Last year was the closest three-way MVP race in decades, with Nikola Jokić barely beating out Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
This year might be closer. After wavering between that same trio over the final weeks and months of the season, here is my final 2023 MVP ballot:
1. Joel Embiid (76ers)
2. Nikola Jokić (Nuggets)
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
4. Jayson Tatum (Celtics)
5. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Thunder)
Let me start with the disclaimer that anyone seriously considering this MVP race is going to make: I can write a very persuasive 2,000-word case for Embiid, or Jokić or Antetokounmpo. All three are deserving. At different points over thseason’s final months was going to vote for each of them. There is no wrong choice among them.
I ultimately returned to Embiid because of his improvement this season and how he lifted up a 76ers team, carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders. His statistical case is unquestioned.
Embiid MVP case:— StatMuse (@statmuse) April 10, 2023
— Scoring leader
— 1st 33/10 season since the merger
— 1st in 35-point games
— 1st in 50/10 games (tied)
— Top 2 in iso and post up PPG
— Top 10 in PPG, RPG, BPG
Most 50-point games in a season by a center since Kareem. pic.twitter.com/UJxtMLeCc1
Embiid earned this award by closing gaps — and that starts with the minutes/games gap that was a legitimate issue a couple of years ago. It’s not this year.
A year ago, Embiid was second in MVP voting partly because of the gap between his offense and Jokic’s (and the fact Jokić had closed the defensive gap between him and Embiid/Antetokounmpo). This season Embiid closed a lot of that offensive gap — get the ball to Embiid at the free throw line and he is now unstoppable. He has a jump shot that extends to the arc, he can drive the lane, he can be physical or play with touch. It also was a consideration that the gap between Embiid and Jokic’s defense has grown this season.
Jokić lifted his team to the No.1 seed in the West, but Embiid lifted his team to a better record by one game (54-28, the third-best record in the NBA), Embiid just plays in the better higher-end conference. Embiid also passes the eye test as the most dominant player in the game and the most dominant one this season. Antetokounmpo is the best overall player in the game (and on the best team in the league, a team where he had to take on a larger load due to injuries, which is the heart of his MVP case), but Embiid has closed that gap, too.
The other tough decision was Luka Dončić or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for the final spot. It’s difficult not to be impacted by recency bias (that helped Embiid, too), but Dončić and the Mavericks have fallen apart while SGA lifted the Thunder to the No.10 seed and made a leap this season to top-10 player in the league. Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 31.4 points and 5.5 rebounds a game, and his assist numbers will climb as the talent around him does in the coming years. But he earned that final spot.