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Adrian Wojnarowski, commonly known as Woj, broke the news on Monday morning at 6:38 am MST. For a player who was drafted in the second round during a Taco Bell commercial, it was an extremely fitting time slot for Nikola Jokic to win his second, back-to-back Most Valuable Player award. The Nuggets faithful will know that Jokic has never been one to seek the spotlight, although his incredible 2021-2022 season would suggest anything but. Yet, as major sports networks delivered their early remarks on the conclusion of an incredible MVP race, the discourse was not centered around the MVP, but rather on the rival he had just beat out.
No one can take away Joel Embiid’s career year, as the Philadelphia 76ers big man put together one of the greatest individual seasons of all time. The Cameroonian averaged a career high of 4.2 assists per game, 11.7 rebounds per game, while putting up a ridiculous 30.6 points per contest that saw him become the first big man to win the NBA scoring title since Shaquille O’Neal in the 1999-2000 season. Even though he led the league in scoring, it was his defensive impact that many felt was his true claim to the MVP, as he averaged an impressive 1.5 blocks and 1.1 steals per game.
All this was done throughout a tumultuous season for the 76ers, as their star point guard Ben Simmons sat out the entire season before being eventually traded to the Brooklyn Nets for perennial All-Star James Harden. Once Harden arrived, however, it was not the same level of James Harden that NBA fans have been accustomed to over the past decade (although his 31 point outburst on Sunday night against Miami in Game 4 suggests a return to form might be on the cards). Joel Embiid’s 2021-2022 season would deserve the MVP in 99% of scenarios. Except Jokic is that 1%.
There is no media bias against Joel Embiid, as the 76ers star suggested a month ago regarding his MVP status. Nikola Jokic’s season was simply just better, there is no other way to word it. He averaged an insanely balanced statline of 27 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists per contest, becoming the first player to average better than 25/13/6 in NBA history. If that wasn’t enough to convince you, he tallied a 2,000 point, 1,000 rebound, 500 assist regular season, becoming the first to do so. Not even an all-time great like Wilt Chamberlain was able to do so in a season where he averaged 50 points and 26 rebounds in 1961-1962. His numbers only tell half the story, however, as the true accomplishment was keeping a Denver Nuggets team afloat that without him, would have quite honestly been fighting with the likes of Orlando and Houston to draft Paolo Banchero in this year’s upcoming draft.
Despite losing star forward Michael Porter Jr. just 9 games into the regular season and the borderline All-Star point guard Jamal Murray still on the mend from an ACL injury suffered last season, the Serbian center was able to guide a shorthanded Nuggets roster to a 48-34 record that would be good enough for the sixth seed in the West. Yet, this is where Jokic’s critics feel Embiid has the clear upper hand, as the 76ers finished 4th in the East with a 51-31 record. Has basketball discussion really become so diluted that we are doubting a player’s legitimacy over 3 less wins in an 82 game regular season?
On First Take, Stephen A. Smith suggested that Embiid had faced more adversity this season because his All-Star teammate Ben Simmons sat out the season. National media often fails to mention that Joel Embiid was gifted James Harden for the remaining 21 games of the regular season, while Nikola Jokic’s best teammate was defensive stalwart Aaron Gordon who averaged 15 points this year. Other than Aaron Gordon and Jokic, the Nuggets two leading scorers were Monte Morris and Will Barton who averaged 15 and 13 respectively. The 76ers had 3 players average over 17 points other than Joel Embiid. To say that Embiid did more with a worse roster is utter blasphemy, and it can’t be allowed as a valid argument on one of America’s most popular sports shows. Fox Sports media personality Nick Wright also delivered some lamentable takes, but it would be a waste of energy to try to dissect a man who has consistently shown that he retains shock value and publicity to a higher degree of importance than actual basketball analysis.
So, “if Jokic is as good of a player as you say he is, why don’t I hear about it?”, you may ask. The answer is a multi-faceted one that reflects on both our societal setup and the indoctrination of sport in America. We have long been led to believe that the best basketball players are superhuman, physical freaks of nature that were destined to reach stardom the minute they set foot on the court. Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James are all examples of what a true superstar looks like in the eyes of the American public. Even players such as Stephen Curry, who don’t necessarily jump out of the gym, produce lightning quick moments that make it seem like they have God-given abilities. Joel Embiid fits the bill, a seven foot, 280 pound center who moves like a point guard and can posterize anyone on the floor at any given moment.
Enter Nikola Jokic: an unathletic European center whose feet barely leave the ground on every shot attempt, and who barely shows an ounce of emotion on his face (unless he’s yelling at Tony Brothers). His style is so unorthodox that it almost seems goofy to the casual fan, as he’s been compared to the players one would find at your local gym. Yet there is a brilliant madness to his play, because he can truly do it all.
His vision and passing ability is unmatched, bar LeBron James and Chris Paul. The one God-given attribute that he does have is his size, and he is unstoppable in the post 1 on 1. You want to double team him? No problem, he’ll just as easily find an open man for three or cutting to the basket. His signature Sombor Shuffle fadeaway jumper dumbfounded defenses, as it became his bail out shot late in the shot clock. His defense was much maligned for years, but now even that has improved. His defensive rating of 105.3 matched Embiid’s, and he averaged just 0.6 blocks per game less while averaging 0.4 steals more than the 76ers star. Embiid is thought to be a far superior defender than Jokic, yet the stats show that wasn’t the case this season.
NBA superstars are almost always public figures and a key cog to the advertising machine that is the United States of America. Even someone as reserved as Kawhi Leonard will pop on your TV screen advertising for New Balance, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Jokic has rejected almost every endorsement deal, bar a deal with Nike and a partnership with local Colorado bank Western Union. He is never seen on talk shows, TV commercials, podcasts, or even major American events. According to Forbes.com, his endorsement deals earned him a measly 750,000 dollars in 2021. To put that into perspective, lesser stars like Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson made around 18 million dollars last year. Even Nuggets team president Tim Connelly admitted that the Serbian has left millions of dollars on the table.
The man doesn’t even have social media, which is unfathomable in today’s world for his status. He simply isn’t marketable because he doesn’t allow himself to be. Outlets such as ESPN cannot push him to the top of America’s news like they’ve been able to do in the past, it’s just not possible. So, it becomes a question of finding a replacement instead of embracing him. Christmas Day in 2021 did not feature the Denver Nuggets, making Jokic the first MVP to not feature on Christmas since the NBA started having 5 games in 2008. When the average viewer is told that he is one of the best players in the world, it doesn’t connect with them because his off the court presence is as mundane as that of a bench level player.
This lack of celebration also extends to his peers, not just with America’s most notorious talking heads. As was the case last season, fellow NBA stars have been shy to congratulate Nikola on his award as it feels that the majority are either indifferent to the Nuggets star, or preferred Embiid to take it. There could be a multitude of reasons for that, but it seems that Jokic’s reluctance to embrace the spotlight of being the current best player on the planet has led to an alienation from the fraternity that is NBA superstardom. Established greats like LeBron James often show their support on social media when a player delivers an amazing performance or breaks a record, yet there has been nothing but silence on that end as Jokic broke multiple records (including his own) this season alone.
But enough about what hasn’t been given to Jokic, because this is not a commiseration of a neglected superstar. In the end, the NBA’s panel of sportswriters and personalities did award the MVP to the most deserving player and that is your 2021-2022 MVP, Nikola Jokic.