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Centers Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid Carrying Battered Nuggets, 76ers

Denver and Philadelphia are missing multiple All-Star players this season but the strong play of their dominant big men has them in position for a playoff run. Chad Smith looks at the production of Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid as they continue to carry their teams.

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It is officially 2022 but it feels more like 1995 when discussing the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers.

Today’s NBA is all about guard play. Everyone wants to shoot the ball like Stephen Curry. They dream of having handles like Kyrie Irving. They wish for the IQ of Chris Paul and the athleticism of Ja Morant. Imagine having the vision of Luka Doncic and LaMelo Ball or the range of Damian Lillard and Trae Young.

Even before then it was all about having long, dominant wings like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. As the game has evolved, so too have some of the great big men in the league. Some have adapted and honed their craft better than others, but there are two players that stand out above the rest.

Nikola Jokic made a statement last season by winning the regular-season MVP award. Denver’s talented center was doing everything and making it happen on a nightly basis. There was no load management or reward for playing well. They needed him to do so much, and he delivered time and time again.

Joel Embiid has been the league’s most dominant big man since Shaquille O’Neal. No one has been able to guard the 76ers star in the paint, and that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. Embiid’s only issue has been availability, as he has been dealing with injuries throughout his career.

Both Denver and Philly had championship aspirations coming into this season but things have gone south in a number of areas.

The biggest issue in Philly has been the Ben Simmons saga, which feels like it has been going on for years. The team has felt his absence, especially on the defensive end of the floor, and in transition. Without Simmons, this is simply a .500 team at best. They were 8-8 without him last season and 7-7 the year before that. For a team paying into the luxury tax, one would assume that the organization would want to remedy this situation as soon as possible. That has clearly not been the case.

Things in Denver are much different, as their absences are more in line with injuries. Before Jamal Murray went down towards the end of last season, the Nuggets were considered one of the favorites to win the title. Their playoff run was quite depressing and the number one concern heading into this year was the status of Murray for this season.

While nothing official has been announced, rumors around the league suggest that Murray might be able to return to action before the postseason begins, but no one can be sure how he will look or feel once he does get back on the floor. The other issue is Michael Porter Jr, who is out for the season after undergoing another back surgery. If that weren’t enough, Denver also lost PJ Dozier for the season as well.

The “next man up” mentality doesn’t always work, especially in Denver’s case where their depth is truly tested. Still, there have been some bright spots this season in terms of guys on the roster that have stepped up.

Tyrese Maxey and Georges Niang are two individuals that have certainly answered the bell in Philly. Seth Curry and Tobias Harris have also been playing better as of late. Out west, it has been the play of Will Barton and Monte Morris who have tried to take on more responsibility. Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green continue to do the dirty work for Denver.

Even as everyone tries to contribute a little bit more, the onus falls upon the stars of these teams. Both have been playing at an MVP level this season, and that is what it has taken for these two to stay in contention. The 76ers are currently 6th in the loaded East and the Nuggets are sitting 5th in the West. There is still a long way to go before we get to the postseason but what more can these guys do?

Embiid is slightly under his career-high scoring average from last season, but his assist and steal averages are both currently the highest of his career. He is also shooting a career-high 40 percent from three-point range, which has helped with Philadelphia’s spacing. Despite Simmons not playing this season, Embiid actually has a lower usage rate (32.0) than last year. The best part for the 76ers is that Embiid’s assist ratio and turnover ratio are both career-bests.

As great as Embiid has been this season, Jokic has been better. After averaging a career-high 10.8 rebounds per game last season, the reigning MVP is blowing that out of the water, averaging 14 this year. Only Rudy Gobert is pulling down more rebounds than Jokic, but Denver’s star has the best PER (32.31) in the entire league. Furthermore, Jokic is dishing out 7 assists per game, which is 11th best in the NBA this season.

These two were both drafted on the same night but were selected at opposite ends of the 2014 draft. Embiid was the 3rd overall pick while Jokic was taken 41st overall in the second round. These two big men do many of the same things, but they have very different playing styles.

Embiid is arguably the most unguardable player inside the paint. His main objective is to dominate that area of the floor, both offensively and defensively. Jokic may not have the same defensive skill set but he is very underrated on that end of the floor. His vision and ability to make the right pass out of a double team are unrivaled. These guys are legitimate three-point threats, making them that much more difficult to defend.

There remains a glimmer of hope for both of these franchises as the season moves along. Assuming they can keep their superstar big men healthy, the 76ers and Nuggets just need something positive to happen with their missing All-Stars. Getting their head coaches back will be a nice step in that direction, as both Doc Rivers and Michael Malone have been out due to health and safety protocols.

For Philly, finding a resolution with Simmons before the February 10 trade deadline should be the top priority for Daryl Morey. If Murray is able to return before the end of the year, it would be a tremendous boost for Denver’s outlook. Adding an All-Star to their rosters is the best-case scenario, but it will require some good fortune.

Neither team wants this to be a wasted season, especially with Jokic and Embiid both in the prime of their careers. The individual accolades are there, but the team success has not yet come. With a fully healthy roster, both of these teams are championship contenders, but this season is far from normal.

Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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