Heading into the weekend, I figured I'd followed the same script
as the other two award pieces. Fill out and complete my
(fake) ballot, sprinkle in some extra details or stray thoughts to
account for questions that may pop up, then go about my
I dropped my "final rough draft" on Friday's episode of The Dunker Spot, though I gave myself a
weekend's worth of wiggle room to make any last-second changes. In
typical fashion, I watched, researched and ultimately thought
myself into a headache. The result of that is this piece: A
separate article detailing where and how I landed on the 2022-23
NBA Most Valuable Player, with a follow-up article coming to reveal
the rest of my (fake) ballot.
Throughout MVP discourse, many people — voters or people like me
who wish they could vote — have made it a point to mention how
tough it is. To highlight how the top three — Nikola Jokic, Joel
Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo — are all worthy candidates to
win, and that we shouldn't be all that upset by who wins. There's
truth to that.
(You, savvy reader and/or listener, can also tell when someone
is genuinely perplexed vs. when they're throwing in that platitude
in an effort to avoid smoke for his/her opinion. We can be real
I landed in the former camp. To refresh your memory, this is
where I landed at the beginning of March:
Previous order (through Mar.1):
- Nikola Jokic (Previously No. 3)
- Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previously No. 2)
- Joel Embiid (Previously Honorable Mention,
- Jayson Tatum (Previously No. 1)
- Luka Doncic (Previously No. 5)
This is where I am right now on April 11 with the regular season
- Joel Embiid (Previously No.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previously No. 2)
- Nikola Jokic (Previously No. 1)
- Jayson Tatum (Previously No. 4)
- Domantas Sabonis (Previously Honorable
Mention, Not As Good As Luka Doncic)
With all due respect to Tatum and Sabonis, there isn't much to
discuss with their placements.
Tatum was a two-way ironman for a team that flirted with the
best record in the NBA. At full tilt, the Boston Celtics may very
well be the best team in the league. Tatum became the first Celtic
to average over 30 points per game for a season — a mind-blowing
stat considering their history. Career-high averages in rebounds
(8.8) and assists (4.6) are also nice. If you'd like to use Tatum's
availability (and overall malleability) to argue for him to be
higher, you can; it just wouldn't be
Sabonis was the best player on the Western Conference's most
(surprisingly) consistent team, acting as the hub of the NBA's most
dangerous offense. He became just the fourth player in NBA history
to average at least 19 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists in a
season; add in his 61.5% clip from the field (63.9% on twos, 37.3%
on a low volume of threes), and the list shrinks to him and Wilt
The battle for MVP ultimately became a three-man race in 2023 —
if you recall, Tatum was my MVP in my first check-in from
mid-December — between Embiid, Giannis and Jokic.
There's more to discuss with Jokic, who nearly became the first
center in NBA history to average a triple-double. Even that sells
his season short; Jokic just logged the most efficient season in
NBA history among players to average at least 20 points.
If Jokic and the Denver Nuggets hadn't, by their standards,
sputtered to the finish line, he likely would've maintained the
lead he had in my second check-in and gotten my fictitious vote.
That he was already having a (much) worse defensive season than
Embiid and Giannis and managed to go backwards over this
recent stretch — particularly the middle portion of March — made
it tough for me in a race this close.
There was even a quieter dip in Jokic's production offensively,
though he was still absurd overall.
- Dec. 14 through Feb. 28 (32 games): 25.2 points on 71.2% True
Shooting, 10.7 assists (3.7 turnovers)
- From March 1 onward (14 games): 24.0 points on 69.6% True
Shooting, 9.1 assists (3.6 turnovers)
That being said, it was a ridiculous season from Jokic. He was
still the best offensive player in the league for me. The Nuggets
showcased, on multiple occasions, that they didn't quite know how
to function without him. Even with the recent "slippage," he paced
the league in many advanced metrics. A worthy choice, just
ultimately not my choice.
