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Towering trio at centre of NBA's MVP debate but true value is performing in the playoffs

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28th March, 2023

As the NBA regular season winds down, the annual debate over who should win the various awards has well and truly ramped up.

While there is general consensus for a few of the awards, the most hotly debated one in recent weeks has been the MVP.

While there have been several candidates throughout the season, it has since been narrowed down to a three-horse race between Philadelphia 76ers centre Joel Embiid, Denver Nuggets centre Nikola Jokić and Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

While Giannis has been nothing short of special, currently he is running third in the race, as the other two candidates have been jockeying for the top spot all season long.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 28: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets battles with Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center on January 28, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Nikola Jokic battles with Joel Embiid. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Jokić, going for his third consecutive MVP and aiming to become just the fourth player ever to win three in a row, (Bill Russell (1961-63), Wilt Chamberlain (1966-68) and Larry Bird (1984-86)) has a seriously strong case, averaging 24.8 points per game (PPG), 11.9 rebounds per game (RPG) and 9.9 assists per game (APG), while shooting at an incredibly efficient 63.6% from the field.

Jokić also leads the league in a wide variety of advanced stats, which has been his biggest edge when it comes to the debate between him and Embiid.

While Jokić was the frontrunner for most of the season, the Nuggets’ recent run of poor form (6-5 from their last 11), has seen Embiid hit the front for the final stretch.


Embiid is also putting up historical numbers, seeing him average 33.2PPG, 10.2 RPG and 4.1 APG while shooting 54.7% from the field. The biggest knock on him is how often he gets to the free throw line, however, while he is known to be a touch dramatic in order to draw a foul, a lot of the time teams are electing to foul him in the low post, as it’s a better bet than letting him take the shot.

While an MVP race this close should be exciting, at times it has turned hostile (to the point where the fun has been taken out of it.

Embiid should be the MVP in my opinion but this next bit is also about to take some of the fun out of it.

At the end of the day, when a player retires, the amount of MVPs a player has won is definitely one of the first things read out on their resumes, but the one thing that surpasses that is championships.

The so called “ring culture” is well and truly a thing in the NBA world. How many times do we hear Charles Barkley getting some flak on the TNT broadcast because he never won a ring?

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - FEBRUARY 02: LeBron James #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers against the Indiana Pacers at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on February 02, 2023 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

One of the biggest cases as to why Michael Jordan is the ‘GOAT’ over LeBron James is simply because their ring count is 6-4.


So while the MVP is still the biggest individual award a player can win, it clearly doesn’t hold as much weight as a championship or even a finals MVP.

The two frontrunners have a few things in common, both international players, both currently haven’t won a championship, both have made the All-NBA team four times.

The one big thing they have in common is that they both play the centre position. Now why does that matter?

In many ways it doesn’t.

In 2015 Steph Curry won his first of two MVPs and changed the game of basketball forever. Simple maths would tell you that threes were better than two-point shots, but when Curry took over the league, the emphasis of the three sky-rocketed and soon the traditional ‘big man’ didn’t have much of a place in the league.

Well that’s what people say, however there is one aspect of the league that may show that in reality, the centre position hasn’t exactly been very critical to success.

That one aspect is simply who wins the championship, more specifically who the best player on that team was.


Let me run through the list of NBA champions since from 2000-2022 as well was their best player (not the Finals MVP but who would be perceived as the best player).

2022 Golden State Warriors – Steph Curry
2021 Milwaukee Bucks – Giannis Antetokounmpo
2020 LA Lakers – LeBron James
2019 Toronto Raptors – Kawhi Leonard
2018 Golden State Warriors – Kevin Durant
2017 Golden State Warriors – Kevin Durant
2016 Cleveland Cavaliers – LeBron James
2015 Golden State Warriors – Steph Curry
2014 San Antonio Spurs – Kawhi Leonard
2013 Miami Heat – LeBron James
2012 Miami Heat – LeBron James
2011 Dallas Mavericks – Dirk Nowitzki
2010 LA Lakers – Kobe Bryant
2009 LA Lakers – Kobe Bryant
2008 Boston Celtics – Kevin Garnett
2007 San Antonio Spurs – Tim Duncan
2006 Miami Heat – Dwyane Wade
2005 San Antonio Spurs – Tim Duncan
2004 Detroit Pistons – Chauncey Billups
2003 San Antonio Spurs – Tim Duncan
2002 LA Lakers – Shaquille O’Neal
2001 LA Lakers – Shaquille O’Neal
2000 LA Lakers – Shaquille O’Neal

While you can argue some of these, in the last 22 NBA finals, the eventual champions best player has been a centre four times, most recently Tim Duncan in 2007. (While Duncan is on the list two other times, according to StatMuse he only played centre in 2007.

While by no means does this mean that centres are obsolete, recent history shows the teams who win championships, don’t necessarily have the best big men in the league.

Going through the last 10 champions their starting centres have been Kevon Looney, Brook Lopez, Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia, Tristan Thompson, Andrew Bogut, Tiago Splitter/Boris Diaw (Spurs changed starting line-ups during the finals) and Chris Bosh.


While there are some notable names, former all-stars and lottery draft picks, the reality is none of these players were leading men of their teams and the majority of them were role players.

There were even some teams that completely ignored the centre position, electing to go smaller in “crunch time” and have their centres benched in order to have their best five players out on the court. Most notably the Golden State Warriors and their “Hampton five” line-up of Curry, Klay Thompson, Durant, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.

History won’t necessarily repeat itself, but there is a large sample size that shows that it almost doesn’t matter who your teams centre is, as long as they play their role and can’t be picked apart on defence.

Steph Curry celebrates a three-point basket..

Steph Curry celebrates a three-pointer. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Looking at Embiid’s playoff history, he has won 4/9 series, and notably hasn’t made it out of the second round. While it’s not like he has been a complete no-show in the playoffs and you can point the finger at some of his teammates (Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris) for not playing up to their contracts in the playoffs, the reality is Embiid hasn’t lived up to his MVP level when needed to.

Jokić doesn’t have much to brag about either when it comes to the playoffs. As it stands he has won 5/8 of his playoff series, however you can put some of the blame onto his supporting cast as well. Unlike Embiid though, he has made it to the conference finals, and can boast a few more noteworthy playoff games.

They haven’t been at their best when the lights shine brightest. This is not to take credit away from their outstanding regular season play, and it certainly shouldn’t be a factor when considering who should be the MVP.


But just remember, when all is said and done, it’s championships that seem to matter most, and it’s been 15 years since a centre was the lead man on a championship team, and unless one of these two centres can break the trend, in 20 years we won’t be remembering them for their MVPs, but instead their playoff failures.