There are some extremely important games coming up in the NBA’s MVP race.

The top three MVP candidates: Nikola Jokić, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, will effectively hold a round robin in the final 10 games of the season. On Saturday, Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks will visit Jokić and the Denver Nuggets. The Bucks have the best record in the Eastern Conference, and the Nuggets have the best record in the Western Conference. It’s effectively a showcase of what may come in the NBA Finals if both top seeds take care of business along the way. It’s also a battle between the two players to win the last four MVP awards combined.

Then, on Monday, Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers will come to Denver as well. Embiid has been the runner-up for the MVP award in each of the previous two seasons, right on Jokić’s heels every time. In the first meeting between the two, Embiid dominated throughout, scoring 47 points almost entirely against Jokić and earning a significant comeback win on national television. Expect more fireworks this time around at Mile High.

Finally, Embiid and the Sixers will visit Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in Milwaukee on April 2nd. Both teams have already had high level matchups earlier this season, and the Bucks will be looking for revenge (while also hoping to maintain the top spot in the East) this time around. That game could have significant playoff implications if the Sixers continue to win and the Bucks falter down the stretch shifting home court advantage around.

Of course, everyone wants to know which player and team will show up strongest. These three games will each have some degree of MVP ramifications. Embiid is the current betting favorite, but if he and the Sixers go 0-2 in those matchups while he looks worse than the others, those odds could shift quickly. Of course, if Embiid shows he’s the best candidate, he may solidify the odds even further.

But the MVP isn’t all that’s at stake in the coming weeks and months. The big man position as a whole will be under a microscope.

Mar 22, 2023; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) looks on against the Washington Wizards during the first half at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

For the past few seasons, the big man has made an emphatic return to the NBA’s main stage.

The 2020 playoffs in the bubble were written as the return of the King. LeBron James won the fourth NBA title of his career with the Los Angeles Lakers, persevering through difficult circumstances and making a relatively easy run to the NBA Finals. His path was carved with elite defense, but it was clearly LeBron directing traffic, playing point guard and small forward at the same time, who was the difference maker.

Except, that’s not actually what happened.

Anthony Davis was acquired during the 2019 offseason and had the greatest season of his career. He played power forward for much of the year, but it was his ability to slide to center and be a matchup nightmare that made the biggest difference for the Lakers. Noted elite defensive center Bam Adebayo of the Miami Heat had no answer for Davis on either end of the floor. Ditto for Nikola Jokić and the Denver Nuggets, PJ Tucker (?!?!) and the Houston Rockets, and Jusuf Nurkić and the Portland Trail Blazers throughout that playoff run.

Things didn’t change much in the 2021 playoffs. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez were the defining duo of that playoff run, often combining for 48 minutes of elite center play. The Milwaukee Bucks ran into several opponents that forced them to downsize and remove Lopez from the floor, but it was Giannis’ malleability and unrelenting aggression that ultimately became the difference. His moments in the NBA Finals against DeAndre Ayton and the Phoenix Suns will be written about in storybooks. Don’t forget though that Lopez was the key figure to elevate the Bucks past the Atlanta Hawks in the Conference Finals, logging 33 points on 14-of-18 shooting, seven rebounds, two steals, and four blocks in Game 5 with Antetokounmpo sidelined due to injury.

The 2022 playoffs didn’t feature elite center contributions though. They were defined by the failures of centers to stay on the court for longer than a couple rounds.

The Nuggets were blitzed by the Golden State Warriors in a five-game series. Nikola Jokić put up incredible numbers, but Warriors small ball big man Draymond Green did just enough to waylay him early on. Jokić couldn’t keep pace defensively with the Warriors perimeter attack, and there was no hope of keeping pace offensively without Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. available. After the series, Green gave Jokić his flowers but quickly moved on and captained the Warriors defense to a championship with a small-ball focus.

Ditto for Antetokounmpo, who nearly powered through the Boston Celtics without Khris Middleton available. The Celtics also did enough to slow him down, particularly in Game 7, to take advantage of their superior perimeter attack. Antetokounmpo nearly did it though, and the Celtics were left battered and bruised from the interior punishment.

Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers also fell short, losing to the Heat in six games. Adebayo provided more consistency on the defensive end, and Embiid was already ailing from a broken face, having missed the first two games of the series that put Philadelphia in an early 0-2 deficit. There were certainly other factors that led to the Sixers’ demise, but Embiid clearly wasn’t at his best facing the switch-heavy Heat scheme, also lacking his normal defensive impact against the smaller team.

Now, in the 2022-23 season, the big men are looking for some retribution.

Jan 30, 2022; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) and Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) reach for the ball during the first quarter at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The MVP race has grown more contentious than ever before.

After winning the award in each of the previous two seasons, Nikola Jokić is doing something the NBA has never seen before. Averaging 24.8 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 9.9 assists, Jokić is on the verge of averaging a triple-double while shooting 63.6% from the field, 40.0% from three, and 82.1% from the free throw line. That translates to a 70.5% true shooting percentage. Among players to attempt at least as many shots as Jokić this season (973), that 70.5% mark is by far the best in NBA history.

Jokić is the first scoring option on the Nuggets, but the returns of Murray (20.1 points per game) and Porter (17.3 points per game) have afforded Jokić the opportunity to pick and choose when to attack the right matchups. He still has the capability to put up points in bunches (20 games with 30+ points) but he’s at his most dangerous when he’s playmaking. The Nuggets are 32-3 in games when Jokić logs at least 10 assists. To be such an effective passer as a center (far and away the most assists per game for a center in NBA history) is an incredible accomplishment. There’s no player in the NBA that can do what Jokić has done at his combination of volume and efficiency without taking away from Denver’s winning ways. It’s why Jokić leads the league in just about every advanced metric that exists.

The Nuggets are 49-24, in first place in the Western Conference, and have been in the top five in the NBA standings for the vast majority of the season. In a normal season, Jokić would be running away with the MVP award.

This isn’t a normal season though, and voter fatigue isn’t the only reason why the race remains so close.

Embiid and Antetokounmpo have each been tremendous for the vast majority of their seasons.

Embiid leads the NBA in scoring with 33.2 points per game. The fact that he appeared on the above list featuring Jokić is also patently ridiculous, given that Embiid maintains an incredible 37.2% usage rate. That combination of usage and efficiency (65.4% true shooting) has never been done before at the highest levels.

Embiid’s finding ways to score at every level. His pick-and-pop jumper is as lethal as it’s ever been and he uses the threat of the jump shot to draw an incredible number of fouls. The 14.3 free throws per 100 possessions that Embiid is converting this season are tied for the most in NBA history with…himself in 2020-21. He’s also third on that list for his 2021-22 season, an unstoppable force with enough skill to take advantage of those opportunities as frequently as possible.

Combine that level of scoring talent with an elite defensive body of work, and it’s easy to see why Embiid has taken over Jokić’s spot at the top of MVP betting markets. Jokić will simply never have the combination of physical gifts and defensive instincts that Embiid has. Embiid’s currently anchoring a Philadelphia 76ers team with the sixth best defensive rating, allowing 2.0 points per 100 possessions fewer than Jokić’s Nuggets every single game (the Nuggets currently rank 16th in defensive rating). Jokić isn’t a sieve on defense, but his weaknesses are more pronounced than Embiid’s as a rim protector and with less perimeter mobility.

The funny thing is…neither big man has been acknowledged as the best player in the world.

Nov 18, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) and Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) congratulate each other after game at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Antetokounmpo has held that consensus “Best player in the world” title since winning a championship in 2021. While Jokić and Embiid have shined more brightly in each of the past two regular seasons, Antetokounmpo is often still acknowledged as the player most around the NBA would like to have entering a playoff series. His combination of offense, defense, versatility, and intangibles reinforce that notion.

As unstoppable as it can feel that Jokić and Embiid are with their combination of physicality and deft touch, Giannis is the most punishing superstar in the world. Any let-up from the opposition on either end of the floor, and Giannis takes advantage. He draws 18.5 free throw attempts per 100 possessions, somehow more than Embiid. He utilizes 38.8 percent of his team’s possessions, the most in the NBA. His efficiency isn’t near where the other two are, but he makes up for it with sheer force of will, breaking down an opposing team’s defense until it remains battered and broken.

