Will this NBA season feature one of the closest Most Valuable Player votes in league history?
If ESPN's final MVP straw poll of 2022-23 is any indication, buckle up, as Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid has overtaken Denver Nuggets center and two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic.
By two points.
Not only did Embiid edge Jokic in total points -- 790 to 788 -- but Jokic actually had more first-place votes (42 for Jokic, 40 for Embiid). The difference: Embiid finished in second place on 45 ballots -- six more than Jokic -- to give the Sixers big man a slight lead over his rival.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo -- a two-time MVP in his own right -- grabbed the remaining 18 first-place votes, and he lurks within striking distance as the best player on the team with the most wins (55) in the league, making a difficult choice for voters even tougher.
Add it all up and, with just a handful of days to go in the regular season, many of those polled are still uncertain about how they will ultimately vote.
"These may not be my final answers," one voter said.
Another asked, "Can't you wait until after the regular season is over?"
The biggest takeaway from the poll -- conducted in a 36-hour period from Monday afternoon through Tuesday night in the wake of Embiid missing Monday's highly anticipated showdown with Jokic in Denver due to a right calf injury -- is that an already contentious MVP race will truly be in doubt up until the league announces the winner during the early portion of this year's playoffs.
"Could they tie for MVP?" Dallas coach Jason Kidd said with a smile before Wednesday night's game between his Mavericks and Embiid's 76ers in Philadelphia.
"Let's see if we can get that done."
A historically tight race to the finish
Embiid's two-point margin of victory, if it were to carry over to the actual MVP vote at season's end, would easily eclipse the closest race since media voting became the norm during the 1980-81 season.
After the 1989-90 campaign, it was Hall of Famers Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan tightly bunched together, with Barkley garnering the most first-place votes at 38.
But while Johnson finished with 27 first-place votes, what pushed him over the top to win the award was finishing in second on 38 ballots. Coupled with Jordan's finish -- he had 21 first-place votes, with more second- and third-place votes than Barkley -- it allowed the final vote to swing in Johnson's favor.
History could be repeating itself with the vote between Embiid, Jokic and Antetokounmpo. But the race for the 2023 MVP didn't start this way.
It was clear this year's race had a chance to be wide open when, in the season's first straw poll in December, Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum led the way by just 92 total points. At the time, that margin was the second smallest of any of the previous 12 straw polls conducted since the 2016-17 season. (The closest came in the middle of last season, when Embiid led Jokic by 35 total points.)
The vote swung toward Jokic in the second poll, taken just before the All-Star break. Jokic claimed 77 of the 100 first-place votes, with Antetokounmpo (11 first-place votes) finishing second and Embiid (six first-place votes) third.
At the time, Jokic's lead was seemingly cemented and so was his bid to claim the award for a third straight season -- something only Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell have done.
But a series of factors have caused the race to tighten dramatically.
There was snapback from Jokic's big lead in MVP odds, as multiple straw poll voters expressed that there is a higher bar to clear for a third straight MVP. Denver lost four straight games and five out of six earlier this month. Philadelphia, for its part, won eight straight games against the league's hardest post-All-Star schedule, per ESPN Stats & Information research. Milwaukee has won 26 of its past 30 games with Antetokounmpo in the lineup.
And one of the final big moments of the season -- Embiid and Jokic's showdown -- was lost when Embiid sat because of his sore calf.
"I think Joel's body of work speaks for itself," 76ers coach Doc Rivers said when asked if he thought Embiid missing the game could impact his candidacy. "We did the right thing there, so I don't think that's fair. You're not judged for one game, that I know of.
"You're judged for the entire season, by your team's record and by how you perform. And he's been dominant."
The case for the top three, and why Giannis could play spoiler
Each star in the Embiid-Jokic-Antetokounmpo trio is more than deserving on merits.
Jokic has led Denver to the best record in the Western Conference, averaging 24.9 points, 11.9 rebounds and 9.9 assists. He is within reach of becoming the third player in NBA history to average a triple-double for a season -- and the only 7-footer to do so -- matching the feats of Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook.
Embiid leads the league in scoring (33.2 points per game) for a second straight season to go along with averages of 10.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists. The 76ers are close to locking up the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Antetokounmpo is averaging 31.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 5.7 assists for the team with the league's best record.
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And Antetokounmpo is close enough that it's not inconceivable he could leapfrog both Jokic and Embiid in MVP voting, as Antetokounmpo finished the latest straw poll with 18 first-place votes, 15 second-place votes and 64 third-place votes for 612 total points.
What's more likely, though, is that Antetokounmpo's third-place presence in the race, like Jordan's in 1990, could help swing the vote between Jokic and Embiid. Performances down the stretch, like Wednesday night's 38-point triple-double, could cause Antetokounmpo's first-place vote totals to rise.
But at which star center's expense?
Best of the rest -- and the end of another Kings drought?
A Grand Canyon-sized chasm below the top three ended with Tatum in fourth; he received 90 of the 100 fourth-place votes and finished with 292 total points. Another significant drop-off followed, as Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (37 points), Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (32 points), Sacramento Kings center Domantas Sabonis (20 points) and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (15 points) checked in with large chunks of fifth-place votes.
Voters struggled choosing which star to place fifth on ballots, with some unsure they could give an MVP vote to a player on a team currently under .500, such as Dallas' Doncic and Oklahoma City's Gilgeous-Alexander.
Some voters wanted to reward Sabonis for the way the Kings have performed this season, clinching both a winning record and a playoff berth for the first time since the 2005-06 campaign.
And if Sabonis does garner any MVP votes this season, it would break an even longer streak than Sacramento's playoff drought: Peja Stojakovic in 2003-04 was the last King to receive an MVP vote, according to ESPN Stats & Info data.
Rounding out the field: Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (four points) in ninth, Kings guard De'Aaron Fox and Celtics forward Jaylen Brown (three points) in a tie for 10th, Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (two points) in 12th and Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker and Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. tied for 13th with one point.