With the play-in tournament underway, it's time to reveal my official NBA awards picks. This was probably the toughest ballot, top to bottom, I've ever filled out. Four of the six individual awards came down to the wire, and the All-NBA teams -- coming out tomorrow -- were tougher than usual, partly because superstars missed so many games.
After poring over the data, watching a gazillion games, and talking to coaches and executives across the league, here's where I ended up.
Most Valuable Player
What an epic race -- three all-time superstars posting all-time seasons. In a way, the hardest part -- the one that felt most absurd -- was writing one of these three names into the third-place slot. Antetokounmpo is a two-time MVP, the best player on the team with the best record, wrapping a 31.1-point/11.8-rebound/5.7-assist masterpiece -- and finished third? How?
In a normal year -- and even amid this convergence of three historic seasons -- Antetokounmpo has a clean case to win. He is the best defender among these three, although Embiid at full throttle gives him a run. Even one of the relative weak spots in Antetokounmpo's dossier -- finishing with almost 300 fewer minutes than both centers -- is at least partly the result of the Bucks being so good, and so deep, as to not need to push him. Should we really "punish" Antetokounmpo because of the stability of Milwaukee's roster?
Debating players at the highest level is always splitting hairs; minutes matter as a tiebreaker. Antetokounmpo also appeared in fewer games than Jokic or Embiid, and he suffered a drop-off in shooting on 2s, 3s and free throws.
In the end, it was the two centers -- the two-time defending MVP and greatest passing big man of all time, and the game's most majestic giant since prime Hakeem Olajuwon. The race flip-flopped all season. Twenty games in -- and this somehow feels like two seasons and five MVP races ago -- I had Stephen Curry as front-runner. Injuries torpedoed his case -- and that of Kevin Durant, who would have been on the short list in alternate universes in which he stayed healthy and a giant sinkhole did not open underneath the Barclays Center.
Jokic owned the next 40 games, flirting with a triple-double average and shooting at efficiency levels usually reserved for Curry or centers who only dunk: 63% overall, 38.5% on 3s, 67.5% on 2s. Those numbers don't look real.
Embiid backers argued that Jokic's pickiness -- his refusal to commandeer the offense the way Denver needed him to -- propped up those numbers.
That never held water. You can't average 25 points -- even in this go-go NBA -- being super choosy. The notion that Jokic's teammates required him to score more indirectly undercut Embiid's case -- implying that Jokic's supporting cast was weaker, and Jokic therefore perhaps more valuable. Embiid, after all, has a top-75-all-time player feeding him buckets. (Neither the Sixers nor the Nuggets had a second All-Star, but I selected James Harden on my personal Eastern Conference roster.)
You have to be cautious over-rewarding a player because the surrounding roster is allegedly weak. The Nuggets outscored opponents by 12.8 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor, and lost the non-Jokic minutes by 10 points per 100 possessions -- a 23-point chasm.
The first number -- margin with the player on the floor -- is more important than the second. Imagine a theoretical player's team is plus-1 per 100 possessions with him on the floor and minus-10 when he sits. He might be a star. Is he the MVP? Probably not. An MVP should ideally transform a good team into an elite team.
Jokic does that. Embiid does too; the Sixers blitzed opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the court and were minus-2.6 per 100 possessions when he sat -- a 12-point gap. That's not as mammoth as Jokic's splits, but the differential is much narrower on the positive side. We are talking levels-within-levels of greatness here.
I'm not totally sure Embiid's supporting cast is that much better than Jokic's, either. Harden played 58 games, and was probably his peak 2022-23 self in something like 40 of them. Tyrese Maxey missed 22 games and came off the bench in one-third of his appearances -- deflating the minutes he shared with Embiid. Tobias Harris and P.J. Tucker were pretty blah, the rest of the team hit-or-miss.
The Nuggets have no one quite on Harden's level, but the triumvirate of Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. is pretty darn good. (I had Gordon on my West All-Stars.) They are cutters and shooters who fit Jokic's pass-happy style. Philly's other players aren't regarded as effective off-ball players, aside from run-of-the-mill spot-up shooting. Harden acted for a decade -- until midway through this season -- as if taking catch-and-shoot 3s were against the rules.
There is a chicken-egg mystery here: Would Embiid's supporting cast move and cut more if he were a better passer? Do the other Nuggets play the way they do because Jokic is a passing wizard? The answer to each is probably "yes," but the degree of that "yes" is hard to parse.
Whatever method each player uses is working like gangbusters. The Nuggets scored 124 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor -- five points better than the Sacramento Kings' league-best offense. The Sixers hit 119 with Embiid -- just above Sacramento's number.
There is something catalytic about Jokic's passing -- something ineffable and amplifying that is hard to enumerate and even to describe. He is like a constant, humming electrical current -- breathing energy into everyone around him. He doesn't just make passes; he creates them from scratch, imagines them when no one else sees them, conjures baskets from nothing. He is as impactful on offense as Curry -- as anyone in league history, maybe.
But Embiid narrowed the gap on offense. He led the league in scoring -- 33 points! Even with scoring up, that number makes you do a double take. He hit 55% overall and 59% on 2s -- easily career highs. He is a free throw whiz.
He averaged 4.2 assists and 3.4 turnovers -- the soft spot in his case. Some of that is Embiid's score-first approach. Some is the tendency of his teammates to stand around -- which, again, cannot be completely separated from Embiid's style. Some of it is Embiid not being nearly as good a passer as Jokic.
Embiid's passing improved over the last two months. He was quicker getting rid of the ball when that made sense, more trusting in teammates.
The gap on defense widened. Embiid is an All-Defensive candidate. Jokic is better on defense than the eye test suggests -- one of the league's best rebounders, a tip king with a penchant for steals and deflections. But he was lax for much of the season, offering meek waving contests and resorting to kicking balls. Opponents shot 69% at the rim with Jokic as the nearest defender -- one of the worst marks in the league, and frankly not acceptable.