Nikola Jokic is in the midst of one of the greatest postseasons in NBA history. He picked up his NBA record eighth triple-double on Monday as the Denver Nuggets clinched the first trip to the Finals in franchise history. He’s now dispatched former MVPs in back-to-back rounds after defeating Kevin Durant’s Phoenix Suns and LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers, but it’s the MVP he won’t face this postseason that he is most frequently compared to.
Joel Embiid edged out Jokic for the 2023 MVP award, but once he was eliminated by the Boston Celtics in the second round of the postseason, he received quite a bit of criticism for his role in the collapse. Many have gone as far as to say that it was evidence that Jokic, not Embiid, should have won the award. But on Monday, Jokic pushed back against that notion. He made it clear that Embiid was, in his mind, the correct choice for MVP.
“I don’t think about MVPs anymore,” Jokic said. “I mean, I think it’s — people are just mean in saying that Embiid shouldn’t have won it. I think he should have won it. I think he was playing, if you watch it, extremely, extremely tough basketball through whole season … He was really amazing in 82 games or how many games he played.”
Jokic, the two-time defending winner entering the season, was the MVP frontrunner for most of the year. However, once the Nuggets effectively clinched the top seed in the Western Conference in early March, Jokic and the team took their foot off the gas pedal. They finished the season 8-10 as Embiid played some of the best basketball of his career. Once he scored 52 points in a win over Boston in the season’s final week, the award was essentially his.
Jokic has seemingly been ambivalent about individual awards for most of his career, but his coach suspected that the vitriolic tone this year’s race took may have gotten to him. “You know, this is the first year where I think — I don’t know this for a fact,” Michael Malone said. “He never told me this. But in my opinion, I think the negativity around the MVP race I think did get to him. I can’t blame him. The guy goes out there and does his job every night and he is being criticized.”
Jokic was criticized relentlessly for his defense and for his limited postseason resume during the season despite the fact that the MVP is strictly a regular-season award. Had he won, Jokic would have become the first player to win three consecutive MVPs since Larry Bird. Neither Michael Jordan nor LeBron James ever accomplished that feat. Many voters spoke of the historic ramifications of this award as part of their reasoning for landing on Embiid.
Now, those votes don’t look great. Jokic is headed to the Finals, and it is clear that his prior postseason failings were largely the result of injury-stricken rosters. But the award is meant for the regular season. What Jokic has done in the playoffs is irrelevant on that front. He picked Embiid for the 82 games he played between October and April, and ultimately, that is what the trophy is meant to award.