Parsing the NBA's MVP debate around Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid amid questions of voters' motives

It’s hard to deny how downright toxic the discussion around the NBA’s MVP award has gotten over the past few weeks.

It’s been overridden by everything going on with Ja Morant, but the bad taste should remain. It’s gone through the predictable cycle of name-calling, bullying and most recently, accusations of racism from former players on daily discussion shows.

At the center of it sits the two-time MVP, Nikola Jokic. He’s aiming for a third straight win, which would put him in hallowed company. Only Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Larry Bird have had the award in a three-year chokehold, Bird being the most recent from 1984-86.

Jokic is averaging a triple-double for the best team in the West, although there’s been major slippage for the Nuggets the past few weeks. Several published straw polls have Jokic installed as a shoo-in for the honor yet again, which began the nitpicking of both his game and motives of the voters.

First, it was the accusation of stat-padding. Then, it was bringing up MVP votes from the past, the three-year run where Steve Nash won two straight, followed by Dirk Nowitzki winning in 2007.

It was roundly shouted down on television and elsewhere, with many Jokic backers insinuating any MVP vote that doesn’t go to him means the voter is some uncivilized brute who can’t appreciate the sophistication of his game.

Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid sits at the other end, as he’s been second to Jokic the past couple years, almost like Clyde Drexler to Michael Jordan, good but not good enough. Embiid leads the league in scoring again, even making a sizable leap in that department. He took it to Jokic in their one-on-one matchup several weeks ago and is still a mammoth presence defensively.

And despite how good both players are, neither one of them is Giannis Antetokounmpo — the best player in the game, the irresistible and unrelenting force on both ends who could very well be the last man standing in June.

It should make for intriguing conversation, especially as teams are jockeying for playoff positioning with a few weeks remaining in the regular season. There’s no more slog to the finish line, as it feels like there’s an important game every night on the schedule.

But it’s gotten bogged down and ugly, and the noise is hard for the players themselves to ignore. Jokic’s play has slowed down a bit, with some folks around Denver suggesting the talk has worn on Jokic to the point that he’s purposely taking his foot off the gas to dissociate himself from the madness.

Embiid has openly opined on feeling like he’ll never get an MVP. And even Antetokounmpo tried to get a cheapie triple-double in D.C. recently — an indication that he feels those statistical feats matter to voters.

History worked against Antetokounmpo after winning the award in 2019 and 2020 because he didn’t have the playoff success to back up winning a third. If we’re aiming for recent consistency, a similar standard could work in Jokic’s case — a higher standard considering the precedent of what winning three in a row looks like, it would have to be an undeniable, indisputable case for some.

For others, not so much, and players are aware of the discussions.

So when players say aloud that “it doesn’t matter” if they receive an award or not, just know they’re lying. They care, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting that validation.

Unless it’s stated in the ever-increasing list of “unwritten rules,” there’s nothing wrong with a player looking at a stat sheet and noting he’s a rebound or assist away from a triple-double, then going out and trying to get it — so long as he isn’t manipulating the game to do it.

Individual domination is selfishness in a good way, no? With all the 60-point games this season, the players smelling blood, tasting it and going after their opponent is what sports should be about, one would think.

It’s also easy to tell when a guy is desperate to accomplish some individual mark at the expense of his team, and how his teammates react to the pursuit of it.

And as far as the voters, race affects every aspect of life, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see it play a part in something as trite as MVP voting. It’s all preference — not rigid — and sensibilities come into play.

Even Bird said in 2004 during an ESPN special that featured himself, Magic Johnson and then-rookies LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, “The majority of the fans are white America. And if you just had a couple of white guys in there, you might get them a little excited.”

News flash?

Not to say that Bird was colorblind — an idiotic notion from apparent well-meaning folk — but he openly stated how disrespected he felt when white guys guarded him. So it’s not a stretch to question if the media sometimes participates as well.

Denver's Nikola Jokic battles with Philadelphia's Joel Embiid during a January game in Philadelphia on the court, and off the court as the MVP debate rises. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Denver's Nikola Jokic battles with Philadelphia's Joel Embiid during a January game in Philadelphia on the court, and off the court as the MVP debate rises. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Could Jokic get a boost because he’s a slow white guy? Sure, but he’s got the numbers and win shares (the greatest advanced statistical indicator of MVP) to back it up. But the NBA recently posted an hourlong highlight video of Austin Reaves’ best plays.

Yes, that Austin Reaves.

From here, Nash and Nowitzki earned those awards but they weren’t without controversy. Nash didn’t fit the traditional look in 2005, but he spearheaded a basketball revolution in Phoenix — helping change the game from a slog to a wide-open, entertaining and winning brand of ball. He repeated the next year in large part due to losing his main scoring target, Amare Stoudemire, to knee surgery and keeping the train rolling and the Suns atop the West.

Then, Nowitzki led Dallas to 67 wins following a heartbreaking loss in the 2006 Finals.

Looks pretty deserving, even in the face of Shaquille O’Neal (on the downslide) and Kobe Bryant fans crowing someone else got their trophies. For Bryant’s 2006 excellence, the Lakers won just 45 games — by comparison, Russell Westbrook’s flimsy 2017 MVP came in a year when the Oklahoma City Thunder won 47 games.

The NBA has no defined criteria for the award, nor should it. It’s up to each individual voter to assess what it means. Sometimes, things have gotten a little kooky, but in the aggregate there have been just a few MVP votes that look funny in the light.

The transparency of the award voting — after years of it being private, it has been public for several years — adds another layer of complication. Some have actually abstained from voting, for reasons that seem curious at best.

But the ones who remain find their thoughts as matter of public record and subsequently, public shame. The Twitter mob, angry fans and annoyed players can make their way to the voting tally and see who can address their grievances.

And some would simply go with the flow rather than deal with the smoke coming their way, let alone embrace it. It certainly feels like the age of groupthink has taken over, especially since Twitter has taken ahold of the conversation in the past decade.

Some MVPs have simply felt inevitable and indisputable: Stephen Curry’s unanimous run in 2016, LeBron James’ near-unanimous run in 2013 and Antetokounmpo’s first MVP in 2019 rank up there among the league’s all-time great single-season showings.

Even last year, there was a swell of “nobody likes Jokic” as he stormed his way to a second straight MVP, despite the Nuggets being a sixth-place team in the West (they were third in the West in the COVID-shortened, 72-game 2020-21 season). In the past two years, Jokic has snatched 156 of a possible 200 first-place votes.

Even if he didn’t get every single first-place vote, one would be hard-pressed to dispute the validity of his MVPs, but race managed to work itself into the conversation, albeit clumsily.

It’s not a battle either of these players have asked for, but the battle is here and has been here. Declaring absolutes in either direction is dangerous, but that’s the social media cyclone we’ve been living in.

Regardless of who wins, hopefully the toxicity will be left off ballots next month.

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