NUGGETS

Joel Embiid fights for MVP with words but darts when it comes to playing

Mar 27, 2023, 10:51 PM | Updated: 10:55 pm

DENVER—Overlooked in Joel Embiid’s whiney diss track published by The Athletic on Monday, where he laid out his case for MVP and tried to dunk on reigning back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic was a quote that explained a lot.

Embiid was absent from Monday’s late-season heavyweight bout with Jokic which many thought would decide the MVP. His coach Doc Rivers excused the night off by saying the big man had a calf injury that has been bothering him for a while and it’s not the type of thing the team wants to play around with. Embiid played in both games of the 76ers weekend west coast back-to-back after missing the second half of a game last week.

Rivers said he made the call on pulling Embiid due to the calf injury.

Embiid however weaponized the big lead and chance to rest against the struggling Bulls by throwing a shot at Jokic.

“Even against the Bulls (on March 22), I could have easily stat-padded if I wanted to, but I don’t care,” he told The Athletic. “I could have easily come back in and got a triple-double and made sure that I keep going after the scoring title. Or keep the 30-point streaks going or whatever. But I don’t care. I think mentally I’ve gotten to a different level where it’s all about winning.”

Embiid followed by saying, “If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.”

Well, it’s a good thing not winning the MVP will be okay with him because Embiid’s likely not winning it after Monday’s no-show. Either he ducked his biggest competition or he’s got a real injury that is going to jeopardize the end of his regular season.

And that’s not just me talking.

Three ESPN reporters were at Ball Arena as lead writer Tim Bontemps organized his final straw poll of the season. Another muggle uttered Embiid’s diss then dodge was the softest move he’s ever seen from an athlete. As the media of the NBA turned its eyes toward the Mile High City, with long-planned stories coming out about the day of about the league’s premier big men and the renaissance of the seven-footer. Everybody was ready, but Embiid.

Who cares what the media think anyway though?

A KSE source said, before the game that NBA people told the Nuggets broadcast on Altitude to cool any negative Embiid talk about him skipping the matchup. The broadcast was run nationally on NBATV.

So the league cares what the media says about the topic very much.

And it just so happens the media are folks who vote on who wins MVP. And no NBA player has won the MVP since the media began voting for it and missed as many games as Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo has this season. It’s not Jokic’s three-straight repeat that would be the historic outlier, doing something that hasn’t been done since Larry Bird, it would be Embiid or Giannis capturing the award doing something that hasn’t been done since a bygone era when Bill Walton got it that’d be the aberration.

So it matters. Just like how Embiid’s should words matter. He said it himself, he hasn’t won anything why should there be any pressure on him as he took another shot at Jokic, who he once respected. Embiid once said he was done talking smack too, but that appears to be hollow.

Meanwhile, Embiid’s play this year again has backed why he’s finished runner-up to Jokic in MVP voting twice. The 76ers star once again leads the NBA in scoring per game, going for 33.3 a night, when he does play. His efficiency is great and he’s grabbing 10 boards a game too. It’s why Embiid got a great deal of respect from former Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green earlier this week when Embiid went for 40 points and a loss at Golden State.

“He (Embiid) told me, he said, ‘You know why I played like that tonight? You said Joker (Nikola Jokic) was the hardest person to guard in the league. So I took that personally,'” Green laughed while telling reporters. “And so I want to tell y’all Joel is the hardest guy to guard in the league.”

But again it’s hard to judge the performance of Embiid when the world tuned in Monday to see him play Jokic at home for the first time since 2019 and all the world got was Paul Reed and a few quotes to Shams.

However, those quotes did explain the mostly unexplained absence.

“I could have probably had one MVP or whatever, and it didn’t happen. I just said I’m not going to focus on that,” Embiid said in the story. I’ve gotten to the point where people are used to me and people are putting the type of expectations on me. The only way I’m going to get that respect is by winning a championship. Whatever gets me to the playoffs healthy, that’s what I’ve got to do.”

For his part, Jokic has missed eight games for rest and a bout with COVID. He’s been blunt about only a ring mattering to him and has talked down any MVP noise for a third-straight season. Still, Jokic was the favorite to take home the award for a while, since he’s having the best season of his Hall of Fame career and nearly averaging a triple-double. While oddsmakers have cooled, Basketball Reference and other stats have him as the league’s runaway best player.

Meanwhile, Embiid says he’s finally focused on a championship after years of hubbub about how he is the league’s top big. Jokic is focused on a championship, as he has been the whole time. There are differences between the two, what’s on their mantles and which lets his play speak.

The only thing Joker would voice is his respect for Embiid, who he believes will go down as one of the most dominant players in league history.

Nonetheless, Jokic won the title bout, which is easy to do when the other guy doesn’t show up. He put up another triple-double on the undercard 76ers as the Nuggets sped to a 116-11 win, to go 3.5 games up for first place in the West.

Jokic just keeps letting his play do the work, whether the media votes with their ears or eyes will decide this year’s Michael Jordan Trophy.

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