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Winning a scoring title over LeBron and Giannis wouldn’t hurt Joel Embiid’s MVP case

Joel Embiid took the points per game lead over both LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo by dropping 45 on the Pacers

Philadelphia 76ers v Indiana Pacers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Joel Embiid has just three games remaining to finalize his case for MVP.

One milestone, very much within his grasp, one piece of evidence he might submit the voters could be a Scoring Title. After his 45-point obliteration of Indiana front-court players, Embiid’s points per game average is up to 30.42. That’s just a hair above LeBron James who sits at 30.27 points per game, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, at 29.89, according to nba.com.

It’s very, very close.

The Sixers sit in fourth place in the East at 49-30, they’re tied with the Boston Celtics, 2.5 games out of first. Moving up at all in the standings probably wouldn’t hurt Embiid’s MVP case either.

Of course, the points is not his main focus. You remembered that there are other factors, like integrity, or letting things come to him. Rooting for him to break his career high on Tuesday, I couldn’t help but smile as he made the right read on kick outs to James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, and Tobias Harris down the stretch, even with the game in hand. Nobody would have faulted him for taking a couple heat-check step backs to break a career-high 50. He dribbled out a pretty full shot clock at the very end. He’s not simply chasing it.

He’s still hellbent on bringing a title to this city and he knows that means being content to check out of a ballgame when he’s merely tied but not broken his career high. He doesn’t pout or scowl when Doc Rivers gives him the signal to wave and enjoy a standing O and MVP chant before calling it a night.

Recall back on Jan. 19, the Sixers were booed by their home fans going into the break as they trailed the lottery-bound Orlando Magic by 10. But then Embiid went ballistic in the third quarter. He scored his 47th point of the night in the third period on a step back triple over Robin Lopez. He had only played 26 minutes by that point. Doc Rivers let Embiid check back into the game, by then a blowout, just to tie or break his career high. After a few more free throws, he hit the bench for good totaling 27 minutes. Old school load management well earned. That he responded so well to the boos was also some vague reminder of how he pulled this team through the Ben Simmons absence.

Still, despite improving significantly as a playmaker this season, Embiid also has a chance to become the first center since Shaq (in 2000) to lead the NBA in points per game:

2018 NBA All-Star Game Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

When we look back on moments like that one vs. Orlando, now that Embiid finds himself in a nail-biter for the scoring title, we think of the buckets he left on the board in order to log some hard earned rest. If only he played one more minute, maybe he could lock up yet another narrative-based piece of evidence before he rests his MVP case.

Other candidates like LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo could point to similar moments of their own, when they rested with buckets still to be had.

But the race is oh so close.

Here was what NBA.com said prior to the Tuesday night slate of games:

“At the close of Week 22, the race between Embiid, LeBron and Giannis had only gotten tighter, as the three players were now separated by just 0.03 ppg. That would not only be the closest three-player race ever, but the closest any race has ever been decided, topping the 0.07 from George Gervin and David Thompson back in 1977-78.”

LeBron James needs to appear in two of the Lakers remaining contests in order to qualify for the honor of official scoring titleist. You can bet that if King’s ankle feels well enough, he’ll be coming for more history. He’d become the oldest (37-years-old) scoring champ ever. The Lakers suffered a fitting end to their disastrous season, so it would be the only thing left for him to play for.

Giannis suited up for Milwaukee Tuesday but he only dropped 18 points in 24 minutes, his coach Mike Budenholzer, somehow persuading Freak to snag some rest rather than pursue the individual honors in extended garbage time.

Bear with me on a quick tangent, will ya? Don’t worry it’s still Embiid themed.

It must be at least a little touchy for LeBron to be vying with The Process for honors here. LeBron may have had some input on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ decision to draft Andrew Wiggins (not Embiid) and trade him for Kevin Love back in 2014. He may not regret that one since he won a title long before Embiid was the force he’s become. But the Sixers would have been ecstatic to sign LeBron as a free agent four years later when he decided instead to take his talents to Venice Beach.

Where would LeBron’s career and legacy be today if he instead decided to hitch his wagon to Joel?

