Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Nikola Jokic edges out Joel Embiid for No. 1

In a strong field that includes 2 other exemplary candidates, Denver's center fits MVP description to a T.

Should he garner enough votes to win the Kia MVP this season, Nikola Jokic would join elite company as a 3-time winner.

Perched on a stool sporting a fresh fade for the playoffs, Nikola Jokic addressed local media after practice Thursday as Denver awaits its opening-round opponent in the Western Conference bracket of the NBA playoffs.

Admitting he’d “rather play right away” than wait until after Friday’s AT&T Play-In Tournament clash between Oklahoma City and Minnesota, the two-time Kia MVP was later asked whether the 2022-23 regular season had proven to be a trying time for the eighth-year veteran.

“Do you like your job?” Jokic asked the reporter, who quickly responded, “Most of the time.”

“It’s a job. It’s the same as yours,” the center shot back. “So, if you enjoy it, then I enjoy it, too.”

Jokic certainly made that clear on the floor during the regular season, as the five-time NBA All-Star followed up back-to-back historic MVP campaigns with yet another gem in finishing as the only player to ever average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists on at least 60% shooting over a single season. The league leader in triple-doubles (29), who perched his team atop the Western Conference for a season-best 105 days, Jokic became Denver’s all-time single-season leader in field goal percentage (63.2%), effective field goal percentage (66%) and true shooting (70.1%) this season, while topping the leaderboard in a plethora of advanced metrics too.

Jokic earned this writer’s official MVP vote for the third-straight year in finishing the 2022-23 season at No. 1 in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder. Potential historical implications (Larry Bird is the last player to win three straight MVPs) were ignored along with the fact that Jokic already owns two MVPs while Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid hasn’t captured any. This decision came down solely to this writer’s definition of “most valuable,” and Jokic fit that description to a T in a strong field that included two other worthy candidates in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Embiid, who is likely to walk away with the NBA’s first Michael Jordan Trophy over the summer once the “Inside the NBA” crew announces the results.

Embiid conjured up a strong push late in the season, reminiscent of what the Nuggets’ center pulled off in 2021-22 by averaging 38 points over his final four games to go with 17.5 rebounds and six assists on the way to winning his second-consecutive MVP.

In wrapping up his second-straight scoring title, Embiid capped 2022-23 by earning recognition as Eastern Conference Player of the Month for games played in March and April. Embiid racked up an NBA-best 33.3 points per game over the last 18 games (on 59.5% shooting) while averaging 1.9 blocked shots over that span. Embiid joined Shaquille O’Neal (1999-00) as the only players in the league to post such ridiculous numbers over any 18-game span.

Embiid scored 30 points or more in 12 of those 18 outings, becoming the third Sixer in franchise history to tally a trio of 50-point contests in a single season, when he wrecked the Boston Celtics on April 4 for 52 points on 20-of-25 shooting with 13 rebounds, six assists, and two blocked shots.

Throughout the season, Embiid changed his stance repeatedly regarding a desire to win an MVP.

But in this case, the actions belied previous words.

“One thing I’ll say is that if people tell you that they don’t care about it, they’re lying,” Embiid said of the Kia MVP race recently during an interview with Rachel Nichols, after last month expressing apathy concerning the prize. “That’s the best award you can get as a basketball player. It means a lot. If I were to win it, it would validate all the work that I put in. That’s why I cared about it, because you put in so much work, and if you get that recognition, it just validates that you didn’t waste your time.”

It’s looking more and more for Embiid like hours and hours well spent. But the six-time NBA All-Star actually finishes second in the final edition of Kia Race to the MVP Ladder and on this writer’s official ballot, followed by Antetokounmpo at third with Jayson Tatum taking fourth.

Donovan Mitchell crept up to snatch the fifth spot on the official ballot after some time spent studying his case.

And now, the top 5 in the final 2022-23 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 24.5 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 9.8 apg

Denver seized the top spot in the West back in December and held firmly to it, as Jokic sat out five of the last seven games nursing a calf injury, while Embiid smashed the gas to speed to the finish line. Jokic finished the season ranked third in assists per game (a career-high 9.8 apg) and second in rebounding (11.8 rpg) while leading all NBA centers with 1.3 steals per game. His player efficiency rating of 31.51, per, ranks as the 11th-best all-time with Embiid sitting two slots behind (31.39). While the Kia MVP is a regular season award, we’ve heard the knocks about what Jokic hasn’t accomplished in the playoffs. Now, the Nuggets head into the opening round fully healthy for the first time since 2020-21. “We can see if we are capable of doing something,” Jokic said Thursday.