From here, let's talk about Embiid vs Giannis for a bit. Here
are a handful of Embiid's stat lines since the beginning of
- 52-13-6 (plus 2 blocks) in a win vs. the Celtics
- 46-9-8-2-1 in a loss vs. the Warriors
- 36-18 (plus 4 blocks) in a win vs. the Cavaliers
- 31-6-10 in a win vs. the Bucks
- 39-7-4-1-3 in a win vs. the Timberwolves
This ignores the 37 and 16 against Chicago; the 42-on-16-shots
affair against the Pacers; the 38-14-5 he slapped up against the
Hornets. Of the 18 games Embiid played during this stretch, he
scored 30 or more 12 times and the Philadelphia 76ers went 12-6 in
those contests. He fell below 20 points once — 12-7-7 in 16
first-half minutes against the Bulls before sitting the second half
of that blowout for precautionary reasons. There's a rule about
assuming, but it'd be fair to project him putting up a nutty stat
line in that game had he played the second half.
There just hasn't been a consistent answer for this guy all
year. Crowding the paint only does so much when he's willing to
shoot over you — and do so at a high clip. Doubling can only do so
much when he's grown as a passer — the Sixers scored at an elite
rate on possessions that Embiid passed out of a post-double team
(1.17 PPP) or isolation double (1.14 PPP), per Second Spectrum —
and can brow-beat them when
He's taken over half of his shots from mid-range this season and
drilled them at a 49% clip. He drew 104 fouls in the mid-range
area, per Cleaning The Glass; do you know how hard it is to have
Embiid's shot profile and manage to get fouled as often as he does?
It's insane stuff and speaks to the guard-like ability he has in
The defense has waxed and waned over the closing stretch, but
the Sixers ended the year with a 94.5 half-court defensive rating
with Embiid on the floor, per Cleaning The Glass; that's equivalent
to the second-best half-court D in the NBA, and is a mark that
shouldn't be that high considering Philly's overall roster
Even "Lax Embiid" can goad opponents into pull-ups — though
that's something worth keeping an eye on as the postseason hits.
Engaged Embiid — the guy that can blow stuff up at the level of the
screen and still strut back to challenge shots at the rim — is, and
has been, a world-ender.
The TLDR summary: Embiid had a heavy load to carry on both ends
of the floor, dominated offensively and anchored a
high-level defense while flashing an even higher level when fully
locked in. Having a 65% win rate in his games helped; the
advanced metrics also paint him in a favorable light.
Of course, we can't lose sight of the work Giannis did in a
less-than-ideal context at the beginning of the year. He was
without his best pick-and-roll partner in Khris Middleton and
didn't always have Jrue Holiday by his side. It's not a coincidence
that, once those two were in the lineup with Giannis more
consistently, the Milwaukee Bucks (and Giannis) took off.
Giannis remained a battering ram at the rim, drawing shooting
fouls on a career-best 24.6% of his shot attempts this year, per
Cleaning The Glass. His mark of 12.3 free throw attempts per game
led the NBA. Giannis' downhill passing also remained a legitimate
weapon; his rate of kick-out passes rose to career-high levels
(17.1 per 100 possessions), while his turnover rate on total passes
(1.57%) was his lowest in three seasons, per Second Spectrum.
There was an obvious gap between Embiid and Giannis in points
(33.1 vs. 31.1) and a larger one in efficiency (Embiid's 65.5% TS
vs. Giannis' 60.7% TS). Again, it's hard to overstate the
difference in shooting ability that the two displayed. Embiid was a
monster from mid-range compared to Giannis' clip (31.8%), knocked
down a higher percentage of threes (33.0% vs. 27.5%) and shot
much better from the line (85.7% vs. 64.5%).
Milwaukee faithful would likely point to the context for the
two, particularly what Giannis dealt with at the beginning of the
year sans Middleton — and at times, with no Holiday. There's some
credence to that.
