By Connor Thomas
He’s number 21 on the court, but number 1 in the hearts of Sixers fans. Unfortunately for Joel Embiid, there are no trophies for being a fan base’s favorite player. There is, however, a trophy given out yearly to the Most Valuable Player in the NBA, an award that Embiid has very much been in contention for since the 2020-21 season began. At the All-Star break, he was the odds on favorite to win the award, but a knee injury sidelined the dominant big man for about 3 weeks of the season, normally a death knell for an MVP bid. And then the other candidates for the award began falling as well. LeBron James had a nasty high ankle sprain. James Harden became plagued with soft tissue injuries. Anthony Davis had a serious calf injury. Kevin Durant missed significant time. There were a couple other contenders in a group led by Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and Luka Doncic, but none of their teams have been performing well enough to warrant a spot as the most valued player in The Association. 2 time defending MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has been great once again, but he has not played up to his previous standards that he set when winning the award in 2019 and 2020. As the regular season winds into the final 4 weeks of action, Embiid’s biggest competition has proven to be fellow big man and Denver Nugget star Nikola Jokic. Is there a chance that Embiid ends up on top when the dust settles?
The issue for Embiid is that Jokic has been healthy all season long, has played in all 55 of Denver’s games so far this year, and is dominating nearly as much as his counterpart in Philly. The Nuggets are only 4th place in the West, but they are 15 games over .500, so Jokic cannot be written off on grounds of his team’s standing. Right now over at Fanduel Sportsbook, Jokic is a -195 favorite to win the award, with The Process coming in 2nd at +240. The next closest? Antetokounmpo at +1200. Clearly this has turned into a 2 man, 2 center race to the trophy, that will play out dramatically over the next month or so. The only thing that seems certain is that the Maurice Podoloff MVP Trophy will be raised by a center for the first time since Shaquille O’Neal hoisted the award back in 2000. But does Embiid still have a chance to be the first big man in 21 years to win the vaunted honor? The game has obviously changed since the time of Shaq, but of the 25 times a center has won MVP, those players have averaged 24.6 PPG, 18 TRB, 4.0 AST, and 2.87 BLK. Jokic is currently averaging 26.0, 10.9, 8.8, and 0.7, while Embiid is sporting averages of 29.8, 11.0, 3.1, and 1.5. Both of their blocks numbers are lower than previous centers to win the award due to the stretching of the floor in the modern game and the 3 pointer replacing plays in the paint. That also speaks to why Embiid and Jokic are each averaging more points per game than other winning bigs.
They both clearly have the numbers to match their historical counterparts, but Embiid is leading Jokic in 3 of the 4 major statistics. Of course The Joker stands out thanks to his gaudy 8.8 assists per game, but in the past 20 years, only one player who led the league in assists went on to win MVP. Steve Nash did it in back to back years in 2005 and 2006. Clearly assists have not previously been a big part of deciding MVP, and Embiid leads Jokic in every important stat besides assists. Not to mention that Joel is leading his team to a 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, currently holding off a stacked Brooklyn Nets team, while Jokic’s squad is 6 games back in the West. Missing 3 weeks of the season is another hugely important factor, though, and with some research, Embiid’s chances look even slimmer considering how the number of games played has been taken into account when deciding MVPs in the past.
Since 2000, the NBA MVP has played an average of 76.7 games per season. If you take out the shutdown shortened 2012 season and the COVID shortened 2020 season, that number jumps up to 78.3 games. Even with those two years considered, no MVP since the turn of the century has won the award playing less than 62 games in a season (LeBron James, 2012). Now, the trend has begun to shift away from the iron men of the early 2000s. When breaking down the past 20 years into chronological 5 year spans, the average of games played has progressed from 78.2 to 79.2 to 76 down to 73.4 from 2016-2020. It is a good trend for the Embiids of the world, but it may not be enough. Even if he plays every one of the Sixers’ 17 remaining games, Embiid will finish with only 54 games played. No one should ever root for injury, and I certainly am not here, but it seems that unless Jokic is unable to complete the season, he should be the closing favorite for MVP.
But Embiid has been dominant this year. The eye test and the statistics both point towards him being the best basketball player on the planet this year. The sample size may hurt him, but the statistics certainly will not. It may be a long shot, but so is a kid from Cameroon who learned basketball as a teenager becoming one of the most dominant big men ever. We’re seeing one of those things happen right before our eyes, so who’s to say we won’t see both. And if Embiid does ultimately fall short, maybe a Larry O’Brien Trophy would not be a terrible consolation prize.