When did the NBA MVP become this toxic?

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Joel Embiid recently became the odds-on favorite to win this season’s NBA MVP, surpassing two-time winner Nikola Jokic. But that shift didn’t come without a debate — and a level of vitriol involved.

This year’s race features three legitimate candidates in Philadelphia’s Embiid, Denver’s Jokic and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. Each player has put up huge numbers and built a strong case for winning. As in most years, the debate over who is the league’s best has been spirited. But the discussion this year has gone well beyond rebounds, points and assists.

Two of the contenders are Black and one, Jokic, is White. And that fact, some NBA commentators say, casts a pall over an MVP award that is voted on by mostly White members of the press.

Look no further than the heated argument that took place on ESPN’s “First Take” weeks ago when former NBA center Kendrick Perkins — an Embiid supporter — and former shooting guard J.J. Redick got into a shouting match over Perkins’ implication that race was a factor for those voters favoring Jokic. Redick said Perkins and ESPN were creating “narratives that do not exist in reality,” leading to a fierce response from his colleague who denied he suggested voters were racist and was just “stating the facts.” 

A day later, ESPN later issued a correction and public apology for Perkins’ claim that the MVP voting body — the members of the media who cover the league — is 80% White. A Reddit audit found the number was actually 65% White among last year’s body of 100 voters. 

It wasn’t always this toxic, right? 

“I don’t know what’s going on lately, it just seems like to validate one, you have to push down the other guy,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers told reporters Monday, pleading for people to stop. “No, you don’t. They’re all great.”

One of the reasons that this year’s award — both on sports talk shows like “First Take” and social media forums such as Twitter and Reddit — may be this scrutinized is because it appears to be one of the closer races in recent memory. 

The last time the award was a legitimate three-man race was in 2017 when Russell Westbrook edged out James Harden and Kawhi Leonard by earning 69 first-place votes to Harden’s 22 and Leonard’s nine. While that may still seem like a large gap, the MVP is usually decisive. Harden, 2018’s winner, earned 71 more votes than the next guy. Antetokounmpo won back-to-back MVPs in ‘19 and ‘20 with a 55- and 69-vote margin, respectively. Jokic earned his awards with 86 and 39 more votes than the next players, respectively. (Though last year’s 39-vote margin was closer than 2017’s race for first-place votes, Westbrook’s MVP was tighter in the final point totals as the margin was just 135 points compared to 169 last year.)

The possible historic nature of this year’s race could also be a factor in why the discourse has become heated. If Jokic wins, he would become only the fourth player to win three straight MVPs — something last done by Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird (1983-86). This fact hasn’t seemed to sit well with some observers, who often note Jokic’s lack of playoff success. 

Perkins has called Jokic — who leads the NBA in triple-doubles — a “stat padder,” while Drew Hanlen, a shooting coach who works with Embiid, has picked apart Jokic’s stats and shared clips of the center getting torched on defense. 

Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr., however, has a simpler explanation of why the debate these days appear to be more intense: There are more voices weighing in.

“It makes for good TV, I guess,” said Unseld, a former Nuggets assistant. “I have my opinions, but those opinions really don’t matter. But it is interesting to see how guys gravitate toward those awards … and other guys just play.” 

Of the three, Embiid appears to be the most vocal about wanting to win the MVP — perhaps because he hasn’t won the award like Jokic and Antetokounmpo. Jokic has mostly shrugged off the criticism, though took a jab at Perkins earlier this month when he told reporters “When you’re stat-padding, it’s easy, you know?” after a win. 

For a large chunk of this season, Jokic had been the frontrunner to win his third straight — earning 77 of 100 first-place votes in a February straw poll conducted by ESPN. But that has shifted lately. 

How much of that has to do with the narrative? It’s hard to say — but a player’s play also matters. Jokic’s Nuggets entered Wednesday’s game against the Wizards having lost five of the last seven, while Embiid has continued to surge as he leads the NBA in scoring with 35 points per game. Antetokoumpo also remains in the running as his dominant play has helped Milwaukee to the NBA’s top record. 

But the race isn’t over. Votes for MVP aren’t due until April 9, with the award typically announced in mid-May.

The official conversation among voters continues until then — But like most good sports debates, it won’t end there. 

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