MVP contenders Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic have competed with each other for this honor three seasons in a row, and both enter the 2023 NBA playoffs with massive expectations. Embiid’s Philadelphia 76ers are the No. 3 seed in the East, and the big man is entering the playoffs with a clean bill of health for the first time in recent memory. Jokic’s Denver Nuggets are the No. 1 seed in the West. After reaching the pinnacle of the sport individually, how much pressure is on both players to succeed in a team setting in the 2023 playoffs?
Joel Embiid postseason record
Embiid has a 21-23 record in playoff games he’s played. He’s never reached the conference finals and has had some tough losses in the postseason, most notably to the Raptors and Hawks. This might be Philadelphia’s best chance to win a title and the 76ers enter the playoffs with a soft matchup against the Nets. If Embiid and Philly can make quick work of the Nets, they’ll start to bring more people around on them as a contender.
The big man tends to drop off a bit in the playoffs. He’s averaged 24 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, with 46/29/80 shooting splits. Those are below his usual numbers, and could be a reason why Philly can’t quite match up with the top teams in the playoffs. Embiid will have to raise his postseason game to meet the regular season level.
For Embiid to view this postseason as somewhat of a success, a trip to the conference finals seems mandatory. You can’t be a three-time MVP contender (and likely 2022-23 winner) and not make one of the last three series of the season. The Bucks and Celtics are formidable, and Boston has had Philadelphia’s number before. A trip to the conference finals likely means beating the Celtics in the second round, which would be a nice sign of progress for Embiid even if he can’t get to the Finals.
Another consideration for Embiid is James Harden’s pending free agency. There is a lot of traction on Harden wanting to go back to the Rockets this offseason, but Houston is in a rebuild and might not have much to offer from a contention standpoint for a few seasons. If Embiid makes a deep run here, Harden might stick it out for a few more season in Philly.
Nikola Jokic postseason record
The Joker has a 21-27 mark in the playoffs, averaging 26.4 points, 6.4 assists and 11.5 rebounds per game. His 51/39/84 shooting splits are excellent, but the results simply haven’t been there for the reigning two-time MVP. Jokic is 1-8 in the last nine playoff games, losing to the eventual West champions Phoenix Suns in a 4-0 sweep in 2021 and the eventual NBA champions Golden State Warriors 4-1 in last year’s first round.
The Nuggets have been on fire this season and basically every efficiency metric has them among the top teams in the NBA. However, it’s all about postseason results now. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., who battled injuries in recent playoffs, are healthy now. Aaron Gordon, Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope form a competent supporting cast around the three stars. This is the best chance for the Nuggets to make a run.
Similar to Embiid, a trip to the conference finals would likely mean progress for Jokic and Nuggets fans. Such a run would mean the Nuggets took down either the Suns or Clippers in the second round, and both were seen as contenders heading into the playoffs. Beating a title contender in the playoffs, something Jokic hasn’t really done yet, would be enough to feel good about his trajectory as a franchise player.