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The MVP debate may cause Nuggets and Sixers fans to draw battle lines, but it shouldn’t distract from how great both Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid have been this season.
It’s reached a nadir this year as the two emerged as the front-runners for the Most Valuable Player award.
Sixers fans often gripe about Jokic’s physical fitness and lack of defensive impact, asserting that his lack of rim protection disqualifies him from being the league’s best center. Nuggets fans typically retort by accusing Embiid of being a free-throw grifter who feigns injuries to dodge matchups against dominant bigs.
It’s time for the two fanbases to put their differences aside and begin to appreciate both Jokic and Embiid for who they are.
Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are both in the middle of special seasons
Only six years into his NBA career, Jokic has already cemented his place as the best-passing center in league history. His career average of 5.9 assists per game is well ahead of the next-closest center, Wilt Chamberlain (4.4), as is his 32.1 assist percentage.
Raw statistics alone don’t do justice to Jokic’s passing vision and flare. The lasers he fires to teammates would be impressive for anyone, much less a 6’11” big man.
Jokic is averaging a career-high 8.8 assists per game this season, which has fueled the Nuggets’ third-ranked offense. They’re shooting 50.9 percent as a team with him on the floor compared to only 43.4 percent with him on the bench.
The advanced numbers are even more absurd. The Nuggets are scoring a blistering 122.6 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the court, which would be the best mark in league history by nearly six points per 100 possessions. They’re averaging only 107.0 points per 100 possessions when he sits, which would rank 26th this year.
Jokic has packaged his passing wizardry this year with more scoring oomph than ever before. He’s averaging a career-high 26.1 points per game after never topping 20.1 across his first five seasons, and he’s doing so on 56.7 percent shooting. He’s also drilling a personal-best 42.2 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Equipped with one of the most unique centers ever to play the game, the Nuggets have built their entire offense around Jokic, and they’re thriving as a result. Jamal Murray’s torn ACL likely knocks them out of title contention, but between their trip to the Western Conference Finals last year and acquisition of Aaron Gordon at this year’s trade deadline, they appear poised to remain a championship contender for years to come.
The same is likely true for the Sixers, who have put last year’s disappointing season behind them thanks to Embiid’s surge into the MVP conversation.
Embiid has long been one of the league’s most physically imposing big men, but injuries, conditioning and inconsistency plagued him in past years. That hasn’t been the case this season outside of a recent knee injury that sidelined him for 10 games.
Like Jokic, Embiid is averaging a career-high 30.0 points per game while shooting 51.6 percent overall and 37.9 percent from deep. He’s drawing a league-leading 11.8 free-throw attempts per game, and he’s on track to surpass Wilt Chamberlain’s single-season record for freebies per 36 minutes.
There isn’t some sort of grand league conspiracy to send Embiid parading to the free-throw line, though. He’s earning those trips by bullying through any obstacles who dare stand in his way with his 7’0″, 280-pound frame and deft post footwork.
It isn’t as if free throws are the sole source of Embiid’s dominance, either. As Michael Pina of Sports Illustrated recently highlighted, the big fella is shooting nearly 60 percent on long two-pointers this year, which is a drastic upgrade over the 35.3 percent he shot on such attempts over the previous two seasons.
Embiid has sustained what once seemed like an early-season anomaly across nearly 40 games, which suggests he might not revert to his previous shooting means. A strategic shift in how the Sixers employ him—plus the additional floor spacing provided by shooters such as Seth Curry and Danny Green—have helped him become even more unstoppable.
In February, Mike Prada of Prada’s Pictures highlighted how Embiid had begun facing up more frequently rather than operating with his back to the basket. That helps him both identify double-teams more quickly and keep his eye on the rim to avoid having to hoist up turnaround, off-balance jumpers.
Although Embiid isn’t as much of a playmaking hub as Jokic, he is the fulcrum of their offense. They’re averaging 117.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor compared to only 105.6 per 100 with him on the bench, giving him the highest on/off differential of any Sixers rotation player.
Embiid won’t ever be as adept of a passer as Jokic, but he has become more confident in his floor reads this season, particularly against extra help. He’s actively seeking out double-teams, knowing he can kick the ball out and create an open look on the perimeter.
Defense is where Embiid separates himself from Jokic. Opponents are shooting 3.9 percentage points below their overall average when Embiid defends them, and they’re 8.4 percentage points below their average against Embiid within six feet of the basket. While Embiid isn’t among the NBA’s leading shot-blockers, the Sixers have the league’s second-ranked defense in large part because of his defense in the paint.
Nuggets head coach Mike Malone conceded Jokic isn’t the same type of defensive presence as Embiid, but he wasn’t willing to say Jokic is a bad defender.
“If people want to nitpick, I’m sure they could try to say that about Nikola,” Malone told reporters last month. “But I, as a head coach who has worked with him for six years now, would not agree with that.
“Is he an athletic shot-blocker? Is he going to be blocking shots out of the air? No, he’s not. That’s not his game. But he has a high IQ. He’s the anchor of our defense, he communicates our defense, and he does a lot of things that may not show up in stat sheets.”
Embiid is a physical, mean-mugging, ground-humping menace on both ends of the floor. Jokic is more of a finesse player. Both are dominant despite their respective differences.
Rather than tear one down to build up the other, just enjoy the two all-time great talents in their prime for who they are.