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March 20, 2023

Former NBA coach George Karl says Embiid isn't MVP because of 'lazy body language'

Covering every single angle in the NBA's MVP race is not just exhausting but a waste of time, with people from all corners of the basketball universe weighing in on the battle for the top individual honor. But sometimes, a prominent figure says something stupid enough about Joel Embiid to warrant a quick jump into the discourse. Congratulations to George Karl on winning the proverbial booby prize.

Karl, a Pennsylvania native and veteran NBA coach who last coached in the league for the Kings in 2016, has been a vocal Nikola Jokic booster on social media. Preferring Jokic to Embiid isn't some crime against basketball, but Karl laid out a bizarre rationale for the argument during an appearance on SiriusXM Radio on Sunday afternoon. Here's a transcription of the exchange:

INTERVIEWER: Why don't you think Embiid is in the race, coach?

KARL: To me, I don't want to bad mouth Embiid because I think he's really, really good. A lot of my assistant coaches were in Philadelphia when he was a young player and they kept telling me he's going to be the best guy to ever play the game. I see him moving in that direction. But I don't know, he takes too many possessions off. He has lazy body language. He gets angry at things that we don't understand why. I just don't know if he's that NBA pro that we all love because he's a competitive SOB and he's tough.

From what I know in Philadelphia, everybody says he's playing great. In the games I've seen he's played really really well. He's played great in the fourth quarters with a lot of comeback wins. But I just think it might be my, I can only like one big guy and I'm going to take Jokic over Embiid.

This is a real classic, "No disrespect...but here's a bunch of disrespect" moment for Karl, whose reputation amongst players is not exactly pristine. We could start and end this argument by pointing out that every issue Karl claims to have with Embiid in this blurb is applicable to Jokic.

  1. "He takes too many possessions off" comes at a time when Jokic defensive lowlight reels have been all the rage on social media, with the Nuggets in a bit of a late-season funk after racing out to the top seed in the Western Conference. Season-long team numbers on defense were fairly close until recently, but the Sixers are now allowing about two points per 100 possessions less with Embiid on the court than the Nuggets with Jokic. 
  2. "He has lazy body language" is a hilarious way to frame a debate in favor of a guy who essentially shrugs and mopes his way through entire games. And I don't mean that as criticism as Jokic — his mannerisms have absolutely no impact on his effectiveness. And while there were criticisms to make of Embiid early this season, the gap between these two of late has been far in favor of Embiid.

The one that really jumped out at me, though, was, "He gets angry at things that we don't understand why." At what point in recent memory has Embiid had a moment of irrational anger or even "emotion" about something? 

This comes back to a point I made recently as a debate played out regarding race/racism in the MVP race. I tend to believe its impact has been minimal in these awards battles, as Jokic has put up comical numbers for three years running and earned his spot as a candidate for MVP, among other honors. But painting Embiid as an irrationally angry guy in comparison to Jokic is simply ahistorical in a way that can only be explained through some form of bias. 

Jokic has been thrown out of multiple playoff games for emotional outbursts mid game, both times in spots where his team was either handily losing the game or the series. On top of that, he escaped both criticism and severe punishment for retaliating in this incident with Markieff Morris:

Spearing Morris knocked the Philadelphian out of the lineup with whiplash for four months last season. This is not to paint Morris as some innocent bystander in the situation, only to highlight the absurdity of painting Embiid in a wildly different light than Jokic. When you combine it with some problematic elements of Karl's history — in a 2016 autobiography, he blamed his failure to connect with Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin on his players not having fathers growing up — you can hear a dog whistle sounding off in the distance.

Truth be told, Jokic and Embiid are remarkably similar in a lot of ways, as both have faced different sorts of questions about their resilience in the games that count (Embiid on offense, and Jokic on defense) while putting up cartoonish numbers in the regular season. There are credible cases to make for either player using a combination of team success, production, and narrative, cases where you hardly need to mention the other guy at all. Hell, you could just like one guy better on style, with Embiid the king of bucket-getters and Jokic a passing savant. Maybe you think one style is more conducive to success, and reasonable minds can disagree on that point.

But let's try to keep the conversation centered around things like that, rather than cheap narratives and claims that don't hold up to scrutiny.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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