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Joel Embiid is not just a ‘sympathy MVP’

Anyone who thinks Joel Embiid is not a worthy MVP must not have watched him play basketball this year.

Brooklyn Nets v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Two Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

As expected, Joel Embiid was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2022-23 NBA season on Tuesday night. And while Sixers fans were busy getting lost in their feels, plenty of morons rushed out to declare him a “sympathy MVP.”

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic and Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, the other two finalists for this year’s award, each have two MVPs under their belt. Embiid finished as the runner-up to Jokic in both 2020-21 and 2021-22, which perhaps did sway some voters his way this year. However, Embiid finished with 73 of the 100 first-place votes, while Jokic had 15 and Giannis had 12. One of the closest MVP races in years wound up being somewhat of a runaway, likely in part because of how Embiid’s Sixers and Jokic’s Nuggets closed out the regular season.

The Sixers had the toughest rest-of-season schedule coming out of the All-Star break, but Embiid carried them with a virtuoso month of March. Beginning with a loss to the Dallas Mavericks and ending with a double-overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls, Embiid had a franchise-record 10 straight 30-plus-point performances. Sandwiched between those two losses was an eight-game winning streak—starting with a come-from-behind road win against Giannis and the Bucks—during which time Embiid tied LeBron James’ all-time NBA record with seven straight games of 30-plus points on 55-plus percent shooting. He also hit a game-winning jumper over the outstretched arms of Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic and had a monster 36-point, 18-rebound night against the Cleveland Cavaliers’ stout frontcourt of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen.

As Embiid went on his historic tear, Jokic and the Nuggets began to stumble. An early March win over the Memphis Grizzlies effectively put them in cruise control throughout the rest of the regular season, but they proceeded to lose to the middling Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving-less Brooklyn Nets during a four-game skid in mid-March. Embiid took over as the betting favorite for MVP around that time and maintained that lead for nearly the rest of the season.

Jokic did briefly supplant Embiid in late March after the Nuggets picked up back-to-back home wins against the Bucks and Sixers, although neither Embiid nor James Harden played in the latter game. However, Embiid made an emphatic closing statement with 52 points on 20-of-25 shooting, 13 rebounds and six assists in a two-point home win over the Boston Celtics in early April. In doing so, he effectively slammed the door shut on Jokic, whose Nuggets went 2-5 over their final seven games while copiously resting players ahead of the playoffs.

Recency bias might have swung some voters late in the season, but Embiid put up MVP-caliber numbers all year. He led the league in scoring for the second straight season with 33.1 points per game, making him the first center to do so since Bob McAdoo in the mid-1970s. He also shot a career-best 54.8 percent from the field, shattering his previous high (51.3 percent in 2020-21) and added 10.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.0 steals in only 34.6 minutes per game across 66 regular-season appearances.

As Nuggets fans are quick to point out, Jokic finished ahead of Embiid in a number of catch-all advanced metrics such as PER, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. While some voters may feel beholden to obeying alphabet soup, others likely acknowledged the limitations of those metrics, particularly when it comes to measuring defensive impact.

In late March, ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry noted Jokic allowed the highest field-goal percentage (69.0 percent) of the 33 players who had defended at least 300 shots at the rim this season. By comparison, Embiid allowed opponents to shoot only 61.2 percent at the rim. Citing Second Spectrum data, Goldsberry also relayed that Jokic allowed opponents to shoot 54.2 percent on layups and dunks when he was the contesting defender and heavily contested the shot, which ranked 64th among the 65 players to heavily contest 250 layups and dunks this season.

With Embiid sidelined Monday for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Boston Celtics shot 17-of-20 from the field and scored 26 points in the paint in the first quarter alone. Even though Embiid doesn’t rack up blocks like Jaren Jackson Jr., his rim deterrence makes an enormous difference for an otherwise mediocre defensive lineup. (The Sixers had a top-10 defense despite starting James Harden and Tyrese Maxey for most of the season!)

Here’s the bottom line: All three of Embiid, Jokic and Antetokounmpo were worthy MVP candidates this season. It was easy to manipulate numbers to argue for any of the three.

Embiid’s scoring prowess helped him accomplish something that hadn’t been done for nearly 50 years. Jokic shattered the all-time record of assists per game from a center. Antetokounmpo became only the second player in NBA history to average at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists while shooting at least 55 percent from the field, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Less than a decade after the center position appeared to be going the way of the dodo, three big men finished as the MVP finalists. The amazing thing is that they all dominate in different ways.

Antetokounmpo isn’t a great shooter, but he can still muscle his way into scoring 30-plus points per game. Jokic isn’t a great defender, but he can dissect a defense with his unprecedented passing ability and outrageous scoring efficiency. Embiid isn’t the same caliber of passer as Jokic, but his mid-range proficiency and newfound ability to operate at the nail gave the Sixers the foundation of an elite offense.

All three had valid MVP cases this year. If someone preferred Jokic or Giannis as their pick, more power to them. But the “sympathy MVP” narrative implies that Embiid didn’t have an MVP-caliber season of his own, which is patently false. He became so unstoppable as a one-on-one scorer this year that the Brooklyn Nets felt compelled to swarm him with double-teams as soon as he caught the ball throughout their first-round playoff series. They vastly preferred conceding open three-pointers to his teammates rather than letting him cook.

Houston Rockets rookie forward Jabari Smith Jr. thought the Nets’ strategy confirmed Embiid’s status as this year’s MVP.

Embiid’s campaigning for MVP in recent years rubbed some people the wrong way, but that shouldn’t disqualify him from contention. In fact, Giannis made similar comments this year.

“Do I want a third MVP? Hell f—king yeah I want a third one,” Giannis told Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes in early April. “I am extremely competitive. I try to make my team successful. That’s what I get paid for. That’s what I’m here for.”

Jokic and Giannis had viable MVP cases this season as well. All three would have trounced plenty of past winners. Unfortunately, only one player could win the award. Unlike the past two years, Embiid was the one who rode a late surge to push himself over the top, much like Russell Westbrook did in the hotly contested 2016-17 race.

We shouldn’t begrudge anyone who picked Jokic or Giannis over Embiid. But anyone who’s running with the tired “sympathy MVP” narrative is not a serious person. Embiid was plenty deserving in his own right.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM.

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