Joel Embiid’s departure from the MVP race while he undergoes minor surgery to repair a displaced flap in his meniscus has created a vacancy. His coronation has now become a vastly different two-man heat. With due respect to Luka Doncic’s gaudy numbers, he’ll be a long shot as long as the Dallas Mavericks winning percentage doesn’t match his offensive output.
In any other year, Embiid’s exit presumably would clear the runway for Nikola Jokic’s third MVP in four years. Jokić may seem like he’s paced himself compared to year’s past, but that’s only because Embiid was so head and shoulders above the field. Jokić has the second-best Player Efficiency Ranking in the league, and ranks fourth in assists, but this year’s Denver Nuggets have preserved their energy from the middle of the pack for most of the season. The stars are aligning for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to win the Michael Jordan Trophy. There’s just one problem.
Jokić’s +15.2 on-off rating is three points higher than SGA’s and illustrates how valuable he is to the Nuggets. Jokic’s advanced numbers are down slightly and we’ve become so accustomed to his nightly triple doubles that he’s lost the narrative edge for voters. According to NBA MVP prognosticators from across the media sphere, the field is still playing catch-up. but SGA has emerged as a legitimate challenger nipping at Jokić’s heels. If there’s any repeat of last year’s slippage from Jokić down the stretch, the race becomes a dead heat.
After beginning the year as an also-ran in the MVP debate, SGA has shot to the front of the pack at the same quantum pace Oklahoma City has evolved into the second-best regular season team in the West. SGA proves that evolution is three dimensional. His three-point exploits are more earthbound than you’d expect from an MVP contender playing guard. He shoots below the current league average, but he’s evolved into the post-Steph Curry era successor by thriving as the Inverted Steph. He’s long, physical, a defensive wizard and he prefers scoring inside the arc to outside.
In isolation, SGA produces more points per possession than Doncic and accumulated a shooting percentage six points more efficient than the Mavs star. But more importantly, he registers the fifth-most points in the paint behind Giannis Antetokounmp, Zion Williamson, Jokić and Anthony Davis. He scores more points in the lane than post lords Alperen Sengun and Embiid by posting up at an unusually high frequency for a player of his stature, shooting 31-of-40. By comparison, Victor Wembanyama is 34-of-74 in similar plays.
Watching an MVP-caliber guard breaking down a defender with his back-to-the basket feels like a snippet clipped from a grainy 1990’s basketball VHS tutorial lessons hosted by Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. It’s a lost art among the league’s elite perimeter scorers that SGA has shaken the cobwebs off. It’s no accident that through 50 games, he has more 30-point games than anyone in a single season except for Jordan during the 1986-87 season.
In so many ways, Oklahoma City represents the evolution of the NBA’s positional fluidity, and SGA’s scoring profile is the inevitable result. If centers are going to colonize the top of the key for their own and initiate offense, SGA is the counterbalance getting down low and winning the mismatch. In a league of long-distance archers and levitating slashers, SGA operating like a big in the lane is elevating the jumbo guard movement back into basketball firmament.
Oklahoma City is well ahead of schedule and SGA’s presence on both sides is largely why. Among players who play more than 20 minutes per game, SGA has the league’s best points differential between when he’s on and off the floor per 100 possessions. On the other end, his 6-foot-11 wingspan has presented opposing guards with no-win scenarios. Night after night, he makes a case for All-Defense honors by leading the entire league in steals.
The best guard torch hasn’t been passed to scintillating Steph Curry acolytes Trae Young or Tyrese Haliburton, it’s been snatched by an iconoclast. In separate appearances, SGA’s clamped up Curry. Once in November he tracked Curry with the zeal of a bounty hunter from his sweet spot behind the arc, while the Warriors guard relocated with his dribble and deflected his shots without getting baited into fouling. A month later, he obliterated Curry at the rim in an Oklahoma City win. In the waning moments of Sunday night’s victory over the Toronto Raptors, SGA stalked Gary Trent and rejected his three-point attempt, then scored the coup de grâce in the second-overtime.
The Tim Duncan of jumbo guards delivers a boring efficiency that rivals Jokić’s. His .548 shooting percentage would be the highest of any guard averaging at least 20 points per night in the 3-point era. His true shooting percentage, buoyed by his free-throw dependency and generational scoring inside the arc, is the third-highest of any guard in the last 34 years, trailing only Curry in 2021 and his majestic 73-9 2016 season. The only players this season with a higher true shooting percentage than the 6-foot-6 SGA are the 6-foot-11 Jokić and Antetokounmpo.
However, what gives SGA an edge are his head-to-heads with Denver. When Embiid was in the running, those seemed to carry weight. Well, SGA is 3-1 this season against Denver, dropping a 40-burger on 70 percent shooting in their most recent showdown on Dec. 29. For what it’s worth, Jokićd elivered 19 points on 90 percent shooting in the 26-point loss. Jokić missed their matchup Wednesday due to pain in his lower back, and played the matchups that bookended it, but avoided the allegations of ducking an MVP rival that Embiid was riddled with a week ago.
One-by-one, the dominos have fallen auspiciously in Oklahoma City’s favor. SGA has two months to finish the job.
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