Joel Embiid's MVP case
The 76ers are off to a scorching start this season, and the man mostly responsible for that is Joel Embiid. He synthesizes strengths like few before him, becoming the offensive engine and defensive fulcrum for the best team in the East.
There has truly never been anyone like him. Basketball players who stand seven feet tall and weigh 260 pounds are usually just known for that—being huge. Embiid is much more than that: he can score against anyone from any range, set up his teammates in a pinch, erase opponents' shots like a black hole, and do it all at an efficient rate.
In an era where posting up has died down, Embiid has made it mainstream again. He draws fouls at a historic pace. He can defend in space as well as at the rim. His 3-point shot is a normal part of the offense, contrary to conventional thought regarding centers. He's one of the most complete players in the league.
That's the standard for winning the league's most prestigious award. Embiid has been knocking on the door for Most Valuable Player since his first minutes in the NBA, but now he has a real shot at the title. He's in a very exclusive group right now—and one could argue he stands alone.
But for objectivity's sake, the other contenders must be included. Embiid has distinct qualities that give him a great case for MVP, but so do a few others. It's a subjective award, expanding the range of possibilities for the eventual winner.
Below are the other two strongest candidates for the award, and their cases compared to Embiid's. Each of them have differing strengths that support their cases, and though Sixers fans can argue Embiid above all of them, but they each have merit in this conversation. Let's dive in.
The King continues to defy the odds. In his age-36 season, James is maintaining a level of production that only he is capable of: 25.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists on great efficiency (59.9% true shooting and .203 win shares per-48 minutes). Even with all the mileage on his body and the recent Finals run that was only four months ago, James still plays like the best player of the world when he wants to.
That's the thing though—he's not always at full throttle. LeBron paces himself through the regular season in favor of being ready for the playoffs. For him to produce and impact winning that much, without even going 100 percent most of the time, is just another credit to his case as the greatest player of all time. He still reigns supreme when he needs to. It's just that he's not the best player of the regular season, and hasn't been for quite some time. That should hold merit when discussing a regular season award.
The L.A. media machine is up and running. LeBron has been in the MVP discussion every year, and probably deserves more awards than the four he currently sports, but this year feels forced. The Lakers aren't even the best team in the West right now (record-wise), his running mate Anthony Davis lurks around for this award every year, and we know how he treats the regular season. LeBron has GOAT performances from time to time, but not enough of them to win this award.
Like Embiid, Jokic defies the norms of contemporary centers. Joker is arguably the most unique player in the league, averaging 26.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game on ridiculous efficiency (64.8% TS, league-leading .293 WS/48) at the 5.
The Joker monopolizes the Nuggets' offense, overseeing everything and impacting every part of the operation. He's a beautiful passer, able to thread needles and find open guys like few others. He can also go to work on the low block like an old-school bruiser, forcing opponents to stay big just to stick with him. Add in a capable 3-ball (39.1% on 3.7 3-point attempts per game) and better-than-you-think defensive production (second-most defensive points saved), and you have arguably the most unparalleled player in the league.
Working against Joker is his team, a group of gents who might turn him into the actual Joker if they keep it up. The Nuggets are coming off a surprise run to the Western Conference Finals, and the hangover is clear: they sit at 14-11 currently, only good enough for seventh in the West. Rarely does an MVP get crowned from a team in the bottom half of the playoff bracket; Russell Westbrook's 2017 season, in which the Oklahoma City Thunder finished sixth in the conference, was an outlier.
If Denver rebounds and soars to the top of the West, there's a good argument for Jokic. He certainly has the stats. But his team simply isn't good enough right now, and the top of the West is pretty damn good, making it tough to dub Jokic a frontrunner.
James' case is strongly in favor of team success. Jokic's case is buoyed by eye-popping production. In Embiid, you have a middle ground between each. He's averaging 29.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.5 "stocks" per game on excellent efficiency (66.5% TS, league-leading 31.1 player efficiency rating, .283 WS/48). The Sixers also have the best record in the East at 18-9.
Embiid's output and potency are above LeBron's right now, and his team's success gives him a huge bump over Jokic. The award is subjectively based on numbers and narrative together, two qualities that Embiid definitely has an edge in. The Sixers can't play basketball without him, and with him they're a bona fide title contender. In terms of impact, both tangible and intangible, he's in a class all his own right now.
Arguments made against him in past years were the difference between "really good" and "elite." He was always a plus shooter from each area of the floor, but not an awesome one. So far he's been the latter. In the past he had trouble reading double teams and making the right play when he couldn't do it himself. That too has changed, as there's a distinct improvement in his ability to read the floor.
There are concerns over the Sixers' early success. Their offense is merely average right now (15th in offensive rating) despite Embiid's monster stats, and their schedule has been incredibly easy so far. You can only beat the teams in front of you, and the Sixers have done exactly that, but the early returns against great teams aren't good. Statistical indicators expect them to fall off a bit in the meat of the schedule, which could put a serious dent in Embiid's case if he doesn't continue to put out Herculean efforts.
But for now, he checks all the boxes of an MVP winner.