Joel Embiid vs. Nikola Jokic: Which Big Man Has the Best MVP Case?

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IFebruary 23, 2021

Denver Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic (15), of Serbia, looks to pass the ball as Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, right, defends in the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Dec. 30, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The last true center to win MVP was Shaquille O'Neal in 1999-00. This year, the NBA has two centers with differing styles vying for the award, with Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic are bringing the center position back into style.

Looking back over 20 years of MVPs, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett had back-to-the-basket games but dominated from the power forward position. Dirk Nowitzki rode his sweet shooting stroke to the award. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who won the last two, has done it with his dominance on defense while also being the Bucks' primary ball-handler. All played with a center beside them.

The game has changed since O'Neal's MVP, becoming more perimeter-oriented. The NBA instituted a new illegal defense rule that allowed for more zones, making it easier to crowd the paint. The center position has had to evolve with the game, adding new skill sets along the way. This season, both Jokic and Embiid have meshed the old center skills with new ones and are decimating the league in the process.

Embiid is doing it in a conventional way and following the tradition of dominant post bigs like O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He is one of the top scorers in the league at 30.3 points per game and puts teams in foul trouble (11.7 free throws per game), all while being a force defensively.

Meanwhile, the last time a center averaged more than eight assists per game like Jokic was the 1967-68 season with Wilt Chamberlain. That's over 50 years ago. Jokic's passing ability weaponizes everyone on the floor.

Jokic and Embiid are both No. 1 options for their teams, but who is the best center in the NBA?  

 

Passing: It's Not Close

Both big men draw double-teams, and it's why passing is such an important part of their games.

Embiid has improved this season as a passer. In seasons past, he would try to fight through double-teams on his own, but with better shooters around him, he has been more willing to find the open man.

Jokic's passing ability allows the Nuggets to use him in several different ways. He makes reads out of the post, can run dribble hand-offs and hits cutters in the half court and in transition. His assists lead to 21.5 points per game for Denver, and his teammates trust that when they are open he will make the right play.

Both players have high usage rates, but according to Cleaning the Glass, Jokic is in the 98th percentile in assist-to-usage ratio (1.21). Compare that to Embiid, who is in the 32nd percentile (0.47). Defenses know that when the ball goes to Jokic, he will look to pick them apart with his passing.

Embiid has improved as a passer, but Jokic—top five in the league in assists (8.5)—is on a different level as one of the best passers in the league. The NBA has seen some good passing centers over the years, but none have been able to manipulate a defense the way Jokic does.

Edge: Jokic, and it's not close.

 

Defense: Also not close

Jokic has improved but is still not a plus defensively. Teams continue to target him in pick-and-rolls knowing they can take advantage of his lack of mobility.

Around the rim, Jokic is also not an imposing threat, with players converting shots at a 63.0 percent rate. No one is worried about Jokic stuffing their shot. Embiid, on the other hand, is a threat. He averages 1.4 blocks per game but more importantly only gives up 51.8 percent of looks around the rim. That number is up there with guys such as Rudy Gobert (51.3) and Brook Lopez (49.0).

The Sixers do have better defensive pieces on the perimeter, but Embiid will routinely meet guards and wings at the rim.

 

Edge: Embiid by a large margin.

         

Three-Point Shooting: A Wash

Most big men in today's game must be able to shoot, and both Embiid and Jokic have made massive improvements this year from downtown.

Last season, Jokic shot 31.4 percent from three, and Embiid came in at 33.1 percent. Shooting a three was letting a defense off the hook. That's not the case this year, as Jokic is connecting at 40.4 percent on 3.8 attempts and Embiid is hitting 39.7 percent on 2.9 attempts.

Having to defend those two bombing away from three on top of everything else they do is not fair.

Edge: Push.

         

Mid-Range Shooting: Slight Edge To...

Embiid has made an even bigger leap in mid-range shooting. He is able to pump-fake at the three-point line and hit a pull-up elbow jumper with frightening consistency. How good has he been at that shot? Embiid is hitting 48.3 percent on pull-ups on 5.9 attempts per game. According to Cleaning the Glass, he is shooting a career high on mid-range shots at 51 percent, up from 41 percent in 2019-20.

Jokic, meanwhile, has always been a solid mid-range shooter. For the last three seasons, per Cleaning the Glass, he has shot 47 percent, 53 percent and 56 percent on mid-range shots. Jokic has been a consistent threat from that range throughout his career, as he has never shot worse than 44 percent.

Edge: Jokic, just slightly. He has a history of knocking down this shot, and there is no concern of potential regression.

        

Post and Face-Up Game: Slight Edge To...

Players have drifted away from the post, but these two guys might draw the league back to some degree. They lead the league in post-up possessions and have been very effective while doing it.

Embiid has been unguardable in the post over the past few seasons, as he gets 1.09 points per possession on this play type. He is shooting 54.4 percent and gets to the free-throw line 25.2 percent of the time. He has a deep bag of moves with sweeping hooks and fadeaways. He can also overpower defenders or blow by guys in the face-up.

On the block, Jokic is productive (0.99 points per possession off 182 post-ups), though that is down from the 1.06 figure he had last season. Still, he commands just as much attention in the post as Embiid because of his ability to score out of it.

Edge: Despite Jokic being a better passer out of the post, Embiid takes this. His footwork, balance and power make him the best post scorer in the NBA.

 

        

Clutch Play: Just Look at the Records

Embiid and Jokic are expectedly relied upon in close games. However, Jamal Murray gives the Nuggets another option they can turn to, and the Sixers don't have a pure scorer like that.

In games with a three-point difference and three minutes left, both are high scorers. Jokic has averaged 2.4 points in 11 games while shooting 44.4 percent from the field. Embiid has put up 2.2 points in nine "clutch" games for the Sixers on 45.5 percent shooting.

Edge: Embiid. The Sixers are 8-1 in the nine clutch games he has played, while the Nuggets are 4-7. The next-closest clutch scorer for the Sixers is Seth Curry at 1.1 points. Murray is second behind Jokic (2.1).

 

         

And the Award Would Go To...

Embiid is dominating games on both ends, while Jokic is nearly averaging a triple-double. They are one and two in ESPN's player efficiency rating (31.80 for Embiid, 30.98 for Jokic). It has been a long time since two of the best players in the NBA were centers.

Both are in the running for MVP and are carrying their clubs this season. A team cannot go wrong with either player, but they would require different supporting casts. Regardless, both are showing that the center position is not dead.

With everything considered, we'll give the slight edge this year to Embiid, who has the 20-11 76ers first in the East.

          

Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA.