The Whiteboard: Big men are dominating the NBA MVP race early

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In theory, every regular-season game counts towards the nebulous quantitive and qualitative formula each voter uses to make their pick for NBA MVP. But the stakes are often lower at the very end of the season when playoff races are already decided and the best players on the best teams are more focused on priming for the postseason. And the first part of the season has a way of building and codifying narratives, setting a mental pecking order that can be harder to reshuffle.

We’re only about a tenth of the way through this shortened season but the MVP race is already coming into focus and so far, it’s two big men leading the way. Positional designations are tricky for a unique player like Giannis but before his two MVPs, you’d have to go back to Dirk Nowitzki in 2006-07 to find a big man winning the award. And even Dirk was part of a newer, stretchier breed of big. The last MVPs who were truly anchored around the paint at both ends of the floor were Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett in 2002-03 and 2003-04.

But so far, this year’s MVP race is all about Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic.

Joel Embiid has controlled both ends of the floor for the Philadelphia 76ers

Embiid has to be considered the front-runner at this point, with a resume that’s bolstered by his team’s 7-1 record, the best in the league. And their only loss, a 24-point drubbing at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, came in a game that Embiid missed. Basketball-Reference’s MVP Tracker gives him a 50.1 percent chance of winning MVP if the season ended today.

The 76ers have outscored opponents by an average of 21.6 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the floor, and his individual numbers speak to how much he’s driving that number. He’s averaging 25.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.9 blocks per game, shooting 56.9 percent inside the arc and 40.9 percent from beyond it. His true shooting and turnover percentages are career-bests and his rim protection numbers are in elite, Rudy Gobert-territory.

New head coach Doc Rivers has made some big changes this year, some asking for Embiid to assume more responsibility and some designed to make it easier on him. On defense, Philadelphia is playing a more aggressive pick-and-roll defense, asking Embiid to come out further than he did in last year’s drop coverage scheme. It’s been a learning process but the results have been fantastic. As Jackson Frank explained at Liberty Ballers, Rivers has also brought some defined structure to off-ball roles on offense which is helping Embiid make reads as a passer out of the post:

“During Brown’s tenure as head coach, the offense struggled to provide Embiid with a balance of static and motion-based passing reads. Rivers’ intention is to require both from his All-Star center, but designate certain players as cutters and shooters. Cutters move. Shooters, typically, are stationary, Rivers said. The philosophy is that if Embiid knows who may bolt to the rim and who will remain spotting up, discerning when and how to pass out of double-teams becomes easier.”

The 76ers have played a very easy schedule thus far and it remains to be seen if they can stay healthy and maintain this level of dominance as the level of competition ramps up. But right now they, and Embiid, are doing everything right.

Nikola Jokic is a revolutionary offensive force

Jokic doesn’t have the team success on his resume — the Nuggets have started 3-4 and rank second-to-last in defensive efficiency. But his offensive numbers are in unprecdented territory. Through seven games, Jokic is averaging a triple-double and leading the league in assists. His per-game averages currently sit at 24.1 points, 11.9 assists, 11.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game, shooting 61.4 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from the 3-point line.

The passing numbers are simply jaw-dropping — he’s averaging more assists per game than Domantas Sabonis and Bam Adebayo, combined. The Nuggets are averaging 125.7 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, which is even more incredible when you consider how much some of his teammates have struggled. Gary Harris is shooting 12.5 percent from 3 so far this season and both Monte Morris and Will Barton are under 35 percent. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. have been very good but they’ve missed four games between them. Basically Jokic is an elite, historic offense onto himself.

Russell Westbrook’s historic run has taken at least a little of the shine off of averaging a season-long triple-double, so that accomplishment on it’s own probably wouldn’t be enough to lock up the award. But if the 76ers fade at all or Embiid misses a chunk of games, there’s a good chance Jokic could jump to the top of the list, even if the Nuggets are still muddling through as a team.

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