NUGGETS

The Nuggets have never played a game like what faces them in Philly

Mar 14, 2022, 6:28 AM
Nikola Jokic...
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

The Nuggets have never played a game like this. For the first time in the 55-year franchise history, the Nuggets, and their fans, will see a head-to-head MVP showdown Monday night in Philadelphia when Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid strut their stuff nationally on ESPN. Get your popcorn ready.

First things first, let’s tip our caps to Jokic for winning the organization’s first-ever NBA MVP award last year. Now, he’s in a position to go back-to-back after an even better record-breaking effort this season. Denver went 54 years without an MVP, yet Jokic is the leader in the clubhouse to become the 13th player in league history to win the award in consecutive seasons. Or is he?

The voting process in sports is always tricky – don’t get me started on the College Football Playoff or Heisman Trophy. It’s devolved over time with even more media exposure and the voters themselves becoming celebrities, and all voters now usually fall into one of three categories.

1. They watch all the games and seriously consider their vote based on the total body of work

2. They don’t watch many games but follow the stats and team standings closely game-by-game

3. They don’t watch the games and ignore the stats, but are plugged into the popular national narrative regarding who is the “best” and decide with peer pressure based on the story they want to tell

For fans of processes one and two, the third group of voters is extremely frustrating.

When Jokic won last year, part of the national media narrative included Giannis Antetokounmpo fatigue after he won twice but failed to deliver in the playoffs. Embiid was a candidate but was injured, as was James Harden, Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Steph Curry’s team wasn’t good enough with a litany of injuries.

While Jokic was as deserving as any of them, many voters who didn’t watch closely all season landed on him simply because they ran out of other options. They had to vote for the Joker. Some even continue to say he won by default.

Along with Jokic and Embiid, Giannis has put together another MVP-worthy season after winning Finals MVP in the spring. Heading into the final month of the season, the three leading candidates, along with DeMar DeRozan and Ja Morant, have been healthy for most of the year. It’s truly an incredible field deserving of the award in any other season, and anyone actively campaigning against any of these candidates should just admit they’re not watching, or they have an agenda. But how will voters decide between these deserving players this season?

The team record is usually a big factor, and Philly and Milwaukee are neck and neck battling near the top of the Eastern Conference. Denver trails each in the loss column, and currently sits sixth in the West. But a closer look shows the three teams will likely finish within two or three games of each other at the end of the year. Given injuries and health and safety protocols for all three teams, their final record really shouldn’t be a factor in the vote.

When it comes to traditional stats, Giannis and Embiid are tied with James atop the league at 29.7 points per game, while Jokic ranks ninth at 26.1. They both rank well ahead of Jokic in blocks per game, as well. But Jokic tops them both in rebounds, assists, steals and field-goal percentage, and is poised to become the first-ever player to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and field-goal percentage.

Looking at advanced analytics, the case for Jokic becomes crystal clear. He leads the entire NBA in:

• Total rebounds
• Defensive rebounds
• Player Efficiency Rating (PER – on pace to the highest ever recorded)
• Win Shares
• Offensive Win Shares
• Win Shares per 48 minutes
• Box Plus/Minus
• Offensive Box Plus/Minus
• Defensive Box Plus/Minus
• Value Over Replacement Player (VORP)

Embiid leads the league in free throws made. Giannis in free-throw attempts.

And they rank second and third in the league in Usage percentage, while Jokic is 11th. Meaning Jokic is doing more with fewer touches and far fewer free throws.

But history has told us there are plenty of voters who will ignore the numbers. Especially if the numbers are telling them something they don’t want to hear.

Giannis is the most spectacular athlete the league has seen since Wilt Chamberlain. Images from his Finals MVP run will live forever. Embiid shows off a flashy handle, a step-back three-pointer and ferocious blocked shots on a nightly basis. Jokic makes impossible passes leading to Jeff Green dunks and Monte Morris layups. Not all highlights are created equal.

In today’s NBA the MVP races, trade rumors, free-agency speculation and next super-team tampering stories often drive more clicks and comments than the actual games played and championships won.

Make no mistake about it, Monday night will be billed as a made-for-TV MVP showdown. Both have carried their teams all season – Embiid without Ben Simmons and just recently welcoming James Harden to Philly as his co-star, and Jokic who’s still waiting for the Jamal Murray / Michael Porter Jr. cavalry that may not arrive. ESPN will milk the head-to-head matchup for all its worth and more. Fans and voters will be watching closely, looking to see which player can get a leg up on the other.

Unless the game is a blowout, the team that wins likely won’t even matter compared to which player can spin-cycle or swat the other into a viral highlight. And whoever does, will be the toast of the next morning’s debate shows, locking up the talking-heads vote with a month to play.

Of course, some voters will consider it as only one game in an entire season that has yet to be complete. But those aren’t the ones who are paid to make a black-and-white case-closed argument that can be neatly packaged on every network show and across social media. And they’re certainly not the loudest voices. There’ll be an instant reaction saying one or the other is the MVP, and it will be stated as indisputable fact rather than opinion.

And this factor may be where we see the most glaring difference between the two players and teams. The MVP race means a lot to Embiid and Philly. His reputation as a superstar and face of the league pitchman can’t be upended by the quiet Serbian from the Mountain Time zone. Philly needs to puff its chest and let everyone know their guy is the best.

Expect Embiid, his running mate Harden and the 76ers to go all out and try to put on a show complete with Joel’s sparkling smile and witty postgame quotes. Embiid will score 30-plus points and shoot more than 20 free throws to get there.

Expect nothing of the sort from Jokic or the Nuggets. He’ll play the way he always plays, trying to win the game one possession at a time, regardless of the stats he accumulates. He’ll be more content letting anyone else shoot the last shot if they’re open than he would be forcing a play because he has to be the guy.

When Jokic says he doesn’t care about the MVP, he means it.

The Nuggets fanbase needs him to perform well vs. Embiid and win the award far more than Jokic needs it himself. His lack of superstar look-at-me is a big part of what we love about him. Ultimately, Monday night won’t change who he is or how he plays, even if it does help change the national narrative about Jokic.

No matter the result, no matter the head-to-head stats, and no matter the final MVP vote, it won’t matter to the Joker. He’ll continue writing his own narrative as the best player in the world.

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The Nuggets have never played a game like what faces them in Philly