NBA

Jokic a worthy MVP favourite, but don't count out Embiid

By Sports Desk May 13, 2021

When has a player averaged at least 29 points and 10 rebounds per game in a season but failed to win the NBA MVP award?

Here's a hint: the internet was in its infancy, Hootie and the Blowfish were selling albums by the millions and the Orlando Magic, of all teams, were the league's biggest thing.

Not since Shaquille O'Neal in 1994-95 has a player reached those numbers without taking away the NBA's most cherished piece of individual hardware. Shaq actually did it twice without winning an MVP, losing out to Hakeem Olajuwon in 1993-94 and David Robinson the following year. O'Neal did average 29 and 10 while winning an MVP with the Lakers in 1999-2000, and the two players who have hit those marks since (Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 and Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2019-20) each came home with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

Joel Embiid appears destined to buck that recent trend.

If money talks, it's given an emphatic answer as to who will seize the honour in 2020-21. Nikola Jokic has emerged as an overwhelming favourite in betting markets across the globe to claim his first MVP, with Embiid holding the second-shortest odds and a rising Stephen Curry emerging as a clear third in the public's mind.

Jokic's credentials are unquestionably worthy. The Denver Nuggets big man is closing out an unprecedented season for a player who spends his time predominately in the post, having posted averages of 26.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.4 assists heading into Denver's final three regular-season outings.

Only two players in league history have averaged 25-10-8 in a season, and neither was a frontcourt player. The great Oscar Robertson did it three consecutive times across 1960-63, and Westbrook had two straight across 2016-18.

Jokic's immense value to a Nuggets team who have successfully withstood the season-ending injury to Jamal Murray to secure a top-four seed in the Western Conference is perhaps best illustrated by his share of the team's combined points, rebound and assists. No player this season has accumulated a higher percentage than his 24.5, with the Mavericks' Luka Doncic and the Knicks' Julius Randle tied in second at 22.8 per cent.

Embiid is well down on the list, ranking 16th overall due to the 20 games the somewhat fragile seven-footer has missed this season. His dominance and importance to the Eastern Conference front-running Philadelphia 76ers would show, however, if the chart were adjusted to exclude games in which a particular player was absent.

Using that criteria, Embiid has accounted for 23.2 percent of the 76ers' points, rebounds and assists in games that he's taken the floor. That number is right in line with that of the defending two-time MVP Antetokounmpo and would put him in the top five. For the record, Doncic would move ahead of Jokic for the top spot at 24.8 percent.

Embiid's scattered availability is no doubt detrimental to his case, more so when factoring in that Jokic hasn't sat out a game all season. Just once has a player missed 13 or more games in a season and been named MVP, when Bill Walton earned the award in 1977-78 despite playing in only 58 of the Trail Blazers' 82 games.

On the flip side, it's hard to find anyone who's been more instrumental to his team's success than Philly's All-Star center. The Sixers are 9-11 when Embiid has missed a game and 38-11 when he plays, a .776 winning percentage that would tower over the rest of the NBA this season.

Embiid's importance becomes even more apparent when viewing the 76ers' performance when he's been on the court as opposed to off.

Their points per 100 possessions drop to 105.1 from 117.2, while opponents' points climb slightly from 103.9 to 105.8. That means a point differential of +13.3 falls dramatically to -0.7. Their shooting from the field (50.5 per cent to 45.4 per cent) and from three-point range (40.4 per cent to 34.7 per cent) also decreases.

Though the Sixers have remained an elite defensive team without Embiid, all of those off-court offensive splits would rank near the bottom of the NBA. It's not hyperbole to summarise that without their franchise player, Philadelphia would be scrapping for a spot in the play-in round instead of being on the verge of claiming a conference regular-season title.

Embiid is far from the only star whose team perform at a significantly lower level when he's not around, though. The Warriors have won just one of the eight games Curry has missed, while defending champions the Lakers are a mediocre 12-15 when LeBron James has been injured or rested and have been 11.6 points per 100 possessions better when 'The King' has taken the court compared to off it.

Like Embiid, the slew of missed games is going to be hard for James to justify in the minds of voters, and he's not playing for a team set for the top playoff seed in his conference. And the Lakers' descent into the West's middle tier can't all be attributed to James' absences – they also were without Anthony Davis in two-thirds of the games LeBron hasn't played.

