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Has Joel Embiid Been Dominant Enough for Long Enough to Win MVP?

Nikola Jokic is the odds-on favorite to win the award, but the Sixers center has been arguably this season’s greatest force, albeit in fewer games. Can Embiid make up the ground?

Scott Laven/Getty Images

What stood out, I think, was the tone.

After the 76ers’ 123-117 win over the Nets (well, a version of them, anyway, as Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Blake Griffin all missed the contest) last week, Joel Embiid fielded a question about what his stellar performance said about his chances of winning the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award. You’d have forgiven Embiid—who had just propelled Philadelphia to the top spot in the Eastern Conference by scoring 39 points and hauling in 13 rebounds in a manner that felt downright preordained—if he’d chosen to defiantly assert his primacy and roar like the lion he is.

But lions’ roars are about showing off, warning of encroaching danger, or scaring off intruding challengers. The way Embiid answered—calm and collected—made it clear that he isn’t really caught up in all that right now. Let the danger and the challengers come. The Sixers’ 27-year-old supernova center, playing at the peak of his powers, will dispense with every last one of them.

“I want to win, and as far as MVP, I’ve been dominant all season,” Embiid told reporters. “I’m not gonna be here to try and push myself, but I know that I’ve been dominant all season. We got a no. 1 seed. When I get the ball, it’s either a foul or a bucket, or if I decide to … take whatever the defense gives me. So I feel like I’m right there. I feel like that’s mine.”

The smart money says it isn’t. Sports books and media straw polls alike point to Nuggets center Nikola Jokic as the odds-on favorite to win MVP through three quarters of the 2020-21 season, with Embiid finishing in a fairly distant second. This is despite Embiid putting up incredible numbers—averaging 30 points, third best in the league, with an absurd .642 true shooting percentage to go along with 11.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.4 blocks per game—as the focal point of the East’s top team, which is 30-8 when he plays and 9-9 when he doesn’t.

The issue—somewhat ironically, as the linchpin of a franchise now led by basketball’s foremost quant—is that Embiid faces what appears to be an unsolvable math problem.

After missing three weeks with a bone bruise in his left knee, Embiid has now played in 38 of the 76ers’ 56 games. If he plays every game for the rest of Philadelphia’s season—which, even assuming no new injuries, seems unlikely, given the value of keeping the big fella fresh—and logs his season average of just over 32 minutes in all of them, he’d end the regular season with 54 appearances and about 1,740 minutes. With a month still to go, Jokic has already played in more games (56) and played more minutes (1,972) than that, while also averaging 26-11-9 on similarly absurd .644 true shooting and leading the league in a staggering number of advanced statistical categories. (Though, for what it’s worth, Embiid edges Jokic in both regularized adjusted plus-minus and ESPN’s real plus-minus.)

Barring a significant injury to Jokic—which, God forbid, especially after the dispiriting loss of Jamal Murray—the chasm in sheer floor time and overall production is just too wide for Embiid to close at this point. Most of the other would-be contenders for the crown—LeBron James, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kawhi Leonard—face similar, though smaller, gaps due to injuries and load management.

If Jokic’s chasers can’t make a quantitative case, their best bet is a qualitative one. And since returning from his knee injury, Embiid has resumed making his case awfully compelling.

After missing 11 of Philadelphia’s first 12 games following the All-Star break, Embiid instantly went back to reducing entire frontcourt rotations to rubble:

In his first seven games back, Embiid has finished 39 percent of Philadelphia’s offensive possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn, or turnover—a usage rate that dwarfs even his league-leading season-long mark. The workload clearly agrees with both him and the team: He has scored 211 points in 214 minutes since his return, boosting the Sixers offense back up to a top-seven rate of efficiency with him on the court.

He’s drawing more than 10 personal fouls per 36 minutes since coming back, once again even higher than his league-leading full-season average. He routinely puts the opposition behind the eight ball—no team has spent more time in the bonus this season than Philly, according to—with his peerless combination of skill, savvy, and showmanship. Embiid, who’s shooting a career-high 85.5 percent from the stripe, just has so many ways to bedevil opponents—especially now that he has also evolved into one of the game’s premier midrange marksmen.

Imagine, if you will, Embiid catching an entry pass in the midpost as you lean on his back. You try fruitlessly to push the 7-foot, 280-pound colossus off of his spot, only to see him pivot to face both you and the basket in the triple-threat position. You know you can’t give him the airspace for long 2-point jumpers now that he’s canning them a ridiculous 59.1 percent of the time, so you get your hand up early, hoping to dissuade him from rising and firing. Well, shoot, no, you can’t do that, because he will just rip through and catch your hand in the cookie jar.

OK, no hands—just stay a step off of him to guard against the drive, but be ready to contest when he pulls up. Whoops: That was the pump fake. Now you’re airborne, and the NBA’s most dominant big man is jumping straight into your exposed ribcage, drawing a foul on you, which just seems cruel, really.

