NBA MVP race: How close behind Nikola Jokic is Joel Embiid?

Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are jockeying for the MVP award for a third straight season. Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

When the Denver heads to Philadelphia Saturday for a big matchup on ABC, it will be two-time reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic leading his Nuggets against two-time reigning MVP runner-up Joel Embiid and his 76ers in what could be deemed the Battle of the MVPs.

In Year 3 of their personal rivalry for the top regular season award in the NBA, Jokic is currently the odds-on favorite to execute a historic three-peat that would place Jokic in the absolute highest echelon in NBA history alongside the eight other players with at least three MVPs, all of whom easily identifiable by a single name: Jordan. LeBron. Magic. Kareem. Wilt. Russell. Bird. Moses.

According to Caesars Sportsbook, Jokic is -165 to win the MVP. Embiid (+750) is fourth among favorites, trailing Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum. If we do the math, these odds suggest that Jokic is more than 10 times more likely to win this MVP than Embiid is.

Should he be?

Outside of what a player does on-court, MVP races are often settled based upon the dominant narrative. Coming into this season, it was thought that Jokic would battle a formidable counter-narrative that he "shouldn't" be allowed to join the "one-named three-time MVP club" before he and the Nuggets have won at least one NBA title.

However, after continuing to play at MVP level for more than half the season and, more importantly, leading the Nuggets to the best record and top seed in the Western Conference, Jokic has received a counter-counter-narrative boost. The new prevailing sentiment that has made him the odds-on favorite to win centers around the thought that, if he can play at that level and lead his team to the top of the heap, no outdated mode of thinking about needing a ring should disqualify Jokic from winning again.

That counter-counter-narrative is, again, strongly dependent upon Jokic's position as the candidate with the best clear combination of video game production and team success. Luka Doncic is considered to have production on Jokic's level, but the Mavericks don't have the team success. The Celtics do have the team success, but the perception is that Jayson Tatum doesn't have quite the same level of production as Jokic.

Interestingly, according to ESPN's impact stat Real Plus Minus, Tatum has actually been the highest impact player in the NBA thus far by both RPM and RPM Wins, so perception may not match reality, but right now perception rules the day.

Then, there's Embiid.

While Jokic is nearly averaging a triple-double at 25.1 PPG, 11.0 RPG and 9.9 APG, Embiid counters by leading the NBA in scoring as part of his 33.4 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 4.1 APG statline. Jokic has an absurd signature game of the season thus far with a 40-point, 27-rebound, 10-assist triple-double. But again, Embiid matches that with a just as memorable 59-point, 11-rebound, 8-assist, 7-blocks performance.

And while Jokic's Nuggets lead the Western Conference with a 34-15 record, Embiid's 76ers very quietly has moved into the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and third-best record in the NBA at 31-16 with the longest current win streak in the NBA at six games and counting.

This doesn't look like a competition where one player should be 10-times more likely to win than the other, but let's dig deeper.

In recent weeks, I've detailed how central Jokic is to the offense of the Nuggets, and also how the 76ers' offensive attack is built around Embiid, utilizing scouting software to cement the cases. Simply, Jokic is the best passing big man of his generation (perhaps of all-time) while simultaneously possessing one of the best, most efficient jump shots of all time, a combo of which allows him to create team-offense and generate spacing that makes life easier on his teammates to a league-best degree.

Embiid, on the other hand, is one of the dominant ISO players in the NBA, and is able to draw so much defensive attention with his ability to score that it opens up his team full of shooters and strong 1-on-1 players to get easy looks and/or attack imbalanced defenses. The scouting analytics support these statements, but it is easily summarized by the impact data, with Jokic and Embiid ranking 1-2 among centers in offensive RPM.

But, what about on the other end of the court?

While Embiid's 76ers have the sixth-best team defensive rating in the NBA, a fraction of a point outside the top-5, Jokic's Nuggets are 15th in the league, right in the middle of the pack. Scouting analytics again help us break down the extent of each player's defensive prowess. According to Second Spectrum, Embiid allows only 0.75 points per chance to opponents as the ballhandler defender in Isolations, the 11th best mark in the NBA (among players to defend at least 50 isolations). Jokic, on the other hand, allows 0.99 points per chance to rank 123rd.

Similarly, when defending the most common set in the NBA -- the pick-and-roll/pop -- Embiid has allowed 0.88 points per chance as the screener defender in on-ball picks to rank 9th in the NBA (among 113 players to defend at least 250 picks), while Jokic allows 0.96 points per chance to rank 48th.

In fact, as the closest defender on all shots, per Second Spectrum Embiid ranks 26th (among 94 players to defend at least 450 shots) by allowing a 52.1 EFG% while Jokic ranks 75th of 94 by allowing a 57.1 EFG%.

It's easy to see and demonstrate that Embiid is the better defender of the two. It should be noted that, despite Embiid's defensive advantages, Jokic still ranks slightly ahead in impact as measured by RPM. These two always measure very similarly in RPM; they finished 6th and 7th in a virtual tie in Jokic's first MVP season of 2020-21, 1st and 2nd last season, and are currently 2nd and 5th this season... though it should be noted that Jokic's 8.3 RPM and Embiid's 7.7 are closer together than second-place Jokic is to first place Tatum (9.6 RPM).

But, Embiid's defensive advantage speaks to a larger narrative point: the postseason is much more about defense and 1-on-1 mismatches than the regular season. And, Jokic's effectiveness went down in both the 2020 and 2021 playoffs in series against Anthony Davis and Deandre Ayton, respectively.

Embiid, meanwhile, has been just as individually dominant in the postseason as in the regular season in recent seasons, as long as he was healthy.

While the MVP is a regular season award, the initial questions about Jokic winning three straight before winning a ring could re-surface if the race comes down to the wire between he and Embiid for a third straight season.

And therein lies the rub. Jokic is a very deserving MVP candidate this season. In fantasy basketball, he's the undisputed king, the best fantasy producer on both a per-game basis and overall.

But, in the MVP race, Embiid has strong arguments as well that could get stronger as the season goes along. If he stays healthy and gets the 76ers into the No. 1 seed in the East, Embiid will have the stats, the team success and likely his own powerful narratives.

And, returning to the futures angle, I agree that Jokic actually should be favored over Embiid as they enter Saturday's game. But, there's no way that he's 11 times more deserving of the award than Embiid right now, and if he stays healthy I think Embiid's case will only get better from here. I look forward to watching the Battle of the MVPs on the court on Saturday.

In my futures bets, I'm currently backing the underdog as the better value than the odds-on favorite.