Curry also represents an interesting case, and if there were an MVP for only the season's final month-plus, he'd be a hands-down winner. The veteran sharpshooter has averaged an insane 36.7 points per game since April 10, a stretch in which the Warriors have gone 13-5 to elevate themselves from a postseason question mark to a lock for the play-in round.

The two-time MVP also has the on/off split factor working in his favour, as the Warriors are +4.0 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent when he's on the court and a lottery-level -4.9 differential when he's not. Another potential feather in Curry's cap would be if he can hold off Washington's Bradley Beal for the league's scoring title, as four of the past seven MVPs led the NBA in points per game.

Curry has rightfully received the most credit for Golden State's late-season surge, but a closer look shows it hasn't been a one-man show. Andrew Wiggins is finally at least bearing some resemblance to the player the Minnesota Timberwolves thought they were getting back in 2014, one teams build franchises around, and the Warriors have posted a league-low 105.1 defensive rating since their hot streak began.

For all his heroics on the offensive end, Curry hasn't been a primary contributor to the Warriors' recent stretch of lockdown defense. Since April 10, opponents score fewer points (98.6 per 100 possessions, down from 107.6) when Curry is off the court and are less accurate from the field (41.9 per cent, down from 44.9), beyond the arc (27.9 per cent, down from 35.4) and in their effective field goal percentage (47.6, down from 51.9).

Jokic also won't be adding any All-Defensive Team mentions to his expanding resume, and it is a bit harder to quantify exactly where the Nuggets would be without him simply because he hasn't missed a game.

One thing's for certain, however – no player this season has had a larger impact on his team's offensive performance than the Serbian star. Their points climb to 118.2 per 100 possessions when he is involved, meaning a +6.0 point differential versus -0.7 when he is absent – despite the team allowing more points with Jokic on the court. The field goal percentage improves to 50.4, while their assists per 100 (28.4, from 22.1) are up and their turnovers (12.7, from 15.7) are down.

The Nuggets are arguably the league's most efficient offensive team with Jokic on the floor. Combine that with a unicorn quality of being the best passing big man of the digital age and a consistency edge on his main rivals, and you've got a recipe for a likely MVP winner. Curry and Doncic's otherwise strong candidacies take a hit by their teams currently standing eighth and sixth, respectively, in the West. Antetokounmpo likely gets hurt by recency bias (no one wants to vote for the same player three straight years) and his own team's success (the Bucks have still played at a relatively high level when he's missed games or not been on the court).

In reality, though, the race shouldn't be as lopsided as the betting odds suggest, provided voters can overlook Embiid's spotty attendance record. History shows, however, that will be a factor that ultimately works in Jokic's favour.

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  • Justify his place in the team? England would be down and out without Raheem Sterling Justify his place in the team? England would be down and out without Raheem Sterling

    When Luke Shaw lifted a delightful ball over the top of the Czech Republic defence during the early stages of England's 1-0 Euro 2020 win on Friday, Raheem Sterling was away.

    Of course he was. The Manchester City's forwards intelligent, incisive movement has been a vital asset for club and country over the past five years – a period in which he has become one of his country's most decorated footballers in terms of major honours.

    But what would happen next?

    Could it be as bad as that time he blazed over two clear chances in the Manchester derby on a day City were 2-0 up and set to win the league against their bitter rivals and lost 3-2?

    Maybe it would end up as wince-inducing as the open goal he missed when his club crashed out of the Champions League against Lyon in 2020 at the quarter-final stage, or the two-yard miss that persuaded Pep Guardiola to immediately substitute him at Burnley two years earlier?

    Or the full campaign at Russia 2018 when he did not find the net during England's run to the semi-finals?

    Yes, Sterling misses chances. Quite a lot of quite good ones.

    According to Opta, he scored 11 but missed 19 of the 'big chances' that fell his way for the Premier League champions in all competitions last season. It was part of the reason Guardiola increasingly left him on the bench.

    But Sterling is the sort of player who always comes back for more. The sort who never hides – a quality that starts to look increasingly valuable amid the vicious maelstrom that is England at a major tournament.

    Joy delayed but not denied

    As it happened, the shot was not one to fit in with that catalogue of misses. Sterling dispatched a deft lob over Tomas Vaclik and was unfortunate to see the effort ricochet clear off the post, continuing a strange quirk for England games in this tournament. In the early knockings versus Croatia and Scotland, Phil Foden and John Stones each rattled uprights.

