LeBron James may be the best player in the universe, but the MVP conversation is all about the future. After James won four Podoloffs in a five-year span, the past five trophies have been handed out to relative newcomers. This week, as part of The Ringer’s Star Track: The Next Generation series, our staff zeroes in on five players who haven’t won an MVP but very well could in 2018-19.
John Gonzalez: A year ago at this time, the biggest question about Joel Embiid wasn’t how good he could be, but how healthy. He had played 31 games in three NBA seasons. The center’s potential availability was such a divisive topic that people were betting their lives on it.
On this pod, I asked @dannychau if he’d do this hypothetical bet — if Joel Embiid plays more than 65 games ONCE in his career, Danny gets 500k. But if Embiid never tops 65 games, Danny has to die. Danny went for the 500k. Group Chat gets dark sometimes.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) December 21, 2017
If not for a freak injury where Markelle Fultz’s shoulder collided with Embiid’s face—causing Embiid to miss the back end of the regular season before going full Phantom of the Opera for the playoffs—the center would have played well more than 65 regular-season games. (We’re happy to report that Danny is still alive.) Even so, in 63 regular-season games, Embiid did serious damage: 22.9 points, 11 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.8 blocks, 57.3 true shooting percentage, and 22.9 PER. As a result, we’re back to debating how dominant he can be, rather than how durable.
Embiid and the Sixers had a successful 2017-8 season by any measure, but there were moments against the Celtics in the playoffs when he looked tired and made sloppy plays. He admitted he needed to improve his conditioning during the offseason while maintaining his size to bully smaller defenders. He also set out to improve his outside game (he shot 30.8 percent on 3.4 3-point attempts per game). If he could do those things, he figured that would be the extra boost the Sixers would need to take the next step—which is why, unlike his head coach Brett Brown, Embiid wasn’t all that bummed about the Sixers failing to land a another superstar this offseason.
“I don’t think it matters, big free agent or not,” Embiid told Yahoo Sports. “My goal going into the offseason was to get better. I want to win the MVP. I feel like at the end of the day it might be an individual award, but when I play better, the team also does. I feel like if I’m an MVP candidate or if I win the MVP, that means we are on another level.”
Place your bets. (But maybe don’t wager your life again, Danny.)
Jonathan Tjarks: The Celtics made Embiid’s life miserable in their second-round victory over the 76ers, but he has the talent to get the upper hand if the two teams meet again. Embiid just turned 24 in March, and he’s coming off his first offseason in the NBA when he wasn’t rehabbing from a serious injury. Embiid should have been in the lab all summer, getting himself in better shape to chase smaller players on defense and refining his offensive game to deal with double teams.
Embiid relied on overpowering opponents last season, and he didn’t have a Plan B when Aron Baynes stood him up in the post in the playoffs. (Making fun of his man bun doesn’t count.) He still has so much room to grow as an offensive player: He shot 30.8 percent from 3 on 3.4 attempts per game last season, and he averaged fewer assists (3.2) than turnovers (3.7). If Embiid improved on both categories and remade his body, he could carry Philadelphia to the no. 1 overall seed in the East and put himself in the MVP race.
Zach Kram: Since 1977-78, when the data first became available, 960 players have recorded at least 2,000 minutes through their first two seasons. Embiid has the highest usage rate of any player in that group, at 34.1 percent; the only other player who reached even 30 percent was Michael Jordan.
It’s strange to say about someone set to start playing under a max contract this year, but after picking up the sport as a teenager and missing two NBA seasons because of injury, the 76ers center is still learning the game. To that end, no other player in recorded league history has dominated the ball to such an extent in his formative NBA years. Some of that outlier status is self-inflicted; only five players committed more turnovers per game than Embiid’s 3.7 last season—but his efficiency numbers are remarkable even at the unprecedented volume.
In sum, in their first two seasons:
LeBron James: 29.0 percent usage, 52.3 percent true shooting
Michael Jordan: 30.9 percent usage, 58.2 percent true shooting
Joel Embiid: 34.1 percent usage, 57.6 percent true shooting
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Embiid was given preseason MVP odds a full two seasons before he ever stepped on an NBA court. Like all other prop bets created with him in mind, Embiid’s current odds are dependent on what we’ve yet to see from him. He has the makings of a future MVP if his body allows the minutes to prove it. Four years and just 94 games after he was drafted, his health still adds a big if to all conversations about his potential. Embiid is 24, a top-10 player in the league, and the leader of a team with upward trajectory. But Vegas won’t give him that clout until he puts in the time on the floor.
Justin Verrier: Embiid isn’t even the most likely MVP candidate on his own team. My column:
Simmons didn’t have to do ‘em like that pic.twitter.com/ZsSjC0Kynd— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) September 28, 2018
Kevin O’Connor: After only two seasons, Embiid has blossomed into one of the game’s top big men, the type of player who can help carry a young Sixers team to the playoffs and be a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Through his Twitter barbs and through his play, he has earned a high approval rating on NBA Twitter. But one assistant coach told me that Embiid is the most overrated player in the NBA. The coach said their staff isn’t worried about Embiid when he’s spotting up from 3 (Embiid shot only 30.4 percent from 3, including the playoffs), and that they don’t worry about any player on the post unless it’s an egregious mismatch. Nearly 40 percent of Embiid’s possessions come from the post—the least efficient play type.
Overrated may be a bit harsh. Embiid is young, and he should improve based on experience alone. But the coach has a point. Only Embiid and LaMarcus Aldridge logged more than 800 postups last season. But Aldridge found himself in the distant MVP convo last year because he was efficient from all areas of the floor. Embiid wasn’t. The Sixers center ranked in the 53rd percentile for scoring efficiency last season, per Synergy. Embiid has the upside to someday become an MVP, but to achieve that status, he’ll need to start scoring more efficiently.