NBA

Despite small-ball trend, centers in thick of MVP discussion

By Sports Desk February 18, 2021

Battling both Father Time and his opponent, LeBron James remains a nearly unstoppable force in his 18th season. 

Averaging 25.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and 7.9 assists, James is once again posting impressive numbers for the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers while playing every game so far this season.

With Los Angeles off to a 22-7 start, James appears to be the early favourite for MVP, which would put James in rarified air with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Michael Jordan as the only players to win the award at least five times. 

James, who won his first MVP award after the 2008-09 season, would also secure the record for the most time between MVP honours if he were to win again – a fitting tribute for a player who has broken the rules of basketball longevity.

As good as James has been this season, his lead in the race is narrow, and perhaps his three most deserving rivals come from the center position, despite the league's embrace of "small ball". 

Whether it be the "seven seconds or less" Phoenix Suns teams of the mid-2000s, the perimeter-fueled Golden State Warriors teams that won three titles or the Houston Rockets' dramatic downsizing last season that left 6ft 5in P.J. Tucker defending 7-footers, the NBA has been trending small for the better part of the last two decades.  

Shaquille O'Neal is the last true center to win MVP in 1999-00, although Tim Duncan played plenty of center during his 2001-02 and 2003-03 MVP campaigns. Some pundits have even forecasted the extinction of the true center as the league leans toward perimeter play and positional versatility.  

Yet three centers – Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers and Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz – are assembling compelling cases to be voted this season's MVP.  

Jokic is the focal point of the Nuggets' offense, on pace to dish out the most assists ever by a player 7 feet or taller at 8.6 per game. He is also averaging a team-high 27.4 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.57 steals.  

With Jokic on the court, the Nuggets score 117.2 points per 100 possessions – better than any team's full-season numbers – while shooting 49.9 percent from the field. When Jokic sits, Denver's offense operates with the efficiency of league-worst Cleveland, shoots just 42.5 percent, makes fewer 3-pointers and commits more turnovers.  

The Serbia native has helped the Nuggets navigate several absences due to COVID-19 protocols, but with a 15-13 start – eighth in the West – MVP voters are typically hesitant to vote for a team outside the top four in its conference. And while Jokic has improved on defense over the last few seasons, his weaknesses on that side of the floor are a fair argument against him being named more valuable than any other player.  

Embiid, on the other hand, is a two-time All-Defensive Team selection who is also turning in his best offensive season by a wide margin. His 29.7 points per game are on pace to be the most by a 7-footer since 1999-00 (Shaquille O'Neal, 29.7), while shooting career bests of 54 percent from the field and 39.7 percent from 3-point range.  

Embiid is also a tremendous free throw shooter, regardless of position, making 85.1 percent this season. He is even better in high-stakes situations, making 88.5 percent of his free throws in the fourth quarter and overtime, including a 19-for-20 mark in the last three minutes of a game.  

With Embiid on the court, the Sixers have a net rating of +11.2 points per 100 possessions but are -5.7 per 100 possessions when he is off the court. Embiid is vital to his team, with the 76ers going 18-5 when he plays and 1-5 when he rests.  

While Embiid's time off the court shows just how valuable he is when he plays, it also may keep him from winning MVP this season. At his current workload, he is on pace to miss 15 of the Sixers' 72 games, more than 20 per cent. Embiid has played just under 748 minutes this season, while James and Jokic have played over 1,000 each.  

Gobert has played nearly 878 minutes for the Jazz, appearing in every game and leading Utah to a league-leading 24-5 record.

While his 14.2 points per game fail to measure up to his competitors' numbers, Gobert slots perfectly into the "best player on the best team" role that Giannis Antetokounmpo has occupied over the last two seasons and has added 13.4 rebounds and a career-high 2.69 blocks per game.  

Gobert is second in the league in plus-minus per 48 minutes at +15.3 (min. 500 minutes played), trailing only teammate Mike Conley at +18.9. 

The Jazz have surrounded Gobert with a roster mostly consisting of average or worse defensive players yet still rank third in the NBA, allowing 106 points per game.  

When Gobert is on the floor, Utah holds opponents to 101.6 points per 100 possession, fewer than any team's full-season numbers this year. And while Gobert ranks second in the NBA in blocked shots, his defensive impact extends beyond traditional numbers.  

Utah's opponents have attempted just 18.8 free throws per game – second fewest in the NBA – and Gobert's intimidating presence in the middle appears to be why. With Gobert on the court, Utah's opponents are attempting just 15.2 free throws per 100 possessions. When Gobert sits, that number balloons to 24.2.  

Ultimately, though, Gobert's limited offensive role makes him an outside candidate for MVP unless the Jazz finish the season on a historically great run.  

Gobert's skew toward defense, Jokic's skew toward offense and Embiid's limited availability could all open the door for LeBron – a worthy candidate in his own right – to take home his fifth MVP after this season.   

This trio of centers, however, has proven that there is still room for the big man to dominate in the modern NBA.  

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