The NBA MVP Cases for and Against Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, More

The NBA MVP Cases for and Against Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, More article feature image
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Getty Images. Pictured (L-R) Joel Embiid #21 of the 76ers, Nikola Jokic #15 of the Nuggets, Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Bucks.

Every year for the past six seasons I have written “the definitive MVP case” for all of the major candidates. I’ve broken down each individual element that makes up their game in an attempt to present the clearest argument.

There are a number of reasons I’m going a different direction this season. Among them, there isn’t a “definitive” case to be made. In every season there are caveats and weaknesses. No player is immune to criticism, no player is perfect. But the MVP race this season has mirrored the NBA regular season: messy, awkward, caveat-filled and indecipherable.

So instead, I’m going to give you my prediction on who finishes where on the ballot and why.

As a reminder, the NBA MVP vote is made up of 100 media members selected by the NBA. They typically select one representative from each of the 30 markets and then an array of broadcasters, analysts and writers. There are a handful of international votes, too many television votes and a few legacy votes thrown in.

There are voters like ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, who has often voted for what feels like “the story” of that season. There are analysts like Zach Lowe and the Ringer’s Rob Mahoney, who pour over tape and analytics. There are broadcasters like legendary columnist and Pardon The Interruption pundit Michael Wilbon, who has covered the league for decades and while old school, brings wisdom and perspective to his vote. There’s former NBA center Kendrick Perkins, who is also a person who says things on TV for some reason.

As a whole, the NBA media vote is stronger than it’s ever been, more diverse than it’s ever been, and has a good track record of getting it right.

Here’s who will win and why.

Click on a name to skip ahead
Joel Embiid
Nikola Jokic
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Jayson Tatum
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

MVP WINNER: JOEL EMBIID

Expected finish: 1st, 60% of total first place votes

HIS STRONGEST CASE: Embiid is the most complete player among the top three candidates.

That’s the best case I can get to for Embiid, and why it’s been a struggle for me this season. I don’t believe the scoring leader should have much of a say in the MVP conversation. Was Bradley Beal a serious MVP candidate as the second-leading scorer two seasons ago?

But if we say that these three are the candidates, then Embiid is clearly the most complete player.

Giannis Antetokounmpo still struggles with his jumper and it will likely never be a major weapon for him.

Embiid, on the other hand, returned to one of the most lethal jumpers in the game. Embiid shot 49% from mid-range two seasons ago. I thought that was an outlier and he likely wouldn't hit that mark or close to it again.

Well, Embiid’s at 49% this season. He’s elite in pick-and-roll situations next to James Harden because you have to be prepared for his roll to the basket as a 7-foot monster, which means he always has the opportunity to pull up and knock down the mid-range jumper.

Nikola Jokic is better at the rim, in the paint and from mid-range than Embiid. Both Antetokounmpo and Jokic are supremely better passers. Embiid is a good passer and has gotten better. The other two are better.

But Embiid is incredibly better than Jokic defensively.

I can run numbers at you to counter this. The reality is that unless you are a small-ball, switch-all center, it’s extremely difficult to be elite defensively. Their team’s defenses aren’t that far apart when they’re on the floor. The Sixers allow 110.2 points per 100 possessions when Embiid is on the floor, the Nuggets allow 111.5. Both of those figures would be top-five league wide.

Embiid allows 64% shooting at the rim, Jokic allows 68%. The Sixers are 47th percentile defending pick-and-roll ball handlers in scoring situations with Embiid defending the screen. The Nuggets are actually 74th percentile. If you include passes out of the pick-and-roll, the Sixers improve to 54th percentile, the Nuggets fall to 68th, but still very good.

All of the defensive advanced numbers are going to reflect on Jokic favorably because of his rebounding.

Embiid blocks more shots, Embiid is a more menacing presence, and Embiid shapes the opponent’s approach offensively in a way Jokic does not.

Whether you want to consider what the actual impacts of those elements are is another matter. But Embiid is clearly a better defender, regardless of how impactful he is.

