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Joel Embiid has pulled to the front in MVP race

The star center is in the midst of a career-best heater with no signs of slowing down.

Los Angeles Clippers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

When Joel Embiid finished as the MVP runner-up last season, it was fair to wonder if we had witnessed the best season of his career, making the Philadelphia 76ers’ ignominious exit from the 2021 NBA playoffs all the more tough to swallow. And yet, not only has Embiid put together a comparable season in 2021-22, he has been even better in nearly every area of his game.

Embiid’s mid-range shooting has regressed from last year’s historically great mark, but his three-point shooting is up a tick on greater volume. His assist numbers have skyrocketed as he has assumed much greater playmaking responsibility in both the half-court and transition, all while lowering his turnovers. Plus, Joel has reignited his fire on the defensive end in the wake of Ben Simmons’ absence, carrying a burden on both ends unlike 99 percent of the league.

Additionally, the Sixers star has been more durable than in past years. Aside from his nine-game absence while testing positive and experiencing symptoms to COVID-19, Embiid has only missed two games this season. Yet, while playing more minutes and receiving considerably fewer DNP-rest days than last season, Joel has only improved as the season has gone on.

His recent game log looks like someone playing on MyCareer in NBA2K. Joel has scored at least 38 points in each of his last four games. Since Christmas, Embiid has reached at least 30 points in every contest, with the exception of the Celtics game on Jan. 14 where he scored 25 points (also sitting the final three minutes when he normally plays due to the Sixers’ large lead). Since that December 25, 2021 date (15 games played), Embiid leads the league in scoring (34.7 ppg), is top-15 in both rebounding (10.7 rpg) and blocked shots (1.5 bpg), with an excellent 4.3 assists per game. Every night on the Sixers television broadcast, some graphic pops up showing Embiid alongside only Wilt Chamberlain, Charles Barkley, or Allen Iverson for one franchise record or another.

The big man also steps up in the toughest environments. According to NBA.com/stats, for the entire season, Embiid leads the league in points per game in clutch situations (five-point differential either way in the last five minutes); Joel is at 5.7 points per game, and the next highest is Nikola Jokic at 4.6 points per game. Embiid is shooting 53.1 percent from the field, including 50.0 percent (7-of-14) from downtown in those moments, essentially producing at an elite level despite opposing defenses being the most locked in and knowing the Sixers are going to run through their star center.

So it should come as no surprise that Embiid has climbed his way up the MVP ladder over the past month or so, and now finds himself at the top. If you look at the current odds for MVP on DraftKings, Joel Embiid is now tied with Giannis Antetokounmpo for the best odds to win the award at +300. Steph Curry and Nikola Jokic are next at +350 and +400, respectively.

In terms of the recipe for an MVP campaign, Joel Embiid has the statistical production. He has the narrative, putting the team on his back while former co-star Ben Simmons is back at home playing Call of Duty. The only shaky component is team success, which is something you could argue should or should not factor into a Most Valuable Player award, but it undeniably does. The Sixers currently sit at 28-19, sixth place in the Eastern Conference. They are only 2.0 games back of first place, but also only 2.5 games clear of the play-in tournament, all while Embiid is putting up Chamberlain-like, Iversonian numbers. If Joel should slip into merely great, but not superhuman play, it’s easy to envision the Sixers sliding a spot or two in the standings and the MVP award slipping away. However, there’s also a world within reach where a Ben Simmons trade brings significant help and the Sixers move up into the top-three of the conference, cementing Joel as a frontrunner. Such is life when you’re dealing with such nebulous criteria.

Regardless of whether he is awarded the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, Joel Embiid is our MVP - the Most Valuable Philadelphian. His competitive fire, his connection to this city and its fans, and his self-accountability to constantly improve and perform his best all combine to make an athlete defining this generation of Sixers basketball. Joel Embiid is playing his best basketball right now, and Sixers fans should soak up every second of it. Unless, you know, he actually isn’t; I’m done putting a ceiling on this man’s potential.

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