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Kram Session: What Joel Embiid’s Scoring Surge Means in a Stacked MVP Race

An especially favorable offensive environment is propelling Embiid and his MVP-candidate counterparts to mind-boggling stat lines. Plus, the Pistons are on the doorstep of history, and Giannis moves one step closer to sweeping the Bucks’ record books.

Getty Images/AP/Ringer illustration

Each Wednesday of the NBA season, we’re analyzing a grab bag of topics from around the league. This week, we’re exploring the context behind Joel Embiid’s scoring surge, the Detroit Pistons’ record-chasing losing streak, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s thorough dominance of the Milwaukee Bucks’ record books. This is the Kram Session.

Under Review: A Legitimate Five-Way Race for MVP

Joel Embiid is in the midst of a historic scoring run. Last week, he averaged 38 points across four games despite not playing in a single fourth quarter, as Philadelphia routed the Wizards, Pistons (twice), and Hornets. Then he scored 40 points in a loss to Chicago on Monday, giving him 12 games in a row with 30-plus points—tied for the second-longest streak in the past 20 years.

The reigning MVP has more points than minutes played this season, which only Wilt Chamberlain has managed over a full campaign before.

And yet, much to the consternation of trainer Drew Hanlen, Embiid’s recent play wasn’t even enough to win him a Player of the Week award. Instead, Giannis Antetokounmpo took home that honor for the Eastern Conference, after a week in which he scored 64 points in a game, while Luka Doncic—working on his own streak of 11 consecutive 30-point games—grabbed it for the West.

That dissonance is a microcosm of a stacked and congested MVP race in which five leading candidates are taking advantage of an especially favorable scoring environment to post incomprehensible numbers for teams near the top of the standings. There’s Embiid, leading the league in scoring for a third season in a row, anchoring a top-five defense, and dishing six assists per game, up from a previous career high of 4.2. There’s Nikola Jokic, averaging a near triple-double, with the largest on-off differential of any star. There’s Giannis, scoring more efficiently than ever before. There’s Luka, notching career highs in points, assists, and 3-point percentage. And there’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, building a case as the best two-way perimeter player in the league.

Examine SGA’s résumé a bit more closely, and it’s easy to see a strong MVP case, after the young star finished fifth in the vote last season. His team is on pace for 56 wins. Advanced stats love him. He leads the league in win probability added, per Inpredictable, which calculates the impact of made and missed shots based on score and time remaining, so clutch attempts count more. And he’s on track to become just the fifth player to lead the NBA in steals per game while averaging at least 30 points, joining Michael Jordan (three times), Allen Iverson (two), Steph Curry, and Rick Barry. Other than Barry—who was loathed by his fellow players, at a time when players voted for MVP—those players all won MVP awards.

Yet if the vote were held today, SGA might finish fifth again. Or, if not SGA, then Luka—a four-time first-team All-NBA honoree enjoying his most productive, efficient season—might finish fifth.

It’s ludicrous. It’s absurd. It’s destined to make a few fan bases very unhappy at season’s end.

But that’s the state of the modern MVP race, as a few contextual factors have compounded to produce a host of tremendous candidates. The NBA’s ongoing offensive explosion plays a major role; the average team this season is scoring 115 points per game, the league’s highest figure in more than half a century, which elevates underlying individual statistics.

The rise of heliocentrism, in which teams revolve their entire offensive game plans around their star player’s talents, in turn pushes those individual numbers even higher. This season, 17 qualified players have a usage rate of at least 30 percent; a decade ago, only four players did.

Another factor that might be contributing this season is the presence of so many terrible teams who offer little resistance as opposing players rack up ridiculous stat lines. At the moment, four squads—the Pistons, Spurs, Wizards, and Hornets—all have point differentials worse than minus-9.5 per game. There’s never been more than two in any previous season.

Embiid in particular is dominating bad defenses by a greater margin than any other star. First, he’s played them most often: Embiid has faced defenses that rank, on average, 20th in the league, the worst among the opponents of any of the NBA’s top 20 qualified scorers this season. That’s not just the result of an easy recent schedule. It’s also because the three games Embiid has missed this year were against the Timberwolves (no. 1 on defense), Celtics (no. 2), and Pelicans (tied for 10th).