How's this for a did-you-know: The Sixers logged a paltry 111.4
offensive rating in 333 minutes with Embiid on the floor without
James Harden and Tyrese Maxey; the Bucks were slightly better — a
113.8 offensive rating in nearly double the sample (643 minutes) —
with Giannis on the floor without Holiday and Middleton.
The scoring breakdown in those minutes:
- Giannis: 608 points (34.0 points per 36 minutes), 57.7% on
twos, 26.2% on threes, 60.3% TS
- Embiid: 302 points (32.6 per 36), 51.4% on twos, 22.2% on
threes, 58.4% TS
The playmaking still leans towards Giannis:
- Giannis: 145 assists (8.1 per 36), 94 turnovers (5.3 per
- Embiid: 63 assists (6.8 per 36), 44 turnovers (4.8 per 36)
If you only filter for the minutes the two played with and
without their primary ball-handler — Harden for Embiid, Holiday for Giannis — some fun
stuff is revealed, namely:
- The Bucks' offense burned a little brighter with Giannis and
Holiday (123.9 ORTG) compared to the Sixers pairing (123.2
- The Sixers still operated at a top-10 rate when Embiid played
without Harden (117.8, would rank No. 7); the same could not be
said for Giannis without Holiday (113.0, would rank No. 26).
Zooming out, the defense is where things got tight for me.
Full disclosure: On Friday's pod, I listed Embiid as my choice.
By Sunday morning, I was ready to flip to Giannis. And that was
before Bleacher Report's Chris Haynes dropped his exclusive sit-down
interview with the 2021 NBA champion, surprisingly (and
honestly, refreshingly) dipping into his, "Let's not get carried
away, I still do this" bag. The Sixers tailing off
defensively over the past couple of weeks really opened the
Giannis has been elite this year, an omnipresent deterrent
lurking around the weak side. When challenged at the rim, opponents
haven't had much success; they converted just 55.4% of their shots
at the rim against Giannis, which ranks 10th among 51
players to defend at least four shots per contest.
But of that 51-player group, Giannis ranked 40th in shots
defended per game. Embiid was third and Jokic was fourth; that
obviously speaks to how willing teams were to attack the latter,
but the discrepancy is at least kinda funny when considering the
scheme differences between the two.
Embiid ranked 12th in contested shots per game (10.3). Giannis
ranked 44th (6.6); his teammate, Brook Lopez, was first (17.5) by a
comically large margin.
That led me down the Giannis-at-the-5 rabbit hole, which
revealed that the Bucks were a middling defense (114.2 DRTG, would
rank 13th) with Giannis on the floor without Lopez, per Cleaning
The Glass. When you also remove Bobby Portis from the
equation, however, that drops to a would-be-league-leading 104.5
DRTG in nearly 850 possessions.
There were other searches I did that I won't bore you with, such
as Giannis without Holiday and Lopez (116.7 DRTG in 1,034
possessions) compared to Embiid without De'Anthony Melton and PJ
Tucker (111.8 DRTG in 561 possessions).
(It's worth noting that such a query left the Jevon Carter
minutes on the table for Giannis, as it did the pre-trade Matisse
Thybulle minutes for Embiid.)
Ultimately, the fundamental question became this: Do you value
Giannis being better in a secondary rim-protecting role than Embiid
with his primary responsibilities, or do you give Embiid the edge
for having to carry more responsibility on that end?
You're more than welcome to disagree, but I landed on the
Embiid getting this team to a top-10 finish
defensively was impressive. Having the offensive year he had, on
the shot diet he lived on, was also wildly impressive. Only Stephen
Curry and 22 games of 1982-83 Adrian Dantley have posted more
efficient 30-point seasons than Embiid, and the Sixers big man
averaged more points than both of them.
I geniunely don't think you could go wrong with any of these
three. Jokic's team performed better with him on the floor than
Giannis or Embiid; Giannis paced both guys in wins and win
percentage in addition to his excellence.
The combination of production, efficiency, winning and
responsibility gave Embiid the narrow win for me.