The Whiteboard: Who would win NBA MVP on head-to-head matchups?

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As the end of the NBA season approaches playoff and award races are narrowing. In the case of MVP, that latest straw poll at ESPN indicates that we’re likely down to a three-man race between Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

With three incredibly talented players, each in the midst of incredible seasons, the criteria for separation can become increasingly obscure. Head-to-head matchups, in general, don’t usually seem to hold much weight in historic votes but they could make a difference this season.

Last night, Giannis put up 40 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists in a two-point win over Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers. It was the kind of spotlight performance that can reshape narratives and it was the last time we’ll see any of these three MVP candidates matched up against each other in the regular season. This game may count more because of recency bias but it’s not the only big performance we’ve seen in a head-to-head matchup.

Embiid put up 42 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists against the Bucks back in the middle of February. Jokic hasn’t put up the same kinds of scoring totals but he managed an 18-point, 15-assist, 10-rebound triple-double on just nine shots against the Bucks at the end of January.

How have Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid fared against each other this season?

At a basic level, Jokic seems to have won the head-to-head crown this year. All three players have put up huge numbers and Jokic has the lowest scoring totals, but he’s won both matchups and his averages work out to a triple-double on a true shooting percentage of nearly 70 with the most disruptive defensive plays.

The NBA’s player tracking statistics also give us an opportunity to look at statistics for each player just on possessions where they were the primary defender for each other. These stats are very noisy and there are some issues with assigning singular credit for players where multiple defenders or offensive players may have a role to play in creating or shutting down a scoring opportunity. But still, they offer some additional data points, even if they’re a bit muddy.

Again, it appears that Jokic may have a slight edge. He scored the least but his team’s offense was the most effective when he was guarded by one of the other MVP candidates. He also provided the most shooting efficiency, the most assists and drew the most fouls, implying that he was directly involved in his team’s offensive success, not just drawing attention with his gravity.

Defensively, Jokic and Embiid were the most impressive. They spent the most time defending the others and their teams were much more effective as a group than when Giannis was defending one of the other two.

This may all be splitting hairs and many fans, media members and MVP voters may have already decided who they think the MVP is. But for anyone who hasn’t decided yet, Giannis’ big game last might be a meaningful final data point. (And if you’re trying to make your case on Jokic to a stubborn friend, maybe show them these numbers.)

Other NBA stories:

If you remember all three of these guys in a Miami Heat jersey you have a much better memory than I do.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have been one of the NBA’s biggest surprises this season and have now introduced a new reward for grit: The Junkyard Dog Chain.

Any worthwhile conversation of Nikola Jokic that starts with his passing had better tie in his insane scoring as well.

The resurgence of the Celtics’ defense had a lot to do with Robert Williams in the middle. Can they really make a run if he’s out for the first few rounds of the playoffs?

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