Quality of Defense Faced by Top 20 Scorers

Player Average Opponent Defensive Rank
Player Average Opponent Defensive Rank
Stephen Curry 12.3
Nikola Jokic 13.1
LeBron James 13.1
De'Aaron Fox 13.5
Luka Doncic 13.6
Anthony Davis 13.7
Donovan Mitchell 13.9
Jayson Tatum 14.7
Desmond Bane 14.8
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 15.0
Anthony Edwards 15.3
Trae Young 15.6
Jalen Brunson 16.0
Kevin Durant 16.0
Kawhi Leonard 16.4
Tyrese Haliburton 17.4
Tyrese Maxey 18.9
Giannis Antetokounmpo 19.6
Damian Lillard 19.7
Joel Embiid 20.0

And second, Embiid is scoring 41 points per 36 minutes against bottom-10 defenses, versus “only” 30 points per 36 against top-20 defenses. That 11-point gap is by far the largest among the league’s top 20 scorers.

Naturally, most top scorers are more productive against bad defenses, albeit with smaller gaps than Embiid—but not all of them. On the other end of the spectrum, Jokic, Doncic, and Gilgeous-Alexander have scored just as well against top-20 defenses as they have against those in the bottom 10.

Top 20 Scorers Against Good and Bad Defenses

Player Vs. Top-20 Ds (# of Games) Vs. Bottom-10 Ds (# of Games) Difference
Player Vs. Top-20 Ds (# of Games) Vs. Bottom-10 Ds (# of Games) Difference
Joel Embiid 30.1 (10) 41.4 (13) +11.3
Stephen Curry 28.9 (21) 37.2 (3) +8.3
Giannis Antetokounmpo 28.1 (10) 35.5 (15) +7.4
Desmond Bane 23.0 (15) 30.2 (9) +7.2
Jayson Tatum 24.6 (17) 31.7 (8) +7.1
Anthony Davis 23.7 (20) 29.4 (5) +5.7
Trae Young 26.4 (16) 31.5 (8) +5.2
Donovan Mitchell 26.8 (17) 29.2 (5) +2.4
Kawhi Leonard 24.6 (17) 26.7 (9) +2.1
Jalen Brunson 25.2 (17) 27.3 (9) +2.1
Tyrese Maxey 24.3 (12) 25.9 (13) +1.6
De'Aaron Fox 30.3 (14) 31.6 (5) +1.3
Tyrese Haliburton 26.3 (13) 27.1 (9) +0.7
LeBron James 26.6 (20) 27.1 (5) +0.5
Kevin Durant 30.1 (13) 30.1 (9) +0.0
Luka Doncic 32.2 (19) 32.2 (6) -0.0
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 32.0 (17) 31.5 (7) -0.5
Anthony Edwards 26.4 (16) 25.5 (6) -0.8
Nikola Jokic 29.0 (18) 27.2 (9) -1.8
Damian Lillard 30.9 (10) 22.9 (14) -8.1

None of this analysis is meant to discount Embiid’s performance or award worthiness. Wins count just as much against bad defenses as against good ones. But the context behind his historic scoring binge underscores the broader, point-friendly patterns that are influencing the best players’ statistics and MVP cases.

The contours of the race might shift a dozen more times between now and the end of the season, depending on which candidates are facing which undermanned defenses in a given week. In early January, for instance, Giannis plays the Pacers, Pacers, and Spurs in a row. Meanwhile, Luka faces Utah, Portland, and Portland. Maybe those players will win a few more Player of the Week awards, or maybe their MVP contender counterparts will outpace them.

Zacht of the Week: 24 Straight Losses

I try to switch up the topics in this column every week. But the Pistons have lost four more games by a combined 88 points since my last Zacht of the Week, pushing their losing streak to 24 games, and I can’t turn away from the disaster in Detroit. We have a chance to witness history in the coming days!

To review: The longest losing streak in NBA history is 28 games, from the Process 76ers, which stretched from the end of one season through the start of the next. Within a single season, the longest losing streak is 26 games, from both the post-LeBron Cavaliers and a different Process 76ers team.

Yet according to my simple model that accounts for point differential and home-court advantage, the Pistons now have a 39 percent chance of claiming the single-season record and a 27 percent chance of setting a new overall record. That’s up from last week’s odds of 19 and 12 percent, respectively.

Here’s an updated version of the chart I ran in this space last week, which shows Detroit’s odds of maintaining its losing streak on a game-by-game level.

