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In 2022, the MVP race became about so much more than just whether you thought Nikola Jokic, or Joel Embiid was the better player.
The MVP race between Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid came to define the last half of the 2021-22 regular season. In the end, Jokic won his second consecutive MVP, averaging 27.1 points, 13.8 points and 7.9 assists per game for the 48-34 Denver Nuggets. Embiid led the league in scoring, averaging 30.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists for the 51-31 Philadelphia 76ers.
But it wasn’t just about who you thought had the better numbers. It was about style of play, the mix of aesthetic and production, form and function, the way each player went about the business of dominating the opposition. You weren’t just choosing an MVP, you were choosing a school of basketball thought.
As part of our Fandoms of the Year project, we’re taking this week to celebrate some of the best rivalries of 2022. To get more perspective on the Joel Embiid vs. Nikola Jokic rivalry, and what it felt like to be on either side of it in 2022, we’re turning it over to the experts.
The Joel Embiid perspective
A most valuable player award can be a tough draw in professional sports considering the talent disparity tends to be so small between world-class players. Such a conundrum can lead to poor timing completely taking away opportunities for MVP-worthy players to finish their careers without having taken home the award.
Drew Brees not winning a single MVP feels asinine to some in the NFL. Derek Jeter never won it in the MLB. And now it feels possible that Joel Embiid could go on without winning it, too.
Of course, one season off a year in which he led the league in scoring (30.6 points per game), that might seem a bit ridiculous to suggest his window is completely closed, but the time players spend at the top of their game can be fleeting, and the time spent at the top of the league perhaps more so.
In almost any other year, Embiid would be a lock for MVP. Up against Nikola Jokic last year, the case was murkier. Jokic won out.
Analytics will tell you it was the right call for Jokic to win it (Jokic had a league-leading 9.8 VORP, Embiid 6.5). The eye test might tell you a different story, with Embiid looking unguardable on any given night. These two schools of thought led to furious debates between both sides where neither could concede any sense of validity to the opposition’s argument.
In some sense, the historic MVP battle’s greatness just for the sake of the battle itself was overshadowed by such debates. Before Jokic won the award the year before, a center hadn’t won MVP since Tim Duncan in 2003. Now, we had two big men going for it at once, a situation so unheard of that fans couldn’t bear to let it go simply appreciated for what it was.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of this rivalry is not that it seems to go completely underappreciated, but the fact that we don’t get to see the two face off with each other often at all. The Sixers and Nuggets play each other just twice a year, and Embiid was inactive for one of those matchups last season.
But on the Sixers’ side, 2022’s MVP outcome feels like an unjust conclusion. How much more does Embiid need to do to will himself the award? Embiid’s career narrative — a guy from Cameroon who didn’t even start playing basketball until he was a teenager — feels entirely overlooked, despite such stories being credited as the reason to vote for LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo by both fans and analysts.
One can only hope for justice this year and another MVP bid from Embiid.
The Nikola Jokic perspective
It’s always appointment television when the two best centers in the league go head-to-head. They’re two 7-footers, two absolute beasts of players, and two generational talents who dominate a position that it feels like the NBA has been trying to kill off for years.
But Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are so, so different. One is the best big man passer in the history of the sport who sees the game like a point guard and uses a combination of strength and finesses to punish his defender on the block and create scoring opportunities for others like no one playing his position ever has. The other is the most dominant post player in the game and a one-man offensive and defensive hub who can seemingly carry his team on both ends of the floor by himself.
But that dichotomy between Jokic and Embiid is what makes this rivalry so fascinating. Jokic is a machine on the basketball court. His computerized brain sees every play before it happens and every rotation the defense is going to make two or three moves in advance. He’s learned how NBA defenses react to his every movement. It gets on his nerves that his teammates don’t see the future like he does. Watching him go up against the brute force of Embiid who doesn’t hide the fact that he’s trying to score on his man every trip down the floor is an NBA fan’s dream.
Unfortunately, Embiid hasn’t stayed healthy enough to give this rivalry the attention it deserves across the basketball universe. Embiid and Jokic have only played one another four times since the 2018-19 season. Just one of those matchups, a 114-110 Nuggets win in March of 2022, has come in the last three seasons.
Jokic and Embiid are the two best centers in the NBA. They’re two of the best centers of all time but dominate their competition in their own unique way. Styles do make fights, and Jokic and Embiid are a must-buy pay-per-view event every time they face off. We’re lucky every time we’re able to watch these two share the court.