Nekias Duncan's 2022-23 NBA award selections: Who wins MVP?

Nekias Duncan's 2022-23 NBA award selections: Who wins MVP?

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 business.

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 here.)

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):

  1. Nikola Jokic (Previously No. 3)
  2. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previously No. 2)
  3. Joel Embiid (Previously Honorable Mention, Record)
  4. Jayson Tatum (Previously No. 1)
  5. Luka Doncic (Previously No. 5)

This is where I am right now on April 11 with the regular season over:

  1. Joel Embiid (Previously No. 3)
  2. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previously No. 2)
  3. Nikola Jokic (Previously No. 1)
  4. Jayson Tatum (Previously No. 4)
  5. 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 my case. 

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 Chamberlain. 

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 March:

  • 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 necessary. 

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 this range. 

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 construction.

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 36)
  • 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 ORTG).
  • 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 door.

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 responsibility angle.

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.

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