A little over a week ago, the Joel Embiid MVP hype train was barreling down the track like a bullet train. Analysts and players alike were making their case for the Sixers big man to win the award, and in the betting markets, Embiid was a clear favorite, approaching nearly a two-thirds implied probability. Now, all that has changed.
Per our friends at DraftKings, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic are virtually deadlocked, with Embiid currently plus-105 and Jokic plus-110. Those odds have shifted slightly even since I started writing this post, but the point is, the MVP race is razor close.
There are a number of reasons for the shift, and ironically, the biggest might also be the dumbest. Embiid wasn’t able to suit up for Monday night’s game against Jokic and the Denver Nuggets after feeling discomfort in his sore calf during morning shootaround. The announcement came just after Joel’s big national interview with The Athletic dropped, in which he more or less makes his MVP case and takes some jabs at the major points around the Jokic candidacy: analytics, defense, etc.
The timing of everything was as poor as it gets. There are going to be the “he’s ducking him,” people out there, which is obviously ridiculous. But even for the people that reasonably know a guy shouldn’t play when he’s hurt, there’s a subconscious shift in seeing Embiid miss the widely hyped battle of the MVP hopefuls, while Jokic puts up 25-17-12 in a Denver win.
More concrete reasons exist, as well. The Sixers have lost three straight and now have no realistic chance at the two seed, with the Cavaliers coming up hard for even the three seed. Moreover, the Nuggets themselves are now two games better than Philadelphia. Previously, there had been a case to be made that, sure, Denver was the one seed in the West, but only because the West is the weaker conference this year, and the Sixers actually have a better record. It’s no longer looking like that’s going to hold up.
Finally, this calf issue is a lot more legitimate than Joel seemed to let on in his Athletic interview when he said he feels better at this point of the season than he ever has. There’s no way he misses the Denver game if it wasn’t a real thing. He might not even be available on Wednesday.
Doc Rivers says he’s optimistic James Harden will be able to play Wednesday back in Philly against Dallas, but that he’s not sure where Joel Embiid will be with his calf by then.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) March 28, 2023
We could be looking at one of the “Joel Embiid shouldn’t win MVP” greatest hits coming back on the turnstile: games played. Jokic already has a six-game edge on Embiid there (67 to 61), and if Joel misses more time due to the calf or gets load management games if the team is extra cautious, that gap could widen.
We’ll see what happens down the stretch. It wasn’t too long ago that it looked like Jokic had the award sewn up and then Embiid made a rapid charge to become the clear favorite. Things are still tight and Joel could certainly have one more push left in him. Hopefully, his calf and every other aching body part afford him that opportunity.