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October 17, 2019

NBA GM Survey: Executives pick Nikola Jokic over Joel Embiid for best center

The Sixers also failed to receive any votes when it came time to pick who would win the NBA Finals.

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The NBA's annual GM survey is basically only good for creating headlines players can hold onto for motivation as they prepare for the upcoming season. So here's one for Joel Embiid — when they put it to a vote, more NBA executives believe Nikola Jokic (48%) is the league's best center than those who believe it is Embiid (28%).

If you spend as much time online as I do (please, someone help me), this is a familiar debate that has been beaten to death over the last year or so. It's a fascinating one on a philosophical level because they are completely different players who share almost nothing in common outside of having the same positional label.

In Philadelphia's corner stands Embiid, a towering defensive anchor who changes the offensive calculus for opponents whenever he's on the floor. As long as he is in the game, you have a chance to get stops. On the other end of the floor, Embiid wills his way to the free-throw line and shows off a feathery touch from the mid-range at times, though his outside shooting has held him back from being as feared a three-level scorer as he might be otherwise.

In Denver's corner is Jokic, who is basically an offense by himself. It is easy to dismiss him as an advanced stats darling, which he absolutely is, but his elite passing ability allows him to stand out from the big man pack. Despite perpetually looking like he just chain-smoked cigarettes between shifts as an Amazon warehouse manager, the Nuggets still managed to build a top-10 defense with him at the pivot last season.

And now, for the editorializing. While Jokic is a tremendous player who rightfully played his way into the MVP conversation last year, there is no universe in which I would take him over Embiid if someone asked me to build a starting five out of the best players at each position league-wide. Embiid edges Jokic in this debate for me because if we are simply talking what happens when they are on the court, there are no exploitable weaknesses in his game. 

His outside shooting is a flaw, to be sure, but his time spent on the perimeter is mostly a function of playing on a team with Ben Simmons. Modern team constructions have not bothered him, as teams cannot go small and force him off of the floor. Embiid has bested everyone from Kyrie Irving to Giannis Antetokounmpo when put on an island with them one-on-one, setting aside his gifts as a rim protector.

The case against Embiid really just comes down to his health, which has been the toughest opponent in his career. If the question were, "Who would you rather build a franchise around?" I could see the argument for Jokic, who has reliably played 70+ games every year and isn't much of a risk to decline if he does suffer a major injury at some point. But this is about who is the "best." With center being the most important defensive position on the floor, this is easy for me.

(NBA players, it would seem, probably lean this way too. A survey by The Athletic last season revealed 11 of 125 players polled would take Embiid as the first guy in the league to build a roster around, as compared to two for Jokic.)

If you thought that was the only area where the Sixers ended up on the wrong side of NBA executives, think again. The public may be high on their chances in the playoffs this season, but it appears NBA higher-ups are not.

Not a single executive picked the Sixers to win the Finals this season, with the Clippers, Bucks, Lakers, Warriors, and Blazers all receiving votes. The latter two choices are especially baffling, with Golden State looking like an absolute trainwreck at the moment and one of their three-best players out until at least February or March. The Blazers, competitive though they always are, don't seem like any sort of threat to push for the title.

If you wanted something to get fired up about on a random Thursday in October, here you go. You can read the full survey results here.

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