So if Antetokounmpo isn’t as good as Embiid offensively this season (even with the passing) and Jokic isn’t good enough defensively, then Embiid is the only player (of the three) that brings all elements of basketball together at an elite level.

He is unstoppable offensively as evidenced by his monster games vs. Jokic (in the game he played in Philadelphia) and against the Celtics this week. He is individually excellent defensively. That combination, when compared to the other two, makes him the MVP.

WHY HE’LL WIN: Because people really, really want to give it to him. I want to be clear: Embiid is not going to win this award undeservingly. He has led the league in scoring on 55-33-86 splits for the third-best team in the Eastern Conference while being considered an elite defensive player.

Embiid is a completely deserving MVP winner. But that’s just not why he’ll win.

On the Hoop Collective Podcast with Brian Windhorst, Tim MacMahon and Tim Bontemps, all three of whom have votes, there was a sentiment shared by MacMahon and Windhorst that it is “Embiid’s turn.” Embiid finished second in MVP three straight seasons. He would have won in 2021 had he not suffered an injury. He would have won last year if Jokic’s case wasn’t as unassailable.

Writing in the Athletic, former Grizzlies executive and longtime analyst John Hollinger said:

“Finally, I must admit history plays a role here. I don’t think “voter fatigue” is the right word to describe what I’m feeling as much as this: I don’t think it’s quite right that this era’s scoreboard would stand at Jokić 3, Giannis 2, Embiid 0 after the last five seasons. Those three have been the defining players of the last three campaigns (well, in the regular season anyway, which is what this award measures), and as I noted previously, quality-wise, the differences between them from year to year have been microscopic. Jokić has mostly had the edge and deserved his two trophies, but the noisiness of some of the underlying metrics might more accurately describe the situation as a de facto dead heat.”

This is the sentiment, whether Embiid fans want to admit it or not. This is the strongest reason Embiid will win. He hasn’t separated himself from Jokic or Antetokounmpo. He doesn’t have the most wins. He doesn’t have the best metrics. He’s not the best two-way player. He’s not the most dominant. There’s nothing about his season that really signals it being historic, other than his points production, which comes in a season where so many players have broken historic molds it’s impossible to contextualize.

But everyone really wants him to win. He really wants to win. He’s made it so clear in every possible way. Last year he did a long-ranging interview in late March with Sports Illustrated to make his case, while saying he doesn’t care. This year it was the Athletic, where he made comments deriding Jokic’s case while also saying, of course, that he doesn’t care.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s honestly refreshing to see a player who wants to win the award. Embiid wants to be considered an all-time great, most people want him to be considered an all-time great, and to be an all-time great, you need to win MVPs.

Nothing bad happens if Embiid wins. The award will hold up in history, arguably as well or better than Jokic’s, especially if the Sixers win the title this season. Embiid will be happy, Sixers fans will be overjoyed and one of the league’s best players will finally get the recognition he has so desperately clamored for.

But we should be honest about what this award race became, and as voters, understand that it is a significant outlier, the likes of which I can’t remember in 15 years of covering the NBA.

NIKOLA JOKIC

Expected vote total: Second place, 15% of first place votes, majority of second place votes

HIS STRONGEST CASE: No one impacts the game more.

With Jokic on the court this season, the Denver Nuggets outscore their opponent by 12.8 points per 100 possessions. That’s significantly more than the Sixers with Embiid (+8.8) and the Bucks with Antetokounmpo (+7.4). That +12.8 is the best number league-wide among players with 50 games played and 30 minutes per game.

I am steadfast in my resolve not to consider the play of benches and how teams play without their star. The resultant logic is that candidates should be punished if their team put good players around the star and rewarded if they gave their star player a sub-standard supporting cast.

But I do care how teams perform with their guy on the floor, and the Nuggets kick ass. They destroy teams. They annihilate squads when he’s on the court.

