Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Nikola Jokic reclaims top spot from Joel Embiid

With a little more than 1 week to go in the season, Nikola Jokic is back at No. 1, while a new name cracks the Top 5.

Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid could be part of the closest Kia MVP race since 1989-90.

With the race coming down the final stretch, you can catch a nightly update on the top five candidates in our Kia MVP Tracker.

The warning delivered in this space last week touched on over-analysis of snapshots from pending matchups featuring Nikola Jokic against two of the top three in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

But Joel Embiid nixed trekking that road on Monday by missing Philadelphia’s 116-111 loss at Denver due to right calf tightness.

“He’s a great player,” Jokic said of his MVP-candidate counterpart. “I think he’s gonna be remembered as one of the most dominant players in the league.”

Recency bias might conjure a different set of recollections in this instance, not just for NBA fans, but also the on-the-fence Kia MVP voters, who hoped to catch one final regular-season showdown between the top two candidates in an MVP race poised to go down as one of the NBA’s closest ever.

Understandably, Embiid eschewed individual glory to prioritize health for the Sixers’ looming postseason run. He was electing to rest on the 47-point, 18-rebound performance he churned out in a January triumph over Jokic and Co.

That strong showing transpired two months and three days ago, a span seemingly equating to a lifetime passing by when gauging a tight race that could still flip like the Western Conference standings often do over the course of a few nights.

Three days prior to knocking off the Sixers, Jokic reeled off 31 points and 11 dimes in a win over Giannis Antetokounmpo and the visiting Milwaukee Bucks. Yet Embiid’s absence in Denver dominated the MVP conversation.

See, in this hotly contested MVP race, where voters continually seek tiebreakers to separate the candidates — fair or not — perception matters. That’s why Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers found himself defending the decision to rest Embiid, while fielding questions about how that might’ve adversely affected his MVP candidacy.

“I think Joel’s body of work speaks for itself,” Rivers said. “We did the right thing here, so I don’t think that’s fair. You’re not judged for one game that I know of. You’re judged for the entire season, your team’s record and how you perform. He’s been dominant.”

There’s no doubting that, and the career head-to-head matchup history between the big men backs that assertion. Dating back to 2016, Embiid is 5-2 against Jokic and the Nuggets, outscoring his counterpart in four of those games and outrebounding him in five other matchups. Of the seven head-to-head Embiid vs. Jokic clashes, two took place at Denver’s Ball Arena, with each team going 1-1. In fact, the last time Embiid played a game in Denver (Nov. 8, 2019), Jokic drilled the go-ahead dagger with 1.2 seconds left to lead the Nuggets to a 100-97 win.

So, Embiid missed on a shot at redemption in Ball Arena on Monday while passing on a prime opportunity to bolster an already strong MVP case. Before sitting out the loss at Denver, Embiid had played in 13 consecutive games, leading the Sixers to nine victories, including an eight-game winning streak over the course of two weeks from early to mid-March. But he’s also missed 14 contests in 2022-23.

Bill Walton (1977-78) is the only MVP winner to sit out of that many outings.

Regardless, Embiid eyes loftier goals.

“I don’t care,” he said when asked whether Monday’s move hurt his MVP candidacy. “It’s all about the playoffs. If one game is gonna hurt anybody’s chances, I guess everybody should be out of it. We all have bad games. Guys miss matchups. That’s not the first time. It’s not really a matchup about me and Nikola. He’s a great player, amazing player, back-to-back MVP. I’m a huge fan.

“Not playing against him was a huge bummer. But there’s a bigger goal in sight, and that’s to make sure we’re healthy for the playoffs. I’ve got nothing to prove. The last matchup we won, and I had whatever I had. To go out there and say that I’m scared after what I did the last time is kind of stupid. I don’t care if I win it or not. I’m just focused on trying to win a championship.”

While it’s only one missed game, Embiid’s decision Monday might further muddy an MVP picture that doesn’t appear any closer to crystalizing with just six games remaining on both Philadelphia and Denver’s regular-season schedule.

On the strength of a Denver four-game winning streak snapped by New Orleans on Thursday, Jokic reclaims the No. 1 spot in the latest edition of Kia Race to the MVP Ladder. Embiid slips to No. 2 after helping Philadelphia break out of a three-game skid in leading it to win No. 50 in the franchise’s fewest number of games since 2001. Giannis Antetokounmpo lurks quietly at No. 3, and Dallas Mavericks superstar guard Luka Doncic drops out of the top five with his team in danger of missing the playoffs after losing five of its last six games, making way for Sacramento Kings big man Domantas Sabonis at No. 5.

