Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and why this NBA MVP race just got good

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Thursday, March 16, 2023

Exactly one month ago, ESPN released its second of three straw polls tracking the NBA's Most Valuable Player race for the 2022-23 season, and it had a very clear result: Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic as the heavy favorite to claim his third straight award.

Thursday saw Las Vegas tell a different tale, as Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid has joined Jokic as anMVP co-favoriteafter finishing in second each of the last two seasons.

What happened?

Most notably, Denver has lost four straight games: home defeats to the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets and road losses to the San Antonio Spurs and the Toronto Raptors, whom they allowed to score 49 points in the first quarter Tuesday night.

Jokic continues to be a dominant force individually and remains on pace to become the first center in NBA history to average a triple-double (24.7 points, 11.9 rebounds, 10.0 assists) for a season.

But Denver is 5-5 with the No. 24 defense since the All-Star break, which coach Michael Malone said could be attributed to coasting after all but locking up the top seed in the Western Conference.

"Right now we're just in chill mode, and you can't be in chill mode with 13 games to go in the season," Malone told reporters after Tuesday's loss in Toronto. "We've got to try to find a way to get our swagger back."

While Denver is in "chill mode," both the 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks -- led by two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo -- have been anything but.

The 76ers, who are in the midst of the most difficult post-All-Star schedule in the NBA, per ESPN's Basketball Power Index, have won seven of their past eight games since the calendar flipped to March.

Embiid, who won Eastern Conference Player of the Month in December and January, is well on his way to winning the award again. He's averaging 36.6 points on 60% shooting, 8.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.1 blocks this month. That included a 36-point, 18-rebound performance in a victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night, after which Embiid told ESPN's Cassidy Hubbarth that he's excited about the way he and the 76ers are playing.

"I'm just trying to win," Embiid said. "Just trying to rack up as many wins as we can. Just trying to get the group together and doing our job, like tonight. Down 12 -- we've had to fight all season long -- coming back, and it's good to see. So, my teammates, they are making my job easy. They have a lot of trust in me, them and the coaches, but we're doing this as a team."

For their part, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have stampeded past the Boston Celtics to the top of the East and NBA's best record behind some truly dominant play by their All-NBA forward. Since Jan. 1, Antetokounmpo has averaged 30.9 points, 12 rebounds and 5.9 assists.

And while Antetokounmpo might be third among the oddsmakers in Las Vegas, he was second in February's MVP straw poll and remains firmly in the mix in what has become a three-player race for the league's top regular-season individual honor.

"We are good," Antetokounmpo said after Tuesday's win against the Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee's 21st in its last 23 games. "We are in a good place."

So, too, is the MVP race, which is set up for a fascinating sprint to the finish over the final three-and-a-half weeks of the regular season. To make things even more interesting, next weekend will feature a three-day stretch of MVP-contender showdowns in Denver, with Milwaukee visiting on March 25 before Jokic and Embiid go head-to-head in a nationally televised game on March 27. (Philadelphia will visit Milwaukee on April 2 in the final regular-season matchup between the Bucks and 76ers.)

Back in January, Embiid dominated the individual matchup against Jokic, scoring 47 points in Philadelphia's win. Last season, the 76ers hosted the Nuggets and Bucks in March and lost both games, which some in the City of Brotherly Love point to as a reason Embiid wound up falling short of Jokic for the award.

Embiid will get a chance to write a different story this year -- as will his two closest competitors. With three weeks to go, there's everything to play for in what's become a completely wide-open race.

Related Video