There’s nothing you can hit Jokic on offensively. Embiid’s shooting 49% from mid-range? Jokic is shooting 52.3%. Embiid is shooting 73% inside five feet, Jokic is shooting 72.8%. Jokic is 93rd percentile in the post, 93rd percentile as the pick-and-roll man, 88th percentile as a spot-up shooter and 85% on putbacks.

He’s also the best passer in the league. There’s no one who touches him. Not LeBron James, Harden, Trae Young, Tyrese Haliburton or Chris Paul. Jokic is the best passer in the league.

His rebounding numbers are fairly nuts. I’m not going to rattle off all the number combinations where Jokic is the only player to put up this season, but there are a lot of them. (A pretty basic one being, no one has ever averaged a 25-point triple double while shooting 63% from the field.)

Jokic leads the Nuggets in points, assists and rebounds. He also leads them in field goal percentage among players to play at least half the season. (Shouts to DeAndre Jordan for shooting 73% from the field.)

The Nuggets have won 71% of their games with Jokic playing this season. The 76ers have won 65% of their games with Embiid, the Bucks 75% of their games with Antetokounmpo. But Jokic has also played in more games than either (by two games).

The Nuggets have won the most games of the three with Jokic on the floor. The conversation about Jokic is always centered on trying to tear down the metrics that reflect well on him. But ultimately, it’s pretty easy for any analyst to see through empty stats and production and see the actual impact on winning.

That’s what gets lost. Jokic’s production and efficiency is directly tied to his team’s performance with him on the court. And that performance is dominant.

You shouldn’t vote for Jokic because you care about stats. You should vote for Jokic because you care about winning.

WHY HE WON’T WIN: Oh, boy.

I have never seen a candidacy for MVP be torn down like this. James in 2011 was a national villain and the result was that most voters just ignored him. But here is the list of reasons that have been concocted, not in comment sections on the internet, but in serious discussions on television broadcasts or on major podcasts:

  • Implicit racial bias (a serious and very real issue in essentially every cultural framework in America)

  • A series of internet defensive clips of Jokic’s poor defense through a rough section of the season

  • Longwinded and nonsensical attacks on the very idea of advanced metrics and how actually, numbers of any kind are bad

  • A conversation about kicking the ball when defending the pick and roll?

  • The historical importance of awarding a regular season award to a player for a third time who has not won the title

  • The importance of the January loss to Embiid’s Sixers, which was a road game among an entire 82-game resume, and which Jokic was not able to even the score of due to Embiid sitting in Denver despite playing a back-to-back two days prior and playing immediately afterward

Usually the arguments against a player are pretty simple: “Didn’t play enough games.” “Team didn’t win enough.” “Didn’t produce like the other guys.” “Off-court drama.”

Instead, Jokic has prompted an outright rebellion at the very notion of him winning three in a row.

It’s here that I want to clarify my position. Jokic would not be my No. 1 vote for MVP. He (and the Nuggets) played terrible defense and skated by early in the season, and then took their foot off the pedal and played horrible the past month and half. That’s three months of basketball in a six-month season. Even if his production was great in those stretches, he didn’t play MVP basketball consistently during them.

However, the arguments against him this year have been insane. We’re talking about defense as if the award hasn’t been given to Harden, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose and Dirk Nowitzki in the past. We’re talking about kicked balls in the pick and roll. We’re talking about how much a player wants the award. We’re talking about postseason success as if Jokic has not made a conference finals when Embiid still hasn't and historical precedent when the voters have chosen to ignore historical precedent twice in the past six years (2017, 2022).

It’s understandable that there is a high bar for Jokic to win three MVPs. That’s an extremely rare honor which some of the games greatest never accomplished. It’s fine to demand excellence from Jokic.

But he’s also given that.

The arguments against Jokic don’t begin with “the bar must be high for him to win MVP” and follow with “and here’s why he hasn’t reached it.” Because you can’t hit him on his production, efficiency or his team’s performance. The bar was high? He cleared it.

And this is where the rubber meets the road.

