NBA

Embiid, Giannis or Jokic – big men leading the way in NBA MVP race

By Sports Desk February 03, 2022

As the NBA All-Star break approaches, three players look to have established themselves as this season's MVP frontrunners – and they all happen to be big men born outside the United States.

That is surprising with the league trending towards teams hoisting up insane amounts of three-pointers and the idea of the big man in the middle becoming almost obsolete.

While this race will undoubtedly come down to the 11th hour, these three players have clearly separated themselves from the pack by playing some otherworldly basketball this season. 

JOEL EMBIID, Philadelphia 76ers

Embiid is the only one of the top three who has never won an MVP and that could end up working in his favour. The Philadelphia center was the runner-up to winner Nikola Jokic last season, and some wondered whether that was his best chance to win the award, but he has been better in nearly every area of the game while single-handedly carrying the 76ers to the upper reaches of the Eastern Conference.

Embiid's points (29.1), rebounds (10.8) and assists (4.4) have all ticked up slightly this season, though his field goal percentage has dropped. Maybe the most important stat that puts a fine point on just how valuable Embiid has been is Philadelphia's 27-12 record when he plays and 4-8 mark when he doesn't.

Embiid has had issues with durability throughout his career, never playing more than 64 games in any season. He has mostly put those issues to rest this season and played in 21 straight games before he had a scheduled maintenance day and missed Monday's win over Memphis. 

Because he hasn't had Ben Simmons playing alongside him this season, Embiid has taken on an even bigger role in the team's offense. He's maintained his scoring rate and his assists have jumped from 2.8 to 4.4 as he has assumed greater playmaking responsibility in both the half-court and transition, all while lowering his turnovers. 

Embiid's defence hasn't suffered even with his increased burden on the opposite end. His blocks have increased (1.35 to 1.44) and he is the biggest reason the 76ers have improved their scoring defence from last season (108.1 to 105.5).

Since Christmas, Embiid leads the league in scoring (33.8) while pulling down 10.9 rebounds per game. His stretch of eight consecutive games with at least 30 points from December 26 to January 12 is the longest in the NBA this season and is tied for the longest by any 76ers player (Allen Iverson, Wilt Chamberlain) since at least 1963-64. 

Philadelphia have won 15 of 19 during that span for a .789 winning percentage that ranks behind only the Grizzlies, moving the Sixers up to third in the Eastern Conference.

With 50.8 points, 16.1 rebounds and 7.6 assists per 48 minutes in January, Embiid became the first player in league history to average 50-15-5 per 48 in a calendar month. 

Embiid also isn't shrinking in the big moments, topping the league in points (127), field goals (40) and blocks (nine) in clutch situations.

All the ingredients necessary for an MVP are in place for Embiid, who has the production, the team success and even the narrative that he has put the team on his back in the absence of a fellow star player. Winning the top seed in the conference would certainly help Embiid's cause, and his play has that well within reach for the 76ers.

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, Milwaukee Bucks

In the same that way that Embiid could be helped by having never won an MVP, Antetokounmpo could be hindered by having won back-to-back awards before Jokic took home the hardware last season. Only eight players have won three or more MVPs, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leading the way with six and LeBron James the only active player with more than two (four). 

The Greek Freak has overcome a slow start following a short offseason and is putting up remarkably similar numbers to his last few campaigns, so there is no denying that he is having another MVP-worthy season. As impressive as Antetokounmpo's numbers are, he may not be getting the attention he deserves because this level of production has become the norm for a player who is arguably an all-time great at just 27 years old. 

Antetokounmpo is the only player who had almost as good a January as Embiid, averaging 31.7 points, 10.9 points and 6.3 assists. His nine 30-point games in the month trailed only Embiid (12).

Milwaukee are jockeying with Cleveland and Chicago for the Central Division lead despite dealing with a revolving door of availability from their roster all season. Just like Embiid's chances at the MVP are boosted with a top seed, team success can only help Antetokounmpo's case. The Bucks were the number one seed in the East in both of his MVP seasons. 

Antetokounmpo's ability to affect a game in a myriad of ways was on display in a win over Golden State on January 13, when he had 30 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists and three blocks. All that production came in under 30 minutes of play and made him the first player with multiple 30-point triple-doubles in 30 minutes or less in the last 40 seasons. His other such outing came October 24, 2019, at Houston.

The Bucks superstar is one of only two players (also Jokic) currently averaging at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. 

If Milwaukee finish with the best record in the East and Antetokounmpo averages near 30 points per game, 11 rebounds and six assists, it might be difficult to deny him a third MVP award. 

NIKOLA JOKIC, Denver Nuggets

After winning the MVP last season, Jokic has replicated his numbers in 2021-22, if not exceeded many of them. He's done all that while leading the Nuggets to a 28-23 record despite the long-term absences of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., Denver's second and third-leading scorers last season. 

His performance this season has only reinforced his place among the league's elite and proven for the last time that he is not dependent on any player for his success, instead driving it for himself and his team-mates.

Jokic's scoring is basically equal to last season (25.9 to 26.4 in 2020-21), but his rebounds have jumped from 10.8 to 13.8 to put him second in the league behind Utah's Rudy Gobert as he has picked up the slack with Porter sidelined since early November. 

Jokic's assists (7.8), blocks (0.73), steals (1.42) and shooting percentage (57.2) are similar to last season, and he's again racking up the triple-doubles with a league-best 13 in 45 games after he had 16 in 72 last season. In only his seventh season, he is already fourth all-time in triple-doubles (70).

While Jokic's scoring in January (26.6) wasn't as robust as Embiid and Antetokounmpo, he did lead the league in total rebounds (212), ranked second in assists (144) and third in field goals made (158). He had a stretch of four consecutive triple-doubles from January 15 to 21 where he averaged 29.3 points, 13.0 rebounds and 12.3 assists, astonishing totals from any player, let alone a seven-footer. 

With 49 points in a win over the Clippers on January 19, Jokic became just the third center (also Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975 and Alvan Adams in 1977) since 1970-71 to record a triple-double with 45 points or more. 

While each player faces a separate set of circumstances from year to year, Jokic has been as good or better than his MVP season and has done so with much less around him. That itself won't guarantee him another MVP, but he's right there with the other candidates and has the rest of the season to prove himself worthy of becoming a back-to-back winner. 

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