will take time.
This matchup between the Nuggets and 76ers will feature a rest advantage for Denver. Philadelphia will be on the second night of a back-to-back while the Nuggets will be starting the first of a three-game road trip after one day of rest.
Regardless of every other factor around them, this game will come down to who can get the better performance from their respective superstar center. There are no other defenders on either team who can match up with Embiid or Jokic beyond each other. It will be the matchup to watch all night long and only time will tell who will come out on top.
Let the battle begin.