The NBA regular season came to a close over the weekend and the contenders for this year’s MVP award have now done all they can.
Philadelphia 76ers star finished at the top of the MVP ladder but that doesn’t mean the race is over just yet - as there is a global panel of 100 writers, analysts and broadcasters who will ultimately decide the outcome of what may well end as one of the tightest MVP races in league history.
Embiid is looking to win the award for the first time, but his two main rivals have four MVP awards between them. Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets has a chance to become the first man since Larry Bird to be named MVP three years in a row and Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo won back-to-back awards in 2019 and 2020.
At this point it is worth noting that the award isn’t simply decided by stats, and some of the panel of voters also focus on the ‘narrative’ of the season. The fact Jokic guided the Nuggets almost single-handedly into the playoffs when they were beset by injuries potentially worked in his favor last year. If this narrative aspect didn’t exist, LeBron James would probably have won more than four MVP awards and Kobe Bryant definitely would have won more than one.
This year, that aspect of voting probably works against Jokic despite his exceptional performances. The likes of Magic Johnson, James and Michael Jordan - who lends his name to the trophy - were unable to win three MVP awards in succession despite claiming multiple championships between them. Does Jokic deserve an individual honor that would put him right up there with such legendary players without a title? From a narrative perspective probably not, regardless of his stats.
This year, those voting with a narrative on their mind will surely lean towards Embiid, who has finished second in the MVP voting in each of the last three seasons. The perception may be that it is his turn - but that doesn’t mean a win would be in any way undeserved.
Embiid has been the star man in the Philly lineup for a number of seasons and this year may well have been his best.
The Cameroonian center played 66 games this regular season and finished as the scoring champion for the second year in a row with an average of 33.1 PPG. Simply scoring points isn’t enough to win an MVP award, but some of the games people point to as highlights of his season were those he racked up the most baskets.
Last week, Embiid exploded with 52 points, 13 rebounds and six assists against a Boston Celtics side who finished one place above Philly in the East and are a potential playoff rival.
That was his third highest total in a single game and all of his top three scoring games have come this season - he dropped 59 points against Utah Jazz in November and then 53 against Charlotte Hornets in December.
One of Embiid’s biggest performances came against Jokic and the Nuggets as he scored 47 points, with 18 rebounds and five assists in a thoroughly dominant display - and one that should have caught the eyes of the voters.
Giannis is also an excellent offensive player and finished the season with a career-high average of 31.1 PPG.
The Greek star is the best player on the best team in the league, as the Bucks posted the best record with 58-24, and he has just become the first player since the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1972-73 to average 30+ points, 10+ rebounds and over five assists while shooting 50% or better from the field.
Despite this, there are limitations to Giannis’ offensive play, and unlike Embiid, he just doesn’t have an effective jump shot, while he is also less of a threat from three-point range.
Of the three contenders, Jokic is the most complete player offensively even if he is the lowest scorer with an average of 24.5 points-per-game, below his total in the previous two MVP winning seasons.
The Serbian came within a whisker of averaging a triple-double for the season with 11.8 rebounds and 9.8 assists. Jokic is a better passer than both Embiid and Antetokounmpo, while statistically he is better at the rim and better in the paint than Embiid.
When it comes to defense, Giannis has probably had the best season of the three and the numbers work in Jokic’s favor as well - but Embiid stands out above the Denver Nuggets man here due to his ability to block, steal and the way opponents have to adapt their game to cope with his presence in a way they don’t when facing the Denver center.
In truth, there is very little to separate these three superstars but Embiid has probably been the most complete player this year. Jokic is the better offensive player and Antetokounmpo is more effective as a defender, but in terms of all-round play Embiid may just have the edge and it is hard to argue he didn’t do enough to win the MVP award - even if he does miss out yet again.