Joel Embiid and the Quest for the Elusive MVP Award
Joel Embiid stepped onto the national stage Wednesday night in an ESPN-televised game against the Cleveland Cavaliers and continued to make a convincing case to the media voters who decide the Most Valuable Player award. Without Jarrett Allen in the lineup, the Cavs had no answer for Embiid, who carried the sleepy Sixers for long stretches in the first half and accounted for 24 of the team’s 55 first half points. He also owned the glass, altered Cleveland drives and shots, and provided his usual elite brand of rim protection.
His final line for the night — 36 points, 18 rebounds, 3 assists, and 4 blocks in 38 minutes of work — was punctuated by a series of highlights that underscore the important role he plays in Philadelphia’s operation.
There was the fadeaway jumper to beat a Cavs double team and an expiring shot clock, followed by a block on the other end of the court that sent the 76ers back in transition:
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) March 16, 2023
And then there was the reverse, baseline spin to beat another double team and a third help defender:
JOEL EMBIID IS UNGUARDABLE! pic.twitter.com/Tj2MXKsdYN
— Crossing Broad (@CrossingBroad) March 16, 2023
And, for the final act, a step-back three pointer deep in the fourth quarter to expand the Sixers’ lead:
The most dominant player in the NBA pic.twitter.com/TgkAlXhrZU
— Crossing Broad (@CrossingBroad) March 16, 2023
Embiid did not play a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination. He turned the ball over 6 times and was uncharacteristically undisciplined with his fouls, nearly earning an early dismissal before a fortunate replay reversal of a charge that would have been his sixth infraction. He wasn’t alone.
While the Sixers struggle at times with periods of sloppy play, shoddy defense, and clunky offense, they have shown a resolve and a mental toughness that have been lacking in previous seasons. This perseverance in the face of adversity is the secret ingredient to playoff success and just might be an indicator that the post-Process 76ers are finally ready to crack the 2nd round postseason ceiling that has stymied their previous runs.
If they are to break through, Joel Embiid will be the man swinging the hammer. As Embiid goes, so go the 76ers. Every night he’s on the floor, he’s a matchup nightmare for the opposition. His footwork, agility, and scoring touch have allowed him to thrive in a space-and-pace revolution that rendered so many big men obsolete (see Okafor, Jahlil). With the game becoming increasingly positionless and so many teams predicating their offense on finding and exploiting mismatches, Embiid is more than able to hold his own when a switch forces him to defend a speedy guard. On the other end of the floor, he has in his arsenal an array of post moves, a lethal midrange jumper, and the ability to step behind the arc and hit a three.
Embiid is shooting a career-best 54.1% from the field after making a determined effort to set up and shoot from the elbow and along the free-throw line. He’s scoring nearly at will, and doing so efficiently.
Although Embiid may not be the most prolific rebounder, last night’s effort notwithstanding, he makes up for the deficiency by throwing a wrench into the opponent’s offense. The number of shots he challenges, clean looks he erases, teammate mistakes he covers, and passes he forces will never be captured by a traditional counting statistic, but his defensive impact is undeniable.
Will any of it be enough for the Sixers’ MVP to take the league’s greatest individual prize? For the past two years, Embiid has finished behind Denver’s Nikola Jokić in the MVP race and, until recently, history looked like it would repeat itself once again. However, the ground may have shifted in the past two weeks as the 76ers, winners of six straight and seven of their last eight games, have surged while the Nuggets have stumbled into a four-game losing streak. During that time, Embiid has excelled and seized the lead in the scoring race while Jokić has filled up the stat sheet on offense and gotten attacked on the other end.
Joker is a triple-double machine and a gifted offensive player, more polished than Embiid on that end and better equipped at getting the other four players around him involved in the attack. However, basketball is played on both ends of the floor, and the idea that Jokić is on the same level as Joel defensively is ridiculous, no matter what an esoteric advanced metric might say. To accept this premise is to reject the evidence of your eyes and submit yourself to a blind devotion to numbers.
As some of the lazier arguments for Jokić’s case — “his team has a better record! The Nuggets are in first place!” — whittle away, expect the criticisms of Embiid’s game from people who struggle to appreciate greatness to get louder. “He lives at the free throw line!” they’ll squawk desperately while holding up the latest VORP and RAPTOR calculations.
It is what it is, and it’s a game Embiid will never win. The concept of value is so nebulous and can mean something different to each of the voters. Should the best player be rewarded? Should the honor go to the player who is most responsible for his team’s success? How do you objectively measure something so arbitrary? Can you rely on the statistics to tell the full story? Is it even possible to watch enough basketball to fairly compare the 5-10 candidates in the running for MVP each year?
The alternative for Embiid is to focus on what he can control — beating the opponent in front of him and not the one pontificating on a podcast or tweeting from the couch. “I’m trying to win,” the Sixers’ center stated in his postgame interview, and that’s precisely the right attitude.
An MVP award is great, but an NBA title will cement Embiid’s legacy in much the same way it did for Giannis Antetokounmpo when the Bucks won the title in 2021. The path through the Eastern Conference will be treacherous and likely require beating both Milwaukee and Boston, two battle-tested teams that met in the conference finals last year. If Philadelphia survives that gauntlet, waiting for them will be a formidable opponent from the West that will benefit from a slightly easier route to the Finals.
It’s the kind of challenge uniquely suited for a team featuring the game’s best player.
Just win, Joel.