Joel Embiid has lost the NBA MVP award to Nikola Jokic two years in a row, but with two weeks remaining in the 2022-23 regular season, his chances at finally winning the coveted award have never been higher. As of Monday morning, he is a minus-225 favorite at Caesars Sportsbook while Jokic (plus-175) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (plus-325) lag behind. The Philadelphia 76ers still have games remaining against Jokic's Denver Nuggets and Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks, but Embiid is undeniably in pole position as the race nears its conclusion.
But that doesn't mean Embiid has gotten over the disappointment of the past few seasons. In a Q&A with The Athletic's Shams Charania, Embiid grumbled about the ways in which he believes the award's criteria changes annually while appearing to take a shot at Jokic.
"The criteria does change," Embiid said. "If we want to talk about the last three years since I've been in the running for it, the first year it was that I didn't play enough games. Last year, I came back, I played enough games, I led the league in scoring, and obviously, Nikola deserved it and he won it.
"But then again, he won as a sixth seed in the West. And then this year, I'm leading the league in scoring, I'm doing all of these things defensively … I should be making an All-Defensive team too. I don't care, but every year it's something. And when you add analytics into it, which don't make sense. You can talk about analytics all you want. When you got some guys in the league, the eye test tells you that they're not good defensively, but analytics tell you they're the best defenders. That's when analytics don't make sense at all. I don't make the rules, I don't choose whatever criteria that they use, so it's really about whatever people's preferences are."
Embiid is, almost undoubtedly, talking about Jokic here. The eye-test suggests that he is a poor defender due to his limited foot speed, which has been exploited in several playoff matchups against high-level ball-handlers. The metrics, however, have long considered Jokic an underrated defender. FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR ranks Jokic as the NBA's fourth-best defender this season, for example, and while other metrics aren't quite as emphatic, almost all of them consider Jokic a positive defender. There are a number of possible explanations for this ranging from his rebounding (you have to actually get the ball for an opponent's possession to end) to the turnovers he generates (Jokic averages 1.2 steals per game for his career and ranks sixth in the NBA in total deflections) to the enormous difference between how well Denver performs with him on the court and off of it, but it's almost undeniable to suggest that Jokic looks like a better defender on paper than he does on tape. The truth, as in most things, lies somewhere in between.
But this wasn't the only shot Embiid took at Jokic. When Charania asked if he viewed this season as title-or-bust, Embiid responded by deflecting pressure onto other, unnamed players.
"People have been talking about who has the most pressure to win. People want to mention me," Embiid said. "I'm not at the top of that list. I'm not a two-time MVP, I've never made first team All-NBA, I've never won anything. So why is there pressure on me to do something when there are guys that have won two MVPs, a bunch of MVPs and haven't done anything either?"
Based on Embiid's descriptor of "two-time MVPs" that "haven't done anything either," there is only one possible fit in the NBA. There are four two-time MVPs active in the league today. Three of them have won championships: LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The only one who hasn't is Nikola Jokic.
There is quite a bit of pressure on both of them to win the championship this season. Embiid has never made it beyond the second round of the playoffs. Jokic has reached the Western Conference Finals, but faced increased scrutiny throughout this season as possibly the first player to win three consecutive MVPs since Larry Bird despite never having reached the Finals.
Embiid's team is set to face Jokic's on Monday, but Embiid has been ruled out. Embiid's 76ers defeated Jokic's Nuggets in their first matchup this season, so he won the only contest between the two of them this year.
Embiid's frustration with the MVP process has been palpable even before this interview. He took things to a new level here, even saying openly to Charania that "I really believe that I'm not well-liked." Whether or not that is true is ultimately debatable, but he likely isn't helping himself on this front by releasing such an inflammatory interview.