It seems eminently plausible he’d have at least matched his current ring total and it’s not out of the realm of possibility he’d have a shot to match Michael Jordan’s six total ring count eventually (LeBron’s stuck on four). Embiid might have helped him make a Tom Brady-like case for himself.

Hopefully he really loves his California lifestyle because if his only goal was to be considered the G.O.A.T whenever he hangs it up, he’d have joined the Sixers a few seasons ago. If he thought Anthony Davis was a better long-term running mate at one point, it was a miscalculation. It might limit his ultimate legacy compared to what might have been.

(Not that I’m still disappointed).

Winning a scoring title wouldn’t lock up the MVP for Joel Embiid. It would still come down to some possibly undecided voters.

Any year-to-date measure like scoring leader would be awesome. But when it gets down to the wire here, it also starts to feel pretty arbitrary. So... LeBron’s team is eliminated, but if he can play in two games and score enough, even if it doesn’t help his team win, he can steal the arbitrary statistical threshold which might provide the narrative for Embiid to maybe convince some undecided voters he was better than he already was... or something?

Being the first big since Shaq to average this many points is totally amazing, unless LeBron averages 0.000001 more PPG, than it’s amazing but not nearly as amazing. The old Seinfeld bit about first place in the olympics, greatest guy ever, second place by just a nose, never heard of ya.

One need only ask James Harden, who was beyond worthy of the MVP in 2017 about the impact of narrative. Harden was the best regular season player in the 2016-2017 season. I could make a case for Kawhi Leonard that year as well. But Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double and that moved voters. First since Oscar Robertson to do that. So maybe a scoring title would do that for Embiid and bring up narratives about the long lost dominant big man.

The funniest part about that is thinking how easily Harden (who was two rebounds shy of the honor himself, but whose team won eight more games than Westbrook’s) could have tweaked his stat line back in 2017. What do you want two more boards and two more points per game? And it doesn’t even matter if I cost us eight wins gunning for that? Got you.

Do I feel good about myself nitpicking Russell Westbrook, a future Hall of Famers’ resume at a time when he and the Lakers are down? No, I don’t. Am I rambling a bit here? Yes. What’s the point? So much of this is subjective. And Embiid already has an MVP-worthy case even without this points per game contest.

The top three MVP candidates are all awesome and pretty much worthy. Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Giannis.

But consider my mini-Embiid case here.

The Milwaukee Bucks have the same exact record as the 76ers through 79 games. They’re both 49-30.

Khris Middleton is a two-way assassin. Jrue Holiday is too. Middleton was an All-Star. Holiday easily could have been and is noted as one of the top snubs. Middleton has played 2,074 minutes this season. Holiday played 2,142 minutes. Giannis’ star teammates have been crucial to the Bucks success all season long, just like they were during their epic title run a season ago. Khris and Jrue led the way to win the final two games of a series vs. a fierce Hawks team in the ECF when Giannis was out of the lineup altogether.

Embiid hasn’t had that type of consistent help. His team simply isn’t coached as well either.

James Harden has only played 700+ minutes in Philly. With all due respect to Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris, that duo hasn’t been as good as the one that flanks Giannis. And again, they have the exact same record.

That leaves us with Nikola Jokic, the odds on betting favorite, making a late season surge for MVP. The talent-around-him argument works in Jokic’s favor here too like it does for Joel.

My argument for Embiid over him is a fairly reductive “the difference between these guys on offense is closer than the difference between them on defense, that makes Embiid the better two-way player.”

If we could magically boil them down to precise NBA 2K ratings for each half of the game, Embiid’s two-way impact would probably net us a higher total. OK, maybe Jokic is a 95 on offense and Embiid is only a 90. But then Joel is a 88 on defense and Jokic is only an 80 on defense. Or something.

That seemed to be the case to me when the two players met head-to-head. Embiid looked like the very best option in the NBA to defend both Jokic and Giannis when they played.

I’m biased as I write for Liberty Ballers but my vote would go for Joel Embiid as MVP.

With just a few games remaining, I hope Joel can continue to let the game come to him and assert his dominance when needed. And then I hope those on the fence are completely blown away by the points per game angle. Unless Embiid opts to rest for the playoffs, and LeBron drops 70 on the Thunder. Then I hope they realize how silly the scoring title is.