With fewer than 10 games left in the NBA regular season, the MVP race is starting to heat up. Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers recently followed up an eight-game win streak with three losses in their last four games. Meanwhile, Nikola Jokic and the first-place Nuggets have won three straight.
It all comes to a head Monday night, with the Sixers and Nuggets set to wage battle amidst the high peaks of Colorado. Embiid is currently listed as questionable with calf soreness, but he played on the same injury Saturday night in Phoenix and let me tell you, there’s just no way he misses this game in particular (if he does miss the game, get ready for the “he ducked Jokic!” campaign from Denver fans, which will completely ignore Embiid’s dominant performance against Denver earlier in the season).
The outcome of this game, whether it’s justified or not, could have an outsized impact on the MVP voting in a few weeks’ time. The NBA is a what have you done for me lately kind of league, as my colleague Lucas Johnson likes to say.
Joel Embiid criticizes Nikola Jokic and stakes his MVP claim
All season, Embiid has claimed that he doesn’t care about MVP — that he only cares about winning. On one hand, I think he’s telling the truth. He has slowly and methodically built up his workload all season, taking the cautious approach and making an effort to stay healthy in anticipation of the playoffs.
On the other hand, he clearly cares very much about the MVP award. In a new interview with Shams Charania of The Athletic, Embiid dished out some heavy-hitting opinions on Jokic and the awards criteria, all while lying blatantly about how this season he totally does not care about winning MVP.
The most inflammatory of Embiid’s comments concerned the NBA’s analytics movement. The Sixers’ All-Star said that using analytics to determine league MVP “doesn’t make sense.” He then cited defensive stats specifically, noting how “some guys” who transparently fail the eye test are evidently quite good on defense according to certain metrics.
That is the most thinly veiled comment of all time, a blatant reference to Embiid’s primary MVP competitor Nikola Jokic. Embiid has taken every opportunity in the past to shower praise on Jokic, but it’s clear that Embiid believes he has the edge as a two-way force.
Embiid also noted how, in his mind, the awards criteria seems to change every season. First, he didn’t play enough games. Then, he did played enough games — and Jokic deserved it, he rather unconvincingly interjects — but Jokic won anyway, despite being the No. 6 seed out West. Now, Embiid has played enough games, the Sixers are neck-and-neck with Denver in the win column, and he is leading the NBA in scoring (again).
There is nothing wrong with wanting to win MVP. In fact, Embiid’s quest for respect and his desire to prove detractors wrong is part of what endears him to the Philly fanbase. Embiid is the beating heart of this Sixers team on the court and he very clearly wants recognition for the amazing things he does every night.
On the flip side, some people will criticize Embiid for openly campaigning for the MVP award when the playoffs (and the ultimate goal of winning a championship) are right around the corner. Embiid claims multiple times in the interview that he’s focused on winning the title, not the MVP, but it’s not hard to read between the lines: I’m focused on winning, but I should definitely also win MVP.
This interview also provides a sizable amount of bulletin board material for Jokic ahead of Monday night’s bout. While Denver fans will claim religiously that Jokic does not care about stats, awards, or his perception around the league, he is only human and he will definitely see these comments. So, perhaps this game will serve as a litmus test for those who believe Jokic is truly above such trivial matters.
Either way, we should be prepared for a potentially historic heavyweight fight.