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Who’s the best center in the NBA?

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Embiid guards Jokic
Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic are bound to be compared for years to come. Photo from Bleacher Report.

Even before they became the top names for an MVP selection, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic have always, for better or worse, been compared to one another. After all, they’re the closest we have to traditional centers in a league that values shooting and athleticism above all else. They’re also both the nuclei of their respective basketball clubs, carrying the weight of potential title aspirations moving forward. 

With two hulking big men at the forefront of the MVP conversation, suddenly the NBA feels like it’s in the 90s again. It’s surprising to see two traditional centers dominating in today’s era after all, where seven-footers are expected to shoot and handle the ball. 

For all their similarities as the association’s best bigs, how do they actually compare to one another? Here’s a quick look at how the two stack up overall and in the MVP discussion. 

Embiid vs Jokic: Scoring 

Not many big men command the respect of opposing defenses the way that Joel Embiid does, as evidenced by his third-ranked points per game.

He flaunts both a polished post package and a respectable face-up game, both of which have everything to do with the Sixers being the first seed in the East. He’s a bruiser in every sense of the word, able to use his strength and frame to overpower defenders under the basket for the easy deuce. 

This doesn’t mean his jump shot hasn’t been clicking lately. He’s actually averaging 29.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game on excellent 54.3/40.0/85.1 efficiency. The many options at his disposal mean he rarely ever has to force tough shots these days.

Though outscored by his Sixers counterpart, Jokic remains the more efficient scorer despite playing almost four more minutes per game than Embiid. Being unathletic means he’s had to be more crafty and patient in looking for his shot, and he’s come to be one of a kind in this category among big men. At times, it feels like he can score wherever he wants, whenever he wants. He has excellent footwork in the post and has a variety of fadeaways to go to when his team needs him to take and make a difficult shot.

As a result, he’s putting up averages of 26.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 8.6 assists per game on 56/40/85 shooting splits. That’s good for 60.6 effective field goal percentage and 64.8% true shooting. 

Their respective careers so far tell the same story stat-wise. Jokic has averaged 17.5, 9.7, and 5.7 on 52/34/82. For his part, Embiid has put up 24.4, 11.4, and 3.1 on 48/32/79. 

It’s tough to choose the better offensive player. Embiid is the more dominant scorer in one-on-one situations; he’s practically become unguardable at this point. Jokic is the more complete and efficient one, though the gap between the two is closing more and more with every passing game. This one’s a toss-up. 

Embiid vs Jokic: Defense 

This one seems like a no-brainer, but the matchup is actually much closer than that.

As expected, the stronger and more mobile Embiid has had better defensive outings so far this season. In the nearly half of his minutes matched up against other centers, he’s holding the opposition to 39.5% shooting. He’s also spent 37.2% of his total minutes against forwards, and he’s held them to an average but respectable 44.9% on field goals.

Going on field goals allowed, defense does seem like an uphill battle for Jokic. Per NBA Stats, he currently concedes 49.5% of shot attempts taken when he is the sole defender. Against forwards, he’s given up 50.3%.

However, the advanced stats over their respective careers has surprisingly favored Jokic. The Joker leads The Process in both defensive win shares and defensive box plus-minus. Somehow, Jokic’s 2.3 DBPM is good for fourth in the league, behind the likes of Andre Iguodala, Ben Simmons, and Marc Gasol. Embiid is 13th with 1.7.

On the other hand, Embiid’s defensive efforts clearly contribute more to winning. He has the ninth-best defensive win shares in the league. He’s tied with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Giannis Antetokounmpo and DPOY candidate Simmons.

To be sure, DWS as a stat tied heavily to Team Defensive Rating, where Embiid’s Sixers are fifth in the league versus Denver’s 19th-ranked defense. The Nuggets have not had the benefit of playing with a defender as versatile as Simmons.

With all this, Embiid is still clearly the more effective defender. Jokic’s athleticism will always limit his impact on that end, especially as a one-on-one defender. However, his basketball IQ still seems to translate when it comes to team defense. Embiid takes this one, but not as handily as you’d think.

Embiid vs Jokic: Leadership 

Leadership is tougher to quantify. If we’re going with orchestrating the team’s overall attack, Jokic should take the cake here with ease. There’s a reason he’s often called a point guard in a center’s body; so far, he’s averaging 8.6 assists per game versus Embiid’s 2.9. He’s the only big man in the NBA’s top ten assist leaders at #4, ahead of players like Chris Paul, Draymond Green, LeBron James, and Embiid’s teammate Ben Simmons. 

But even then, Jokic’s efforts have not been enough to eke out wins for his basketball club. As of this post, the Denver Nuggets stand at the 7th seed in the Western Conference with a 13-11 record between the likes of San Antonio and Golden State. This, a year after they finished with the third-best record in their conference. 

Embiid no doubt sets the tone for his team every time he steps on the floor. They’re the best team in the East for a reason, and you don’t get to an 18-9 record without a full-fledged superstar leading the way.

But The Joker for his part sets the pace, which matters much more in a basketball sense. For this writer, Jokic takes the cake as the leader of his basketball club. 

Final verdict

When it comes down to it, choosing between the two is a tough task. On paper, it may boil down to what one would value more between dominance and efficiency. Do you want a quick two points or a stop to ice the game in its dying minutes? Go with Embiid.

Do you want a strong cornerstone to carry your team through the rigors of an 82-game season? Perhaps Jokic is the right answer.

For this writer, the two are very evenly matched. For MVP, Embiid looks to have the upper hand in a race that also values narratives. But overall, Jokic may end his career as the better basketball player between the two.



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