    As was the case in both of those games, even the dour draw with Scotland – where Sterling created the best chance of the night for Mason Mount and had a reasonable late penalty claim rejected – the forward was a nuisance.

    Gareth Southgate's decision to bow to the Jack Grealish clamour and give Bukayo Saka a surprise start gave England a little more vibrancy, also allowing Sterling to pester the opposition defence more centrally and ensure Harry Kane was a less isolated figure. The England captain went close but remains without a goal in this tournament. Only one player has manged to score for the Three Lions.

    You might struggle to remember Sterling was the matchwinner on the opening weekend against Croatia. Calls for Grealish and the perplexingly sidelined Jadon Sancho have left Sterling as a casualty in the XIs of many a pundit and fan.

    The 26-year-old's vile treatment by a section of the tabloid press has been well documented. But Sterling scepticism goes far beyond such reactionary outposts.

    After his second-half strike sunk Croatia and sent England on their way to top spot in the group, the BBC television interviewer asked whether Sterling had justified his place in the team, despite being the Three Lions' top scorer from open play since Russia 2018.

    The Athletic, very much the antithesis of the UK red tops, ran an article in the build-up to the Czech Republic game where eight of its writers picked their England XI. Two featured Sterling.

    The annoying one

    He is, at times, an annoying footballer. That is not just down to the catalogue of horror misses outlined above.

    A source told Stats Perform last year that an aspect of improvement identified for Sterling by Guardiola's coaching staff was his control of the ball, which seems a staggeringly basic thing for a star forward in a high-end football team. There was an example of this when he sold Kalvin Phillips short with a very routine pass after half-time, forcing the Leeds United midfielder into a foul for which he was fortunate not to be booked.

    But again, we return to that capacity to make things happen, which feels vital for an England team constructing 90-minute portions where not much happens.

    When things do happen, it is thrilling and you wish they happened more often.

    Saka tore at the Czech Republic in the 12th minute – left-back Jan Boril will not reflect too fondly upon having shared a pitch with the livewire Arsenal youngster.

    His eventual delivery found its way to Grealish, who clipped a delightful left-footed cross to the back post. Sterling couldn't miss. Well, as discussed above, he could. But he didn't, nodding home to stand tall in a time of need for Southgate once more.

    Saka and Grealish hogged the initial post-match conversation, not undeservedly. Stones and the returning Harry Maguire marshalled the backline superbly and Luke Shaw impressed going backwards and forwards.

    Three clean sheets out of three are not to be sniffed at. But England's tendency for lulls in-game and to trudge through some stodgy moments still feels regrettable given the attacking talent at Southgate's disposal.

    The Czech Republic were beaten 5-0 in the opening qualifier for Euro 2020 and England looked a team to be feared in a way they don't right now. Sterling, in red-hot form, scored a hat-trick.

    Whether his national team are soaring high or quietly plugging, time and again he has shown his worth.

    There are plenty of causes for concern around this England team. The man who has scored the winning goal in each of their victories and always makes life miserable for opposition defenders is absolutely not one of them.

    Stop dropping Sterling from the XIs you put on Twitter. It makes you look silly.

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    The pool leaders have a dominant recent record in meetings with Poland, winning nine of their past 11 games and each of the previous five.

    Poland have not beaten Sweden since 1991, although they were victors in the only previous major tournament clash at the 1974 World Cup.

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    "It is true that, from a statistical point of view, Sweden have a better record against Poland," Sousa said. "But if we look at the past, we won't move forward. We are only focused on what is now.

    "Sweden are a perfect team. They press very well, they are good in set-pieces. There is huge diversity in their play."

    Sousa added: "For us, it is like a final. We have been working hard since the first day of our training camp to be prepared."

    Following a draw with Spain and narrow victory over Slovakia, Sweden are aiming to go an entire group stage without conceding for the first time since 1974.

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    Captain Sebastian Larsson said: "It's nice to be through to the round of 16 already after just two games, but we want more. Of course we'll go for the group win."

    Despite Sweden's strong defensive record, this game should at least deliver goals. The sides' previous 26 meetings have not yielded a single 0-0 draw.
     

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    Sweden – Alexander Isak

    Sousa described Sweden forward Isak as "one of the best players in Europe when it comes to counter-attacks". The striker completed six dribbles against Slovakia, although Sweden have not had a single fast break yet at the tournament. That may change against Poland, who will have to push forward in pursuit of all three points.

