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March 27, 2023

The key storylines in Sixers vs. Nuggets, starting with the Embiid-Jokic MVP battle

March is usually the direst part of the NBA calendar, the wasteland in advance of the playoff period everyone is sitting around and waiting for. The Sixers have been an exception to that rule in 2023, playing a gauntlet of good teams on the road while Joel Embiid tries to outduel Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo for the NBA's MVP award.

Monday night, the Sixers and Nuggets square off in a showdown that will weigh on the minds of voters everywhere, kicking off a new round of screaming between fanbases. Here's what I'm keeping an eye on.

Embiid vs. Jokic

Monday morning, The Athletic posted a Q&A with Joel Embiid that is hard to interpret as anything other than a series of direct shots at Nikola Jokic. Here is Embiid, answering a question about whether MVP criteria changes each year:

The criteria does change. If we want to talk about the last three years since I’ve been in the running for it, the first year it was that I didn’t play enough games. Last year, I came back, I played enough games, I led the league in scoring, and obviously, Nikola deserved it and he won it. But then again, he won as a sixth seed in the West. And then this year, I’m leading the league in scoring, I’m doing all of these things defensively … I should be making an All-Defensive team too. I don’t care, but every year it’s something. And when you add analytics into it, which don’t make sense. You can talk about analytics all you want. When you got some guys in the league, the eye test tells you that they’re not good defensively, but analytics tell you they’re the best defenders. That’s when analytics don’t make sense at all. I don’t make the rules, I don’t choose whatever criteria that they use, so it’s really about whatever people’s preferences are. [The Athletic]

Speaking with some level of expertise here, I think Embiid and Jokic have become sort of "accidental" rivals in the sense that I believe Embiid's problems are more with the discussion of their respective games and talents rather than a personal beef with Jokic. They don't play each other enough to build up real animosity, and that doesn't figure to change unless both teams make a Finals run at some point in the short term.

That doesn't really change the stakes of the matchup, though. To Embiid's point, I believe we are at a similar point as last season, with Embiid, Jokic, and Giannis all having made strong cases for the league's top individual honor. And that race, for all intents and purposes, came down to a series of big games from March onward. Embiid was a slight favorite in an MVP straw poll released on February 17th, 2022, but March losses to Jokic's Nuggets and Giannis' Bucks took on extra significance. By the time the next straw poll dropped in late March, Jokic was out in front by a margin of 62-29 in first-place votes.

Looking back to last March, when the two contestants were on the floor together, Embiid pretty handily outplayed Jokic, to the point that Jokic finished the game with a -9 and an inferior personal line (34-9-4 for Embiid vs. 22-13-8 for Jokic). Critically, however, the Nuggets were able to win the game because Bones Hyland and Boogie Cousins led a comeback charge with Jokic on the bench, a run and bench lineup Embiid failed to capitalize on. It did not matter that Embiid scored 10 more points while guarded by Jokic than the other way around, because Embiid won the battle while still losing the war.

It is why I think this year's meeting in Philly, one that ended with P.J. Tucker on Jokic for much of the second-half comeback win, is more instructive than anything else we could say about Embiid's mentality this season. In the past, he has thrown shade at other peers (most notably Anthony Davis) for relying on someone else to defend him in what he feels should be a one-on-one, mano-a-mano battle. Shifting into the roamer role — something that has helped power some defensive improvement for the Sixers post-All-Star — is an example of giving up a personal fight in order to best serve the team.

This, to me, is the line Embiid has to walk in these marquee matchups now and in the playoffs. Carrying resentment and grudges for individual opponents is not just acceptable, but something I think should be encouraged (and would be if a player with a better playoff resume verbalized these things). What Embiid has to do, which he has done well this season, is use the personal scores as fuel without it blinding his vision for everything else. He is capable of dominating a game without trying to be the center of attention — Pacers coach Rick Carlisle essentially said as much after a recent Sixers win in Indy, remarking that Embiid had scored 30+ almost by accident.

