The 2021-22 NBA MVP race is likely going to be one of the closest in recent memory, if a new straw poll of voters is any indication.
Sixers star Joel Embiid is having the best and most dominant season of his fantastic career, while Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic continues to break most basketball metrics out in Denver. The two are simply incredible.
But who is *more* incredible?
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Right now, as the league heads into the All-Star break, it seems Embiid has the edge - but only just.
ESPN reporter Tim Bontemps regularly takes a few straw polls of writers and voters around the league throughout the regular season to gather a fairly accurate picture of the MVP race, and in the latest poll - the results of which were published Thursday - Embiid has a narrow advantage.
Embiid was the only player to get a vote from all 100 voters who were polled, while Jokic appeared on 95 ballots and Giannis Antetokounmpo appeared on 97 ballots. (Anyone who left either player off their ballot, which has room for five players, is insane.)
Bontemps' poll mirrors the NBA's voting system: first-place votes count for 10 points, second-place votes count for seven points, third-place votes count for five points, fourth-place votes count for three points, and fifth-place votes count for one point.
Here's how the votes shook out between Embiid and Jokic:
- Embiid: 1st: 45 | 2nd: 38 | 3rd: 12 | 4th: 4 | 5th: 1
- Jokic: 1st: 43 | 2nd: 39 | 3rd: 8 | 4th: 3 | 5th: 2
Whew boy, that is a tight race. Altogether, Embiid has a 35-point advantage over Jokic. For reference, the difference between Jokic in second and Antetokounmpo in third was 242 points.
Like I said: tight!
As someone who watches Embiid every time he plays and only catches Jokic games on occasion, it's hard to be completely unbiased here... but I think Embiid deserves the nod this time around.
The two were extremely close last season as well, but Jokic won the award because he was far more available to his team than Embiid was.
And while I've been told that Jokic's defense has improved, I still have a hard time believing it's at the same level as Embiid's looming paint presence. Meanwhile, Embiid has seriously elevated his passing game - not to Jokic's level, but in a big enough way to narrow that gap.
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When you look at the domination level, something I think should play a role when you're talking who the absolute best player was in a season, Embiid has had way more monster scoring games than Jokic this year. Embiid has eight (!) 40+ point games this year compared to just one from Jokic.
I know the MVP award encompasses the entire game of basketball, and between his buckets, his dishes, and his vision Jokic's game is a cornucopia of treats. But the ability to score 40 points EIGHT TIMES at this point in the season is simply insane. Embiid is regularly putting the Sixers on his back to get wins, and they're not hollow high-scoring games either: in those eight games, the Sixers are 6-2.
Embiid has also been operating on a less-talented team all year long, pushing them into the contender level of the Eastern Conference while the Nuggets are firmly in the B tier of the West.
Embiid also had to deal with $33 million of the Sixers' roster simply deciding to not play for more than 50 games. Jamal Murray's absence out in Denver is on par in terms of the absence of a star, but in terms of the vibes? Nah, not the same at all.
Look - to be honest, when you dive into the numbers it's pretty hard to separate these two players. The player who doesn't win the award will likely be just as good as the player who does. They're both absolute monsters. I have a feeling, barring something unforeseen over the final month-plus of the season, that Embiid will land his first MVP because Jokic won last year and because the league-wide narrative currently feels like it supports Embiid's candidacy.
Which is cool! But it's also fairly arbitrary. So let's try to just enjoy two players being incredible.