They just don’t want to give it to him. Once a voter has embraced that concept, they can't be won over. Jokic's case isn't good enough to leave no doubt, and all such pundits want is to find that doubt. It's confirmation bias of the worst degree.

“Jokic shouldn’t win a third MVP, so I will find the reasons why he can’t win the MVP and those will matter most.”

This returns to the biggest reason that Embiid will win it. The desired result at this moment in time is for Embiid to finally get his turn and Jokic to not receive three in a row.

There’s no tragedy in that. The world will keep spinning and we’ll move on immediately. But it’s important that we recognize what’s happening. The award is not being decided in good faith because the conversation from February on would not allow it to be.

There is an idea that permeates that NBA media “loves” Jokic and I laugh every time I hear it. Jokic got just 18 first place votes in the first straw poll of the 2021 season.  In December of 2021, nearing the midway mark of the 2021-22 season, Jokic was fourth. It wasn’t until March of both seasons that Jokic fully separated himself.

The reason for this is that voters did not want to give it to Jokic either year. He’s not a great story to tell. He’s not a savvy, charming media superstar. His agency is not constantly putting him front and center. He’s a goofy-looking Serbian who prefers horses to basketball.

He just left them no other choice.

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO

Expected finish: Third, 20% of the first-place votes

THE STRONGEST CASE: Take your pick. The consensus best player in basketball. The most dominant player in basketball. The best player on the best team. The best two-way player in the league. The face of the NBA.

No player dominates for stretches on both ends of the floor like Antetokounmpo. There are so many games where the contest will be in doubt, and Antetokounmpo will rattle off block, run, dunk, and-one, steal, run, dunk, stop, draws foul, stop, and-one.

He tears through teams like they’re tissue paper. He is the most unstoppable player in the league due to his combination of size, speed, athleticism, strength, footwork and passing.

He’s averaging the exact same field goal percentage he did when he won the award in 2020. He’s averaging career highs in points and rebounds per game. For all the talk of Embiid’s scoring prowess, Antetokounmpo is only averaging 1.7 fewer points per game, along with 1.5 more assists per game. Not only that, but Antetokounmpo is also averaging 11.2 made field goals per game to Embiid’s 11.0. Antetokounmpo is actually making more buckets per game — Embiid’s edge comes via his 0.3 3's per game and from the free throw line.

Drawing fouls is certainly a skill, but Antetokounmpo is generating more of those, too. Is the MVP really decided by free-throw percentage?

The Bucks have the best record in the NBA and locked it with a week to go, despite playing in the tougher conference. The Nuggets may win by more when Jokic is on the floor, but the Bucks win more often (75% as cited above) when Antetokounmpo plays.

If anything, the Bucks’ relatively mediocre statistical profile, compared to their winning percentage, is the best example of Antetokounmpo's value. The Bucks would probably be a 47-win team if it weren’t for Antetokounmpo being as great as he is.

The point of professional sports is money, but the second point is winning, and no one has won more than Antetokounmpo this season.

For those that choose to use postseason arguments toward a regular season award, would you ever choose Jokic or Embiid over Antetokounmpo to win a playoff game?

You can force Jokic to be a scorer and he becomes itchy. You can double team Embiid and he has a history of struggling to make the right reads. There are no answers for Antetokounmpo. You hold on and hope, like you’re trying to wrangle a rocket ship.

No one dominates the way Antetokounmpo does, and that makes him most valuable.

WHY HE WON’T WIN: Games played, I guess?

Antetokounmpo is likely to get more votes than you'd expect. I’m not sure the market, or the last straw poll, accurately reflects his share of the vote. But he’s still unlikely to win.

There’s just no enthusiasm for him, and for whatever reason, the vote this year is more built around enthusiasm than anything else.

Antetokounmpo has two. It’s almost like there’s not a desire to award Antetokounmpo MVP because he’s already certified as a two-time MVP and NBA champion. He doesn’t “need” the MVP award.

This is baffling because there is an agreement that Antetokounmpo is the best player in the world. He is the most trusted player. He’s the one of the three with the most postseason success (two conference finals appearances, one first round exit and one title in four playoff runs).