Boston’s Jayson Tatum, meanwhile, holds steady in fourth.

For the most recent updates on the performances of the top candidates, be sure to check out our Kia MVP Tracker.

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

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 24.9 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 9.9 apg

Jokic’s standing at the top could prove tenuous in an MVP race that’s shaping up to be the closest since 1989-90, when Magic Johnson bested Charles Barkley in a vote separated by 22 points. Interestingly, Jokic sat out of Denver’s 107-88 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday with right calf tightness. With Jokic leading the way, the Nuggets are close to clinching the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed for the first time in franchise history. Jokic served up his 29th triple-double in Embiid’s absence on Monday, and, in 16 appearances since the All-Star break, Jokic has increased his scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage.

Nikola Jokic finishes with 25 points as the Nuggets topple the 76ers.

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 33.2 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 4.2 apg

Embiid returned from Monday’s absence in a loss to the Nuggets to light up the Dallas Mavericks for 25 points and nine rebounds two nights later. That game marked the NBA scoring leader’s 56th outing with at least 25 points and five rebounds, according to research from Stathead. Embiid said he first felt his calf injury in a March 22 win at Chicago, and the club held him out in the second half of that contest before he returned for a back-to-back set at Golden State and Phoenix on Friday and Saturday before sitting out Monday at Denver. The third-place Sixers host Toronto on Friday at Wells Fargo Center (7 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass). Prioritizing health may be the way to go for a squad poised to make serious noise in the postseason.

Joel Embiid could be saying all the right things, but how will he and the 76ers balance their team and individual goals down the stretch?

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 31.2 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 5.5 apg

On Wednesday, Antetokounmpo moved into fourth all-time in career games with 30 or more points, 15 or more rebounds and 10 or more assists (eight games), trailing only Oscar Robertson (29), Wilt Chamberlain (20) and Jokic (nine). What’s wild is the two-time MVP’s performance was overshadowed by a 51-point night from Jrue Holiday, marking the first time a team finished with one player scoring at least 50 points and another logging a triple-double with at least 35 points in the same game (38 points, 17 rebounds, 12 assists). Antetokounmpo followed up his historic night with a rough showing on the second night of a back-to-back in a 140-99 loss to Boston, a team that is closing in on the Bucks in the Eastern Conference standings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 24 points in a blowout loss to the Celtics.

4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 30.2 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 4.6 apg

Tatum notched 40 points and eight rebounds as Jaylen Brown added 30 points on Thursday in a blowout road victory against Milwaukee that gave Boston the season series vs. the Bucks, 2-1. The victory came after a 130-111 loss at Washington on Tuesday. “We responded well from the jump,” Tatum said. “That’s all I wanted, and we wanted as a team, regardless of if we won or not — just to respond and play better than we did last game.” Mission accomplished against a Bucks team they might see again in the playoffs. Winners of four of their last five, the Celtics host Utah on Friday at TD Garden (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass).

Jayson Tatum led Boston with 40 points in a romp against Milwaukee on Thursday.

5. Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings

Last week’s ranking: No. 6

Season stats: 19.1 ppg, 12.4 rpg, 7.2 apg

Nobody expected to see Sabonis in this spot, just like we couldn’t have anticipated Sacramento’s surprising run to the postseason. Sabonis had 15 points and 12 rebounds Wednesday in a win against Portland, a victory that both clinched the team’s first playoff berth since 2006 and halted the NBA’s longest postseason drought. In 74 games, Sabonis leads the league with 61 double-doubles and posted his 12th triple-double on March 21 against the Celtics. Interestingly, Sabonis had the NBA’s longest double-double streak this season (23), and he’s just the second player in franchise history to tally a double-double in 23 consecutive games since Oscar Robertson (who churned out 29 such games in 1961-62).

Domantas Sabonis scores 27 points in a win against the Suns.

The Next Five:

6. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (Last week’s ranking: No. 5)
7.Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder (Last week’s ranking: No. 8)
8. Julius Randle, New York Knicks (Last week’s ranking: No. 7)
9. James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers (Last week’s ranking: No. 9)
10. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat (Last week’s ranking: not ranked)

And five more (listed alphabetically): Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns; Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics; Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers; De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings; Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies.

* * *

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

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery Sports.