Take care of your business, and the rest will come.

Tucker vs. Jokic

Based purely on the box score and Jokic's own effectiveness, sliding Tucker onto Jokic for much of Philly's win this January wasn't an impactful move — Jokic shot 4/6 while guarded by Tucker, 1/3 while guarded by Embiid in that game, per NBA tracking data. Perhaps this is a good opportunity to bounce off of Embiid's point regarding total trust in the numbers.

The key for the Sixers was denying the Nuggets opportunities to attack the painted area. While Jokic is an ultra-effective scorer, he is a pass-first player, and Tucker checking him did not lead to a major uptick in aggression from the Serbian center. Philadelphia positioned Embiid in a way that constantly left Tucker with help behind him, and when Jokic tried to do his big man playmaking act, the Sixers were ready to play him for the pass. He would finish with seven turnovers that afternoon of all different sorts:

The Nuggets, you'd expect, will be ready for this wrinkle this time around, and the viability of this strategy hinges somewhat on Aaron Gordon's ability/willingness to punish Embiid for looming in and around the paint. This has been Gordon's best-ever shooting season efficiency-wise, with Gordon hitting 35.6 percent of his threes on low volume. This is mostly a case of what you believe is real — his subpar career numbers, his poor home shooting numbers this season, and a horrid stretch post-All-Star compared to a greased lightning start to the season. Gordon is shooting just 20.6 percent from three since the break compared to 39.7 in his first 49 games this season.

Over the weekend, Embiid earned some criticism for his defense of guard-heavy teams in Golden State and Phoenix, and while I think those issues were overstated, you wonder if the Nuggets will try to use some of those quirks to their advantage. In a world where he checks Gordon for much of the game, the Nuggets may opt to bring Gordon up as a ball screener in more actions, either forcing Embiid to switch or seeing if Jamal Murray can punish him for dropping against that action. This would require rethinking their typical deployment of Jokic, though he is a versatile enough player on offense that they can get value from him as both an on-ball hub and an off-ball shooting threat.

Bench vs. bench

When these teams have met at something close to full strength, both MVP-caliber players have typically put up strong numbers. The battle of the backups looms as a potentially decisive factor, which probably scares the bejeezus out of Sixers and Nuggets fans alike.

James Harden's availability looms heavily for Philadelphia here. Signs have pointed toward a potential return for Harden in Denver, which would go a long way in boosting Philly's Embiid-less minutes. The Sixers have won Embiid-less minutes with Harden by about 2.5 points per 100 possessions, losing the minutes with both off of the floor by 6.3 points per 100. Unsurprisingly, that comes almost exclusively from the offensive boost Harden provides, one that is valuable against this Nuggets group specifically...if Harden shows the ability to punish switches, turn the corner against Jokic showing high, and find the open player vs. early doubles.

It's difficult to figure out how Rivers might handle the Embiid-less minutes in this one because the rotation was so different last time these teams met. Montrezl Harrell was still Philadelphia's backup center and Matisse Thybulle was one of their staple bench pieces, with the latter playing his part to slow Jamal Murray down in January. Does he trust Paul Reed to hold the fort down, or will this be another opportunity to see Tucker at "center" against a potential contender?

(All I ask from Doc Rivers is to keep Dewayne Dedmon in cold storage. Saturday's disaster against Phoenix should have shown enough, but alas, there is some fear that Rivers will simply play the biggest guy they have against the burly Jokic.)

Having monitored the thoughts and feelings of both fanbases this season, it seems fair to assume the fanbase that loses will call for the coach to be fired and blame the loss on their rotations specifically. As detached as I think Sixers and Nuggets fans are from each other, save for their equity in the MVP debate, they are in a remarkably similar place when it's all said and done. These are two fanbases with a claim to rooting for the best player in the world, tired of feeling like other people are letting that player down, perhaps headed toward a reckoning in the offseason if things don't work out in the playoffs. In a different timeline, it might inspire a bit of kinship.

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