All right: no hands, no biting. Just stay down and press up on him. Except … well, there’s that first step, and he knows where he’s going before you do, and once his shoulders are past yours—it’s over. Now your teammate has to rotate over to stop the drive, and that’s a blocking foul, and he’s still going to the line.

“When you talk about drawing fouls, a lot of people, I guess, call it flopping and all that stuff,” Embiid said earlier this season, according to Jackson Frank of Liberty Ballers. “But, you know, the way I see it is just about being smarter than your opponent.” That sound you heard was James Harden slapping a table somewhere in Brooklyn and yelling, “THANK YOU! It’s NOT cheating the game!” (You must admit: If Daryl Morey left a franchise led by Harden, a historically elite freebie generator, it was pretty cagey of him to join one led by the only guy who’s drawn fouls even more often than Harden in the past five seasons—a guy who practices some of the very same dark arts, who is also half a foot taller and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.)

All right, screw it: Just play off of him, then, I guess. Except then he can just dribble into you, walk you down to the block, and shoulder-check you under the basket, leaving you no choice but to try to wrap him up. Embiid is producing 1.08 points per post-up possession used this season, according to Synergy Sports’ game charting—third most of any player to log at least 100 post-ups.

Barring the use of a baseball bat, or perhaps an extra large fishing net—both illegal as of press time—it’s unclear how exactly you’re supposed to stop this dude. Just about the only thing that’s had any success is bringing hard double-teams from multiple angles …

… but Embiid has also shown an ability to diagnose those doubles and make the right pass—sometimes a crosscourt laser, sometimes a simple kickout to a shooter sliding along the arc.

Embiid seems to be getting more comfortable processing the extra attention and just making the next read to keep the offense moving. The Clippers, the NBA’s no. 6 defense since March 1, brought doubles early and often on Friday night to try to trap the ball out of his hands; more often than not, he responded by patiently creating enough breathing room to find a safe place to send the ball, resulting in a good look after one more pass:

Sixers coach Doc Rivers also answered his longtime former assistant Ty Lue’s doubles with a tactic he’s used a lot this year: changing the geometry of the court by getting Embiid in the middle of the floor, either by posting him up at the nail à la Dirk Nowitzki or having him roll to the foul line after setting a high screen.

Putting Embiid to work in such a central location makes it way harder for opponents to send help without opening up a simple pitch-and-catch to shooters on the wing or in the corner. Thanks to a career year from Tobias Harris (20.5 points per game on .609 true shooting) and the presence of Morey additions Danny Green (41.2 percent from 3-point range on 6.3 attempts per game) and Seth Curry (41.0 percent on 4.8 attempts per game), that’s a much more dangerous option now than it’s been in recent seasons. And when defenses don’t want to leave a knockdown shooter alone, Embiid gets more chances to attack one-on-one from the foul line—a matchup Philly will take every chance it gets.

Embiid isn’t a perfectly polished player. He’s a bit uneasy throwing some kinds of passes, and his 3-point stroke (just 23.1 percent from deep since his return) can come and go. You can make cogent arguments that you’d rather have one of the “queen on the chessboard” big-wing playmaker types—LeBron, KD, Kawhi, Luka, Jimmy Butler, et al.—in the postseason, given how much easier it is for those sorts of perimeter players to create offense. You can present a compelling case that, when push comes to shove, you’d bet on any of a number of players in the East—Durant, Harden, Giannis, Jimmy—over Embiid to wrest control of a seven-game series on the game’s grandest stage. None of that would get you laughed out of a room.

The Big Race: Embiid vs. Jokic

Joel Embiid 38 32.2 30.0 11.1 3.0 1.0 1.4 3.1 0.516 0.379 0.855 31.4 0.642
Nikola Jokić 56 35.2 26.1 11.0 8.8 1.5 0.6 3.1 0.567 0.422 0.855 31.3 0.644

But right up to the point that he got injured in mid-March, Embiid was—or should have been—at or near the top of every theoretical MVP ballot, alongside Jokic and LeBron James. Injuries to Embiid and James (who still hasn’t returned from his high ankle sprain) opened the door for Jokic to take a commanding lead on the field; since Embiid has returned, though, he hasn’t skipped a beat. He is eating defenses like goddamn Galactus devouring worlds, while also serving as the malevolent nightmare-inducing force of a defense that ranks second in points allowed per 100 non-garbage-time possessions—a defense, by the way, that gives up 3.5 fewer points per 100 when Embiid is stalking the paint, a rate even stingier than the league-leading Lakers.

He is the prince that the Process promised—a towering two-way talent fully realized, capable of being the determining factor on the floor in the NBA Finals. That hasn’t changed since he tweaked his knee; all that’s different now is the denominator on the math problem.

Maybe that’s enough to install a second-place ceiling, even in a season when it seems like nearly everybody’s missing games for one reason or another. Maybe it should be: Again, Jokic hasn’t just been more available, he’s also been historically sensational. But this version of Embiid—arguably the NBA’s single most dominant force, on both ends of the court—takes a back seat to nobody. These days, when he says he feels that the MVP and the league are his, he doesn’t need to roar. His game is loud enough on its own.