Relive some of Nikola Jokic's top highlights and moments from the 2022-23 season.

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 33.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 4.2 apg

With Jokic’s production tailing off near the end of the season, Embiid cranked up his two-way dominance down the stretch, intimidating opponents at the rim while proving to be an unstoppable force on all levels. Despite playing with a 10-time All-Star in James Harden, Embiid fought through various injuries throughout the season to carry Philadelphia, leading the league in scoring average on 53-33-86 splits for a Sixers squad that finished third in the Eastern Conference. (Additionally, Harden and Embiid became the first duo to lead the league in scoring and assits since George Gervin and Johnny Moore did it for the San Antonio Spurs in 1981-82.) Embiid missed 16 games, and excluding shortened seasons, Bill Walton in 1977-78 is the only player since the NBA adopted an 82-game schedule to win MVP without playing at least 70 contests (Walton played in 58 games that season). Jokic played in 69 games this season, making that argument a wash.

Take a look at Joel Embiid's top highlights and moments from the season.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 31.1 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 5.7 apg

Antetokounmpo undoubtedly is the best player on the best team in the NBA, as Milwaukee captured a league-leading 58 victories in the regular season. The 28-year-old plays with a stronger supporting cast than the top two candidates. But you can’t look past Antetokounmpo carrying the Bucks in the absence of Khris Middleton, who played in just 33 games this season. Antetokounmpo leads any conversation regarding the best player on the planet, and while the advanced metrics don’t favor the two-time MVP in this race, the eye test certainly does. His 55.3% shooting is the same as it was in 2019-20 — his last MVP season — and he’s averaging career highs in points (31.1) and rebounds (11.8). In fact, he’s just the second player (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the other) to average 30 points or more, 10-plus rebounds and five-plus assists while shooting at least 55%.

Relive some of Giannis Antetokounmpo's best plays from the 2022-23 season.

4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 30.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 4.6 apg

Tatum put together an outstanding 2022-23 season as Boston finished No. 1 in the NBA in net rating (6.7). You could argue that the 25-year-old is as strong a two-way force as Embiid — minus the physicality. Tatum scored the most total points in the NBA this season (2,225), while hitting the sixth-most 3-pointers (240) and joins Shai-Gilgeous Alexander as one of just two players in the NBA that averaged at least 30 points with fewer than three turnovers per game. Tatum is already Boston’s all-time leader in regular-season 50-point games (seven), but he’s playing on a loaded Celtics squad that is a title contender that features another All-Star in Jaylen Brown and the 2021-22 Kia Defensive Player of the Year (Marcus Smart).

Relive some of Jayson Tatum's best plays & moments from 2022-23.

5. Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week’s ranking: Not ranked

Season stats: 28.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 4.4 apg

Domantas Sabonis occupied this spot the last two weeks and you could make a case for him to stay put. Gilgeous-Alexander could be here, too, as well as Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic. The official vote came down to Sabonis, who was instrumental in Sacramento’s turnaround this season, and Mitchell, who led the Cavaliers to their first 50-win season since 2017-18 in leapfrogging the other contenders for No. 5. Mitchell tallied 13 games in 2022-23 with 40 points or more, which registers as the second-most 40-point games all-time for a player in his first season with a new team. That’s not easy. The ninth player in league annals to average 28 points or more while connecting on 240 or more 3-pointers, Mitchell also closed out the season with four-consecutive 40-point games, and we can’t forget about the 71-point explosion he dropped on the Chicago Bulls in early January.

Relive some of Donovan Mitchell's best plays from the 2022-23 season.

The Next Five:

6. Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings (Last week’s ranking: No. 5)
7. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder (Last week’s ranking: No. 7)
8. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (Last week’s ranking: No. 6)
9. James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers (Last week’s ranking: No. 8)
10. Kevin Durant, Phoenix Suns (Last week’s ranking: No. 10)

And five more (listed alphabetically): Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns; Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat; Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers; De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings; LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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