Second Jokic-Embiid battle set to have big say in 'nasty' MVP race
It will be interesting to see whether a passionate Denver Nuggets crowd follows coach Michael Malone's lead on Monday when Joel Embiid comes into town.
Embiid is Nikola Jokic's rival in an NBA MVP race that Malone believes has taken "a really ugly, nasty turn".
"It's like when I was a college coach, all the negative recruiting," Malone said last week, having described Embiid as "a great candidate".
"It's not promoting my guy. It's ripping down every other guy. And that's just ridiculous.
"Celebrate them; don't criticise, don't tear them down. Build them all up. And whoever wins it, good for them."
The Nuggets and Embiid's Philadelphia 76ers have been fighting for position in their respective conferences, but debate around the top individual award has continued to rage.
For his part, Jokic has tried to set it aside. "I don't think about it anymore," he said.
But it is easy for the two-time reigning MVP to take that stance. Giannis Antetokounmpo is on the periphery of the conversation – albeit perhaps less so after losing to the Nuggets at the weekend – and he won the two before Jokic.
Embiid has been a finalist the past two years but has never been named the MVP. He might have a different view of things.
For that reason, the 76ers superstar should relish the opportunity to go into Denver and upset the top seed in the West.
Embiid has already landed a big blow in one game against the Nuggets this season, finishing with 47 points and 18 rebounds in the Sixers' win back in January.
That was only the 15th instance of such a performance in the regular season since the NBA/ABA merger, with others to achieve that feat including Antetokounmpo, Michael Jordan and, on three occasions, Shaquille O'Neal.
Yet for all Embiid's dominance, that game also illustrated how he and Jokic are so different.
That is no secret, with Jokic a center like Embiid but possessing the playmaking skills of an elite point guard, but it has only become clearer this year.
Embiid has a usage rate of 37.4 per cent, nudging above last year's mark for a career high. It is little wonder then when he has games, as against the Nuggets, in which he attempts 31 field goals. He has twice attempted 32 field goals this season.
It is that volume shooting that allows Embiid to lead the league in scoring (33.3 points) despite ranking 'only' 23rd in field goal percentage (54.5). It also helps that he is the only player making more than 10 free throws per game (10.2) – albeit he made just seven of 10 against the Nuggets.
Meanwhile, Jokic is averaging 24.9 points, down on the previous two seasons. He scored 24 against the 76ers.
But this is in line with his usage rate shrinking considerably to 27.3 per cent after peaking at 31.8 per cent in 2021-22 – and Jokic could scarcely be more efficient with those possessions.
He leads the Nuggets in both points and assists (9.9), as well as rebounds (11.8), just as he did in the 76ers game (nine assists, eight rebounds). His turnover percentage is up slightly (16.6) – there were seven against Philly – but so is his assist rate (45.5 per cent) and his shooting from the field (63.3 per cent), three-point range (39.0 per cent) and the foul line (82.3 per cent).
Jokic is right there for a season averaging a triple-double. That has only been done – four times – by one player in the modern NBA. In those seasons, Russell Westbrook's usage rate never dipped below 30 per cent. He also averaged at least 4.5 turnovers per game in each year, with Jokic back on 3.5.
Embiid, who likewise has 3.5 turnovers, carries the 76ers' burden in scoring and rebounding, but James Harden is the team's creative force. He had 13 assists against the Nuggets.
What the 76ers big man lacks in eye-catching passes, however, he makes up for on the defensive end. Defensive metrics do not really do justice to the gap between Embiid and Jokic.
But that is not to denigrate Jokic. In truth, given their extraordinary seasons, there are no shortage of numbers that would support the case for one man or the other – perhaps contributing to the nastiness Malone bemoaned.
Maybe it is best then that it comes down to a matchup on the court, two weeks out from the end of the regular season.
Might we see another 40-point Embiid night to clinch a first MVP? Or Jokic's latest triple-double that pushes him towards three in a row? Whoever wins it, as the Nuggets coach said, good for them.