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April 30, 2021

Can Joel Embiid still catch Nikola Jokic for NBA MVP?

NBA Joel Embiid

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Philadelphia Basketball Sadium Bell Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

In recent NBA seasons, the title-winner has been a relatively foregone conclusion, while the MVP races have often been photo finishes. In 2020-21, however, roles seem to be reversed. There isn’t an obvious favorite to capture the title as the current NBA Championship odds remain very tight — no team has better than +240 odds (the Brooklyn Nets), but five are priced at no higher than +750 (Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Utah Jazz, and Milwaukee Bucks).

MVP odds, on the other hand, are massively skewed in favor of one particular player. Nikola Jokic is a -1000 favorite, leading the pack ahead of Joel Embiid (+450), Stephen Curry (+2000), and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+2000).

So, can you go ahead and hand Jokic the hardware? Or is Embiid still in the realistic mix, and therefore an NBA MVP pick with value? Arguments can be made for both sides.

It’s easy to see why Jokic is getting a lot of love. Still only 26 years old, Jokic has already established himself as one of the most versatile big men in NBA history. He has proven that throughout his six-year career, but it has been especially obvious this season. Jokic is averaging 26.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 8.5 assists per game. Although he is never going to be confused with a defensive juggernaut, the Serb is also contributing 1.4 steals and almost a block per contest. You don’t often see centers leading their teams in either assists or steals, but Jokic is doing so in both for the Denver Nuggets. He is without question the biggest reason why Denver is currently 43-21 and in position for home-court advantage in Round 1 of the playoffs as the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia 76ers are a similar 43-21 and hold a key tie-breaker with the Nets — they're currently the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Embiid isn’t carrying Philadelphia quite like Jokic puts Denver on his back, but the 7-footer from Cameroon is leading his squad with 29.0 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. He is also averaging 3.0 assists, 1.4 blocks, and a steal per outing. It should also be noted that Embiid is shooting a career-best 51.2 percent from the floor and 85.1 percent from the free-throw line. Both are best-ever marks by a country mile.

The only knock on Embiid is that — because of injury — he has played in just 45 of 64 games (Jokic, by comparison, has suited up for 63 of 64). If the former Kansas University standout had simply been healthy with more frequency, this MVP battle would probably be neck and neck — or Embiid would even be in the lead.

Alas, he is not… but can he get there? 

Embiid’s only real chance is to play every remaining game and boost his averages close to 33 points and 12 rebounds. He likely needs another stretch such as the one from mid-January to mid-February in which he surpassed the 30-point mark in 11 of 14 contests — including one 50-point barrage. The Sixers must also finish with the best record in the East, and a late-season swoon by both Jokic and the Nuggets would further bolster Embiid’s chances. If all of that happens, he may have a shot. But it’s a big “if.”

As for Curry and the Greek Freak, they are surely too far behind. Curry is playing at an other-worldly level right now, but the Golden State Warriors (31-32, 10th in the West) are not good enough for anyone on their roster to seriously compete for any individual honor. Antetokounmpo’s numbers are slightly down from last year, he has missed 10 games, and the Bucks are third in the East. The NBA prediction for those two is that they are out of the running.

This is without question a two-man race between Jokic and Embiid. Yes, it’s close to over…but it’s not totally over yet.

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