And as good as Embiid may be on the defensive end, Antetokounmpo is better. He does have the most defensive help between the three MVP candidates with Jrue Holiday on the perimeter and Brook Lopez on the interior; however, it’s Giannis’ versatility in every scheme that pushes Milwaukee’s defense from great to impenetrable. According to, Giannis allows opponents to shoot just 47.5% at the rim when he’s the primary defender, by far the lowest percentage in the NBA among qualified players. Giannis provides more scheme versatility than either Embiid or Jokić, guarding different positions and playing different defenses frequently. He simply has an impact advantage on that end.

Each of the three players have their strengths and weaknesses. None are perfect, but all are clearly worth their salt and would each be worthy MVP winners. It’s one of the reasons why the race has become so contentious. Nuggets, Sixers, and Bucks fans clearly prefer for their favorite player on their team to win the award. Jokić and Giannis have each won two already. Embiid hasn’t won yet, which is one of the reasons why Sixers fans are extremely…adamant…about his qualifications this season.

And yet, the hemming and hawing over who wins MVP is completely missing the point.

The NBA has received an influx of absolutely elite big man talent in the last decade. Since the 2013 NBA Draft when Antetokounmpo was selected 15th overall, the center position has undergone a radical shift. Gone are the days of a pure rim roller and rim protector like DeAndre Jordan winning first team All-NBA at the position. Instead, the league has grown more dynamic to match the talents of Antetokounmpo, Embiid, and Jokić.

Players like Jaren Jackson Jr. and Evan Mobley have slowly blossomed into rangy, versatile, skilled, and athletic bigs in the mold of Antetokounmpo. Nobody may ever match or exceed what Giannis does on the court, but players and teams are absolutely trying.

Players like Myles Turner, Deandre Ayton, and Walker Kessler are hoping to anchor the center position like Embiid in the long haul (it’s really hard to find a good Embiid comparison among young players right now). Embiid’s ability to mix scoring touch with interior defense may never be matched again, but there will be many players entering the league hoping to model their game after his.

Players like Domantas Sabonis and Alperun Sengun are hoping to go the Jokić route with varying degrees of success. For every big man that struggles to keep up athletically, Jokić’s combination if IQ, touch, and creativity constantly keep his opponents on their heels. Bigs are already improving as passers entering the league, which is part of Jokić’s influence on the game (as well as Draymond Green’s playmaking role with the Warriors).

The most important factor in the collective domination of Antetokounmpo, Embiid, and Jokić is the rise of the big man once again. Many teams are hoping to discover the next MVP caliber big man. Other teams are resigned to the notion that they will have to STOP these MVP caliber big men in the playoffs. Teams like the Boston Celtics have added several bigs (Al Horford, Robert Williams, Grant Williams, Mike Muscala) with the intention of slowing down the unstoppable bigs they face in the playoffs. Other teams like the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers are trusting in their switchability and wing depth while only relying on one or two big men apiece (Draymond Green, Kevon Looney, Ivica Zubac) in the hopes of outscoring teams that feature elite bigs.

However teams decide to approach the big man conundrum and how successful these teams are will almost certainly define this season’s championship race. Because as dominant as Jokić, Embiid, and even Antetokounmpo are in the regular season, their playoff experiences are mostly defined by falling short of the end goal. Antetokounmpo has advanced past the second round just twice with the Bucks in nine seasons (and of course won the championship in one of them). Jokić has only done so with the Nuggets once in eight years during the 2020 bubble. Embiid and the Sixers have yet to reach the Conference Finals at all in Embiid’s first six years.

The playoffs were defined by LeBron James teams and the Golden State Warriors for much of the aforementioned era. Now, with both LeBron and the Warriors dynasty appearing to be fading into the sunset, will it be the bigs that pick up the proverbial slack? Or will it be just another perimeter oriented team?

Whatever happens, there will be some epic big man battles in the upcoming days, weeks, months, and hopefully years, that will likely define NBA history.