Who would win NBA MVP in head-to-head games?

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The end of the NBA season is approaching the playoffs and the prize races are getting closer. In the case of MVP, this latest straw poll on ESPN shows there’s likely to be a three-man race between Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

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

Last night Giannis had 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 see any of these three MVP candidates go head-to-head in the regular season. This game might count more because of its timeliness, but it’s not the only great feat we’ve seen in a head-to-head match.

Embiid posted 42 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists against the Bucks in mid-February. Jokic hasn’t had the same scoring stats, but he did manage a triple-double with 18 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds in just nine shots against the Bucks in late January.

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


On a fundamental 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 totals, but he has won both matchups and his averages work out to a triple-double at a true shot percentage close to 70 with the most disruptive defensive plays.

The NBA’s player tracking stats also give us the ability to look at stats for each player only for possessions where they were the primary defender for each other. These stats are very loud and there are some issues in allocating individual points for players where multiple defenders or offensive players can play a role in creating or denying a scoring opportunity. Still, they offer some additional data points, albeit a bit muddy.


Again, Jokic seems to have a slight advantage. He scored the fewest points, but his team’s offense was most effective when guarded by one of the other MVP candidates. He also provided the best shot efficiency, assists and fouls, meaning he was directly involved in his team’s offensive success and not just using his gravity to draw attention.

Defensively, Jokic and Embiid were the most impressive. They spent most of their time defending the others and their teams were far 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, and MVP voters may have already decided who they think the MVP is. But for anyone still undecided, Giannis’ Big Game Last could be a telling final data point. (And if you’re trying to represent Jokic to a die-hard friend, maybe show him those numbers.)

Other NBA Stories:

If you remember all three guys in a Miami Heat jersey, you’ll have a much better memory than me.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have been one of the NBA’s biggest upsets this season, and now they’ve introduced a new reward for bravery: The Junkyard Dog Chain.

Any worthwhile conversation Nikola Jokic starts with his death should also better be tied into his insane rating.

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

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John Verrall

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