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Reviewing Joel Embiid’s MVP chances post trade deadline

Milwaukee Bucks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Joel Embiid is having a stellar, MVP-caliber season this year, and it would have been foolish to keep him out of the NBA conversation.

The Philadelphia 76ers center stayed healthy for much of the season — minus a game here or there for nagging injuries and/or soreness. He hadn’t suffered one of those injuries that put him on the bench for a significant period…

… until March 12, 2021.

When Embiid went up for one of his textbook “thunder dunks”, he landed very awkwardly and hyperextended his knee. Embiid went straight to the locker room after, and those same feelings of dread and “not again” infiltrated the minds of Sixers fans. An MRI revealed no structural damage, and he was diagnosed with a bone bruise. That’s kind of best-case scenario, isn’t it? There was the diagnosis, a sigh of relief, and one of our favorite phrases in Sixers lore the last few years:

“Will be re-evaluated in two weeks.”

Now, here we are, a few days after the two weeks. Reports about Embiid’s recovery and rehab have been good, so his return is imminent.

The MVP race has changed. Quite a few things are different since Embiid went away. Is Jojo still the favorite? (According to FanDuel Sportsbook, he’s not, but we’ll get to all of that.) His standing in the chase, however, hasn’t hit a serious roadblock which is more than I can say for some of the other contenders on the list of potentials.

Let’s get this out of the way, first, because it seems hot take-ish, but I’ll say it on record. Mark it. Tuesday, March 30, 2021, Adio Royster, staff writer for Liberty Ballers says the following:

“There is ZERO CHANCE LeBron James (+750 odds on FanDuel) wins the MVP this season. None. Zero.”

James is having one of those “typical” LeBron seasons. In 41 games, the Los Angeles Lakers forward averages 25/8/8 playing 34 minutes a game. He has a high usage rate (31.8 percent) and .196 Win Shares per 48 minutes (WS/48) with a 60.5 true shooting percentage (his highest since his 62.1 in 2017-2018 with the Cleveland Cavaliers).

He’s LeBron. He’s the best player on planet earth… when he’s on the floor. There’s the rub. James is currently out after suffering a high ankle sprain injury on March 20. Shams Charania of The Athletic has reported that James is expected to miss 3-5 more weeks recovering. That’s not counting the time it (might) take to get back into a rhythm.

LeBron’s regular season is pretty much over. He’s getting ready for the playoffs. Since the MVP award is a regular season award, I’m writing him off, personally.

I’m also writing off Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (+850).

Larry Bird is the last player to win an MVP award in three straight seasons (’83-84, ’84-85, ’85-86). LeBron had a shot in the 2010-11 season, but the Derrick Rose selection derailed that possibility. (There’s not much more I need to say about that. I liked young Derrick Rose, yet LeBron should’ve gotten that award, but I digress.)

That’s why I’m writing off Giannis. Inevitably, there will be that person with a vote or those persons with votes who believe that Antetokounmpo shouldn’t be a three-straight league MVP.

Michael Jordan didn’t even win three straight. Tim Duncan didn’t. LeBron didn’t (twice, in fact). The most egregious foul is Steph Curry’s denial of a three-peat all because Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double for a team that placed (checks standings that year) sixth in the Western Conference and was bounced in the first round of the playoffs in five games.

Antetokounmpo has the numbers: 28.4 points, 11.4 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 32.7 usage percentage, .242 WS/48. He won’t win the MVP for a third straight year because I feel the writers with the votes won’t allow it to happen if they didn’t for LeBron James or even Michael gee-dee Jordan.

These are the players who stand a realistic threat against Joel Embiid hoisting the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

Let’s start out west in the Rocky Mountains.

Nikola Jokić (-125) is having a RI-DIC-U-LOUS season. Two years ago or even last year, did anyone think that The Joker had this kind of gear in him? This is not “Brand X” Jokić. This is “Joker Brand” Jokić. (That’s a deep Batman from 1989 script reference. I know, and you’re welcome.)

The sixth-year center from Serbia is averaging a career high in points (26.8), rebounds (11.1), assists (8.5), three-point percentage (42.5), and true shooting percentage (64.9). Jokić leads the league in WS/48 (.311), WS (10.6), BPM (12.1), and VORP (5.8).

I know what you’re going to ask. “Should the MVP be the player on the fifth best team in the West?”

Let me answer by pointing out the Nuggets are only 6.5 games back of the 1-seed, and with the injuries to the Lakers, they’ll be fourth relatively quickly. I’ll also point out Westbrook’s MVP season and reiterate he didn’t have anywhere close to the numbers as Jokić does this season.

