I hear all the time that the NBA’s MVP is a regular-season award. Which is strange, because when so many people ran out of ways to diminish Nikola Jokic’s so-called nerd-number dominance as a way of elevating Joel Embiid’s case, the argument became about … the postseason.
It was always there. This idea that Jokic somehow isn’t the same dominant force in the postseason. It has never met even the baseline standard of a logical argument. Go look at Jokic’s postseason performances. And besides that, what, Embiid is some kind of playoff monster? After Embiid’s Sixers were blown off the court by the Celtics in Game 7 on Sunday, Philly has now been bounced in the second round for the third straight year, and in increasingly embarrassing fashion, I might add.
Jokic, for the record, has now been to two conference finals. Embiid, zero. We blamed Ben Simmons in 2021. Last year James Harden wasn’t healthy. This year, I’m sure Embiid apologists are going to claim he wasn’t healthy. Which he wasn’t. But that’s not the point. This is a pattern now. Embiid doesn’t meet the moments in front of him on a consistent basis. He went 7 for 24 in Philly’s elimination game last year. He went 5 for 18 for 15 points on Sunday.
On the defensive end, which is supposed to be the crux of his case as a more valuable player than Jokic, he provided basically zero rim protection and had no chance to guard on the perimeter. He was targeted repeatedly in pick and roll. He was slow with no lift. He was lethargic. Embiid always looks pretty lethargic, to be fair. But on Sunday, he was truly on a leisure walk. In a Game 7.
Now I want to be clear, this is not an attack on Embiid as a great player, which he obviously is. I’m just here to point out what is absolutely obvious to anyone who genuinely watches, and has genuinely watched, both these guys play: Embiid is not in Jokic’s class. He just isn’t. There isn’t one catch-all number to suggest he is, and for the people that hate the metrics, the eye test just got pretty blinding.
When Embiid is going great, it’s easy to confuse him for Jokic’s equal, if not his superior, just as it’s easy to put Damian Lillard in Stephen Curry’s class when he’s cooking. I’ve made the mistake myself. And I looked dumb when I did it.
I’m not getting fooled again. Embiid, like Lillard, is a Hall of Fame player and worthy MVP candidate. He’s just not the MVP. He’s not the Curry in this conversation. That’s Jokic. The guy whose on-off splits should have told the MVP tale for the third straight year.
It bears repeating: The Nuggets were 25 points worse per 100 possessions when Jokic sat this season. That’s a statistical way of saying they played like the best team in the league with him and pretty much the worst team without him. Over a large sample size, that is what it is.
But I’m not even going to make this about advanced numbers. The Nuggets are minus-2.2 per 100 in these playoffs with Jokic on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. Doesn’t matter. It’s a small sample. The man just averaged 34.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 10.3 assists on 59/44/85 shooting splits in eliminating the Suns. He was without a doubt the best player in a series that included Kevin Durant and Devin Booker.
You see, what the numbers reflect but aren’t necessary to understand if you watch the games is this: Jokic is a guaranteed quality shot. For him. Or for a teammate. The Nuggets run their offense through him and it cannot be defended. Cannot. If you single cover Jokic, whether in the regular season or the playoffs, he is going to destroy you in the post or with his feathery touch. Double cover him, and he slices you wide open with his passing.
That defensive dilemma is not one Embiid can replicate. You can double team him, and he will not pick you apart; he finished with 24 assists against 35 turnovers in the playoffs. You can say MVP is a regular season award, but nothing speaks to Jokic’s value more than his ability to shred double teams, and Embiid, in the regular season or the playoffs, cannot do that.
Embiid is a reliable midrange shooter but spends too much time on the perimeter. On Sunday, he posted up way too far from from the hoop. At times he’s catching the ball just inside the 3-point line. When he has to back you down that far, he is susceptible to losing the ball and/or his footing, or both, if he doesn’t just face up and settle for a jumper.
While there is absolutely no way that any defense is holding Jokic, who simply has too many ways to kill you, to 15 points on 18 shots with one assist in an elimination game, or really any game for that matter, Embiid, like his teammate James Harden, is too reliant on drawing fouls to maintain consistent half-court dominance when things really get tight.
Six times Embiid has been to the playoffs in his career, and five times he has failed to register even a league average effective field-goal percentage. If he’s not getting to the line, he’s not dominant. At least not in the way Jokic is.
In the playoffs, it’s about which teams gets the better, easier, more rhythmic shots against set defenses. Jokic guarantees you those shots. Embiid does not. The game, relative to what it looks like with Jokic, looks like a struggle running through Embiid.
That’s harder to see in the regular season, when you get myriad matchups against inferior opponents and nobody specifically strategizes. But it’s still true. It’s still a massive value point in Jokic’s favor.
This has been a problem for the Sixers dating back to the Brett Brown era. They just cannot create good consistent shots in the half court. You saw it all day on Sunday — nothing going on, Embiid backing down or facing up, the shot clock seemingly stuck on six seconds and ticking down as someone tries to create something out of nothing.
Brown, they said, wasn’t creative enough, and he got run. Simmons can’t space the floor, and he got run. Doc Rivers has long been maligned — I think deservedly so — as an unimaginative, frankly overmatched coach in the playoffs, and he might be gone before long, too. Harden might be done in Philly, and don’t even try to get me started on his unreliability as a shooter when he can’t consistently live on the whistle.
Embiid is Philadelphia’s lone franchise pillar guaranteed to be standing next season, and at some point, you have to ask yourself who the common denominator in all these postseason shortcomings is. And having said that, it then is only logical to conclude that the postseason narrative — which isn’t supposed to mean anything but we all know actually does — doesn’t hold water as it pertains to this Jokic vs. Embiid debate.
The simple truth is Jokic lost this award to voter fatigue. And to the narrative of a great player in Embiid who has waited his turn. Jokic was better in the regular season. Jokic has been better in the postseason. Jokic is the most valuable player in the league, regardless of who got the actual trophy this year. I don’t know who needs to hear that. But I just wanted to say it.