Pistons Losing Streak Odds

Potential Loss # Opponent Date Odds of Streak Still Going
Potential Loss # Opponent Date Odds of Streak Still Going
25 Jazz Dec. 21 57%
26 @ Nets Dec. 23 49%
27 Nets Dec. 26 39%
28 @ Celtics Dec. 28 37%
29 Raptors Dec. 30 27%
30 @ Rockets Jan. 1 24%
31 @ Jazz Jan. 3 17%
32 @ Warriors Jan. 5 14%
33 @ Nuggets Jan. 7 13%
34 Kings Jan. 9 10%
35 Spurs Jan. 10 4%

A Graph Is Worth a Thousand Words

The Clippers started 0-5 with James Harden in the lineup. Then Ty Lue moved Russell Westbrook to the bench—and since that change, they’re 13-3, with the second-best net rating leaguewide. Their current eight-game winning streak has propelled them to a tie for fifth place in the West.

The new starting lineup is on fire. The Westbrook-led bench unit isn’t coughing up leads. And sure, there’s some shooting luck baked into the numbers in that graph (which come from PBP Stats), but the Clippers now look like a legitimate championship contender, as long as their stars stay healthy until spring.

Take That for Data: Chasing the Franchise Record Sweep

It’s been a busy week for Giannis: 64 points in a game, ball drama (somewhere, Hedo Turkoglu is proud), and some family time with his kids on the bench. He also passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most rebounds in Bucks history, giving him almost all of the franchise’s career records.

But almost all isn’t all, and I wanted to see whether any player has shot the franchise-record moon. So I picked what I consider to be the 10 most basic counting stats in the sport—games, minutes, points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, field goals, 3-pointers, and free throws—and used Basketball Reference to find the franchise leaders in the most categories.

First, here are the players who hold their franchise’s records in at least seven of the 10 stats. Note that nobody has all 10:

Players With Most Career Franchise Records

Player Team # of Stats (Out of 10) Missing Stat(s)
Player Team # of Stats (Out of 10) Missing Stat(s)
LeBron James Cavaliers 9 BLK (Ilgauskas)
Kevin Garnett Timberwolves 9 3s (Towns)
Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks 8 STL (Buckner), 3s (Middleton)
Michael Jordan Bulls 8 BLK (Gilmore), 3s (Hinrich)
Patrick Ewing Knicks 8 AST (Frazier), 3s (Starks)
Dirk Nowitzki Mavericks 8 AST, STL (both Harper)
Reggie Miller Pacers 8 REB (Daniels), BLK (O'Neal)
Dwyane Wade Heat 7 REB (Haslem), BLK (Mourning), 3s (Robinson)
Kobe Bryant Lakers 7 REB (Baylor), AST (Johnson), BLK (Abdul-Jabbar)
Hakeem Olajuwon Rockets 7 AST, 3s, FT (all Harden)
Stephen Curry Warriors 7 REB (Thurmond), BLK (Foyle), FT (Arizin)

Can anyone do better than LeBron James with the Cavaliers or Kevin Garnett with the Timberwolves and grab control of all 10 of a franchise’s career records?

Giannis won’t. He’ll likely tie LeBron and Garnett with nine records once he grabs the Milwaukee steals crown; he’s 190 behind Quinn Buckner and has averaged about one per game over the past half decade. But he’s less than halfway to teammate Khris Middleton’s 3-point mark, and Middleton’s still going. Giannis can joke all he wants, but that record will remain out of reach.

Neither of the other active players on that chart will accomplish a full 10-stat sweep either. Even if LeBron re-signed with Cleveland again (re-re-signed?), he’d have no chance of catching up to Zydrunas Ilgauskas in blocks, as he’s 574 swats short of Big Z’s total in Cleveland. Curry won’t grab the Warriors records for rebounds and blocks. And no other active player holds more than five of the 10 records for any franchise. (Those with five, just to be a completist: DeMar DeRozan with the Raptors, Mike Conley with the Grizzlies, and Anthony Davis with the Pelicans—none of whom still play for those teams.)

Even a well-rounded star like Jokic is exceedingly unlikely to claim all 10 records for the Nuggets. He has a reasonable path to eight, but Jamal Murray is more than 250 3-pointers ahead of Jokic and still shooting, and Jokic isn’t even a third of the way to Dikembe Mutombo’s franchise blocks crown.

Stats through Monday’s games.