The concern with Jokić if you’re holding a “Jokić for MVP” bet slip is the Aaron Gordon trade. It’s obvious the Nuggets needed someone to give them a little extra push, and it’s not perfectly clear how much he takes away from The Joker. There will be games the rest of the way where he won’t have to carry the team as much. Does that hurt him? We’ll see.

The “Harden for MVP” (+700) train has pulled out of the station at Atlantic Avenue, but should it have? Is that train running a little ahead of schedule? Is it going to cause problems later on down the track?

Does Harden even have the counting numbers: 25.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 11.2 assists?

Does he have the advanced numbers: .209 WS/48, 28.6 USG, 61.6 true shooting percentage?

Does he have the record? Brooklyn is 32-15, now tied for first in the East, but they’re only 4-2 when it’s JUST Harden. The Nets are at their best when they have two of Harden, Kyrie Irving, or Kevin Durant.

Harden said after a win against Detroit on March 26 that he feels like he is the MVP:

“Do I feel like I belong in it [the race]? I feel like I am the MVP. I mean, it’s just that simple. I don’t want to speak individually on myself. I’m just going to leave it at that.”

The way Harden entered this season for the Houston Rockets and his subsequent forcing his way out of Houston only to ball out again for Brooklyn rubbed me the wrong way a little bit. If I had an MVP vote, I’d treat it like a parent rewarding crappy behavior. I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to write his name in or fill in the circle next to his name. Yeah, let’s just move on.

There are two dark horses in this race, so putting them together seems a bit logical.

Luka Dončić (+1600) and Damian Lillard’s (+1200) names have risen in conversation, and both could make a case. They’re hindered by the same thing: overall team record.

The Mavericks are the 7-seed in the West and three games over .500 (24-21). Without a long run of wins, the Mavericks will likely be in the bottom four of playoff teams. If they don’t do well in the “play-in” tournament for the last two spots, they may miss the playoffs altogether.

Dallas is certainly better with Dončić on the floor, obviously, and the on/off numbers reflect it. That team falls off a cliff when he’s on the bench (119.2 offensive rating on the court vs. 106.5 off). I guess that’s why he plays over 35 minutes per game and leads the league in usage percentage (35.8). You can consider Dončić at your own risk. I won’t, though.

Lillard’s case is SLIGHTLY better because the Portland Trail Blazers are at least 10 games over .500 (28-18). Like the Nuggets, Portland could jump up in the seeds by one or two because of the injuries to the Lakers. Lillard’s numbers are solid: 29.8 points, 7.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 37.4% from three on 11 attempts per game, .207 WS/48, and a second straight year of a true shooting percentage above 62.0. Unless the Trail Blazers overtake the Nuggets in the standings, you can’t give him the MVP over Jokić.

Then, we come to Joel Embiid, who is currently +700 to win.

  • 29.9 PPG (career high)
  • 11.5 RPG
  • 3.3 APG
  • .295 WS/48 (career high)
  • 65 true shooting percentage (career high)
  • 8.6 BPM (career high)

Embiid is shooting over 50 percent from the field for the first time in his career, and the big man has gone back to doing something better than ever. After averaging 8.5 free throw attempts per game in 2019-20, Embiid is up to 11.4 this season and converts on 86 percent of them. That’s insane in the best possible way.

If Embiid gets that points per game average back over 30 and finishes the season over 30 points per game, Embiid will join a list that only has three other names on it. Wilt Chamberlain, Walt Bellamy, Moses Malone, and (maybe) Joel Embiid will be the fourth center to average 30-plus points and 10-plus free throw attempts per game. Only Embiid shoots over 80 percent, however.

The Sixers have continued to win without him. They’re 6-3 without him, losing to Milwaukee (by 4), the Los Angeles Clippers (by 10), and the Nuggets (by 9). Embiid is the best player playing for a 1-seed in a conference, and that’s in large part because of his hot start which has turned into a sustained burn.

(This is not to discount Tobias Harris’s contribution in March because Tobi is on one: 22 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 4.3 APG, and 52/37/90 shooting splits in 12 games.)

The Sixers are +11.2 offensively when Embiid is on the floor. It’s not “Dončić-level” falling off, nor is it anywhere as bad as it had been in recent years with Embiid off the floor. Much like any other year prior, this team is driven by one Joel Hans Embiid when he’s available.

Embiid has been available more than he has been in his career. He’s not going to play all 72 games, obviously, but he has played 66 percent of the games this season (31 out of 47). At that clip, he’ll play 48 or 49 total (barring any more significant injuries). If that’s true, then it’s a two-man race between Embiid and The Joker.

Who’s going to land the new hardware? It’s a thousand percent between Jojo and Jokić. Either way, we’re going to have a first-timer hold up that trophy at the beginning of a game in the NBA Playoffs.

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