    Poland – Robert Lewandowski

    Having so often failed to make an impact on the international stage, dominant Bayern Munich goalscorer Lewandowski turned up against Spain. A stunning header meant he has been involved in 14 goals in his past 12 starts for his country. Another Lewandowski goal would make him Poland's outright leading Euros scorer on four.
     

    KEY OPTA FACTS

    – Sweden and Poland's only previous encounter at a major tournament came in the second round of the 1974 World Cup; Poland won 1-0, courtesy of Grzegorz Lato's solitary goal. The victors finished third – their joint-best performance at a major tournament – and Lato won the Golden Boot (seven goals).
    – Poland have won just one of their past nine matches across all competitions (D4 L4), beating Andorra 3-0 in March. Indeed, Poland's ongoing five-match winless streak (D3 L2) is their longest since September to November 2018 (six games).
    – Of Sweden's goals at the Euros, 88 per cent have been scored in the second half of games (23 of 26), the highest percentage of any side with at least three goals at the tournament.
    – Poland have won their final group game in both of their last two major international tournaments (World Cup and Euros), beating Ukraine at Euro 2016 and Japan at the 2018 World Cup. Failing to win this match would be the first time Poland have not won any of their three group games at such a competition since Euro 2012.
    – Sweden's Emil Forsberg has scored each of his nation's past two goals at major tournaments, netting winners in 1-0 victories over Switzerland at the 2018 World Cup and against Slovakia at Euro 2020. Forsberg has only scored in consecutive international appearances once previously, netting against France in November 2016 and Belarus in March 2017.

  • Croatia 3-1 Scotland: Scots dumped out of Euro 2020 at group stages Croatia 3-1 Scotland: Scots dumped out of Euro 2020 at group stages

    Croatia secured their place in the knockout stages of Euro 2020 and dumped Scotland out as they claimed a 3-1 win in Glasgow.

    Having led through Nikola Vlasic's early strike, Zlatko Dalic's men were pegged back before half-time as Callum McGregor notched his country's first Euros goal since 1996.

    However, the Croatians' class eventually told, the evergreen Luka Modric netting a stunner before the influential Ivan Perisic headed home from a corner late on, equalling his country's record for the most goals at major tournaments (nine).

    And that ensured the visitors clinched second place in Group D while bringing an early end to the Scots' first major tournament appearance since 1998. 

    Encouraged by an electric atmosphere at Hampden Park, Scotland made the better start.

    But they failed to make the most of their best chance of a frenetic opening period, with Che Adams unable to get a touch on a John McGinn inswinger, allowing Dominik Livakovic to make the save.

    And Croatia were not as generous when their first major opportunity came, with Vlasic making the most of space in the box to finish ruthlessly from a Perisic knockdown.

    Scotland's chances were dealt a further blow just past the half-hour mark when Grant Hanley limped off, and his replacement Scott McKenna made an inauspicious start that saw a yellow card before a touch of the ball.

    However, the Scots levelled things up just before the break when McGregor deftly controlled a panicked clearance before thrashing a low shot into the corner.

    With a draw guaranteed to send both sides crashing out, it was no surprise to see them take more chances in looking to carve out attacks in the second period.

    Croatia almost made it count when only brave goalkeeping from David Marshall prevented Josko Gvardiol poking home, though the same man was fortunate McGinn could only fire wide after getting on his wrong side moments later.

    But it was a moment of sheer quality that eventually broke the deadlock, Modric curling home a beauty with the outside of his boot after slick play around the Scotland box.

    The hosts huffed and puffed in the aftermath of that strike but did not really look like scoring before Perisic wrapped things up, flicking a front-post header into the far corner to send his side through.

    What does it mean? More to come from Scotland

    Although Steve Clarke will have hoped for more, Scotland cannot be too disappointed with their efforts throughout Euro 2020.

    Qualifying represented a major achievement in itself, and this young squad will have plenty of opportunities to go one better at major tournaments in the future.

    What's next?

    England's win over the Czech Republic means Croatia progress as runners-up and will face the team that finishes in the same position in Group E in the last 16, either Sweden, Slovakia, Spain or Poland.

    As for Scotland, a first tournament outing in 23 years comes to an end at the group stages.

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