One of the NBA regular season’s most compelling storylines was the battle for MVP, and the names of Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic have been plastered all over it. These individual awards are great for future Hall of Fame induction ceremonies and fat bonus checks, but it’s the ring up for grabs this summer that matters most.

I’m asking a more important question than which of these centers will win MVP; I’m asking if it’ll be Embiid or Jokic who survives longer in the NBA Playoffs meat grinder.

Who Lasts Longer This Summer: Joel Embiid vs Nikola Jokic?

Embiid and Jokic are both having outstanding seasons, per usual. The 76ers center is the NBA’s scoring champion for the second season in a row, averaging 33.1 points per game on an incredibly efficient 54.8 percent from the field, plus 10.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per night. In all, Embiid chipped in 12.3 win shares for his team in 2022/23, and his 21.3 player impact estimate stood atop the Association. The Cameroonian stamped his mark on the close of the campaign with a 52-point performance on a 20-of-25 clip from the field in the 76ers’ 103-101 victory over fellow contender Boston on April 4.

Two time zones away, the Joker’s been dealing in Denver. The back-to-back MVP winner scored 24.5 points per contest in the 2022/23 campaign, a slight decline from his 27.1 mark for 2021/22. But what Jokic has lost in scoring, he’s gained in distribution – the center is passing at an unbelievable level, averaging 9.8 dimes per game as the focal point of the offense with the best team field-goal percentage in the NBA. Jokic leads the league in offensive rating (124.2) and is third in assist percentage (41.2), fourth in true shooting percentage (70.1), and fourth in rebounding percentage (18.6) among players who played at least 60 games. This man is a wrecking ball of efficiency in nearly every way.

Excellent seasons from these all-time centers have created a competition between the two that unfolded in this year’s MVP race. But they’ll soon be in competition for something much more important: an NBA championship.

If these two titans were to meet in the postseason, it could only be in the NBA Finals. There is a possibility that each survives that long, but that would be getting well ahead of ourselves. Rather than assume a matchup in the ultimate series, I’ll analyze who is more likely to get there in the first place.

Possible Paths

The Nuggets finished the regular season with a 53-29 record, two games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies and good for the No. 1 seed in the West. That confirms home-court advantage until at least the NBA Finals, a big bonus for a team with the second-best home record in the NBA.

As the No. 3 seed in the East, Embiid and the 76ers will theoretically have more difficult opponents earlier in the playoffs, plus they might not have homecourt advantage if they were to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. Before diving any further, this is already a reason to lean toward Jokic lasting longer into the summer.

Matchups are key in any elimination playoff format, and it’s another point for the Serbian. The balance of power has drifted east in the NBA, and the Sixers will presumably be tasked with more difficult opponents than Denver. Which potential path would you rather have to face on your road to the NBA Finals: the Nets, Celtics, and Bucks, or the Timberwolves, Suns, and Grizzlies? I know which one I’m choosing.

Similar Play Styles, With One Big Difference

Both Denver and Philadelphia play a slower, half-court style of offense relative to most of the league. Both teams place immense emphasis on offensive efficiency, both teams have a superstar center, and both teams have an elite-level guard who serves as a sidekick to the big man: James Harden for the 76ers, and Jamal Murray for the Nuggets.

The way each team uses its dynamic big is different, though. The foundation for Philadelphia’s offense is the two-man, pick-and-roll game between Embiid and Harden, and it’s incredibly effective. The Sixers have sliced defenses to pieces by utilizing tons of action for these two players, and Harden has held up his end as the main distributor (10.7 assists per game).

The Nuggets also activate a lot of two-man action with Jokic and Murray, but the man difference is the employment of the Joker as the key passer of the ball. Jokic is among the greatest passers in the sport’s history, and his vision, anticipation, and ability to manipulate the rock are second to none. He unlocks so much from his teammates and maximizes their capabilities in ways that Embiid and Harden’s games simply don’t.

Embiid is the better pure scorer and defender, but Jokic is a more refined and well-rounded package. In every single game, the Serbian makes multiple passes that most players in the world could never conceive, let alone complete. Defending Embiid, Jokic, or either of these offenses is a mighty tall task, but the chaos caused by a 6-foot-11 passing extraordinaire puts defenses not just in tough positions but in spots they’ve never really been in before.

Advantage: Joker

Sorry, Philly fans, it’s nothing personal. This Sixers team is very good. But if I have to pick who will go further in the playoffs between Embiid and Jokic, it has to be the player with all of the advantages. Game location and matchups are likely to massively favor the Nuggets, and while that doesn’t eliminate the 76ers – the East is so strong in part because of Philadelphia’s strength – it makes a deep run less likely. It’s all about probability.

For these reasons, plus my preference for Jokic’s pass-oriented game, my money is on the Serbian and his Nuggets to survive longer into the NBA Playoffs than Embiid and his followers. Maybe in June, we can settle this once and for all?


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