Jokic and Gilgeous-Alexander ascend to NBA MVP favorites with Embiid sidelined by knee injury

DENVER (AP) — The NBA MVP race just became a little more wide open now that Joel Embiid’s chances at a repeat have ended.

The Philadelphia 76ers big man was the odds-on favorite at the midway mark of the season, before the announcement that he would need surgery to repair the lateral meniscus in his left knee.

Embiid had surgery Tuesday. The Sixers did not release any kind of timetable on his return. There’s still a chance he could return for the postseason — there’s just no chance he can extend his MVP reign given the league’s new rules on minimum games necessary to be eligible for awards.

Nikola Jokic, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Giannis Antetokounmpo slide into the MVP driver’s seat.

Jokic, in particular, has the inside track to earn a third MVP title in four seasons for the defending champion Denver Nuggets. Close behind is Gilgeous-Alexander, the rising standout for Oklahoma City, and never count out the “Greek Freak.”

Really, though, this could be the year of the dark horse as someone not named Embiid, Jokic or Antetokounmpo attempts to claim the NBA MVP trophy for the first time since 2017-18.

The odds favor Jokic, improving to minus-150 according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Gilgeous-Alexander is at plus-230 and Antetokounmpo, a two-time MVP winner, checks in at plus-650.

There are a few long shots to keep an eye on, including Jalen Brunson. His MVP stock continues to rise as the New York Knicks remain near the top of the Eastern Conference despite missing Julius Randle. Don’t forget about Kawhi Leonard, either, a catalyst for the resurgent Los Angeles Clippers. Or Dallas standout guard Luka Doncic, who erupted for 73 points on Jan. 26 — the top mark this season (Embiid had 70 four days prior). Or Boston do-everything forward Jayson Tatum. Or even Anthony Edwards, who’s at plus-50,000 to win an MVP as he’s guided the Minnesota Timberwolves to a tie for the top spot of the Western Conference with the Thunder.

The misfortune of Embiid has opened the door not only for the MVP race, but criticism about the game-minimum standards that went into effect this season to discourage what’s become known as “load management” (resting healthy players). The new collective bargaining agreement requires players, in most instances, to play in 65 regular-season games to be eligible for awards such as MVP or the All-NBA teams.

It’s a slippery slope.

Embiid hurt his left knee last week in a loss to the Golden State Warriors. But he had already been bothered by knee injuries this season that cost him considerable playing time. He sat out the game in Denver and another in Portland before suffering an injury that requires surgery.

“Health is something that we just cannot take for granted,” said Monica McNutt, an NBA, WNBA and college basketball analyst for ESPN. “I was even at the point of like, ‘OK, well, if (Embiid) misses MVP, he’s already been able to accomplish that.’ You just want him healthy in the postseason. … I mean, our league is at its best when the stars are available and doing what they do best brightly on the biggest stages.”

Jokic has been doing that for quite some time, and is soaring again this season in averaging 26.3 points per game, 12.2 rebounds and nine assists. Those are stats right in line with what he posted in his MVP seasons of 2020-21 and ’21-22.

“He’s the best passer I have ever seen in any position,” said Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups, who won a title with the Detroit Pistons in 2004. “He’s really unique. There’s just nothing like it. He brings the ball up the floor and he just does it all. He puts you in a lot of tough spots defensively.”

No argument from Jokic’s coach, Michael Malone, who’s seen his versatile center record 15 triple-doubles this season. Jokic also was the NBA Finals MVP last season as the Nuggets won their first title.

“Just his ability to be great for himself, but more importantly, his ability to make everyone around him better,” Malone said. “That truly is the definition of greatness.

“We have been spoiled, I’m sure. Some of us do find ourselves maybe taking it for granted. But just remind yourself that there are not many guys like Nikola Jokic that walk through those doors and appreciate every opportunity that you have to watch him play.”

There’s some great basketball being played in Oklahoma City by Gilgeous-Alexander, too. The sixth-year player just keeps improving and leads the league in overall points, steals and free throws this season.

Antetokounmpo stays in the MVP conversation season after season after season. He’s been flourishing in a new system and averaging 34.3 points in four games since Doc Rivers took over as coach.

One thing’s clear: It’s shaping up to be an entertaining finish in this tight MVP race.

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