That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the MVP — James was the best player in the world from 2008 to 2018 and has four MVPs to show for it. But typically, if you said “the best player in the world had the best record in the NBA” that would lead to an MVP. The restriction on Jokic in not winning three without a title does not apply to Antetokounmpo.

If Antetokounmpo won with his games played, it would be the fewest (in an 82-game season) since Bill Walton in 1978. That matters.

However, Embiid with 66 would be … second-fewest in an 82-game season since 1978, as would Jokic’s 69. Look around you. This is the era of players not playing.

The Bucks haven’t been as good in terms of net rating as the Sixers or Nuggets despite their record. But I return to the fact that this makes Antetokounmpo's impact on winning all the greater. They should have lost more games. They did not.

But ultimately, this just isn’t Antetokounmpo's season. Were he to win, it would be the worst of his three MVP seasons. Like Jokic, he simply hasn’t separated himself enough to clear Embiid's momentum.

JAYSON TATUM

Expected finish: Fourth, majority of fourth place votes

STRONGEST CASE: 30-9-5 for the second best team in the East and arguably the best team in the league.

Tatum is arguably as complete a player as Embiid, while playing more games for a better team. He averaged over 30 points per game, with nine boards a game for a forward and five assists. His net rating is just below Embiid’s (+8.8) at +8.5.

The Celtics finished ahead of the Sixers in record, but also as the best team in the NBA in net rating. The Celtics accomplished more than the Sixers did this season. The Celtics won 70% of their games with Tatum.

We talk about great two-way players in the NBA but tend to overlook how great Tatum is defensively. Usually players who have his role on a team tend to give less effort and take lower assignments on defense, but Tatum is top level on defense while maintaining his efficiency.

WHY HE WON’T WIN: The Celtics lost steam after their torrid start. Not finishing with the No. 1 seed hurt Tatum more than finishing third hurt Embiid. Tatum’s efficiency also dropped off. Embiid and Antetokounmpo average more points on higher efficiency with higher usage.

30-9-4 would be bonkers in most seasons, but Tatum is just sixth in points per game scoring. The Celtics have the best net rating league-wide because of their depth, and while I don’t care about how teams perform when a player is not on the floor, most voters do. The Celtics are still +2.8 with Tatum on the bench. If the Celtics had been better with Tatum on the floor (even though they were great), then the Celtics are probably the No. 1 seed and Tatum might have stayed in the conversation.

As it stands, he’ll finish fourth, with a lot of momentum toward another run next season.

SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER

Expected finish: Fifth by fifth-place votes, narrowly

STRONGEST CASE: Gilgeous-Alexander will likely absorb most of the votes Luka Doncic would have gotten had the Mavericks made the playoffs. But Dallas’ complete meltdown and subsequent bow-out from the play-in tournament will leave a sour taste in voters’ mouths.

In his place will be Gilgeous-Alexander, who led the Thunder to a play-in spot and whose numbers are bonkers.

To put it in perspective: Gilgeous-Alexander finished with more points per game than Antetokounmpo, Tatum and Curry. Three players averaged 30 per game while shooting above 50% from the field: Embiid, Antetokounmpo and Gilgeous-Alexander. Gilgeous-Alexander also finished top 10 in steals plus blocks per game.

Gilgeous-Alexander was one of 10 players under 25 to finish with an on-court net rating above 2.0.

Gilgeous-Alexander emerged as a premier talent in the NBA and there’s a chance he winds up as the Most Improved Player. The Thunder are set to make major leaps over the next three seasons and Gilgeous-Alexander is the biggest reason.

WHY HE WON’T WIN: Not enough team success, not enough production, not enough team efficiency, not enough media attention. Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t the Most Valuable Player this season, but he’s definitely going to be deserving of a ballot spot.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Ja Morant, Donovan Mitchell, Jimmy Butler, Luka Doncic

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Jun 22, 2024 UTC