An Honest Discussion Of The Current NBA MVP Race And How Joel Embiid Has Closed The Gap
One thing I've always thought was important when it comes to the blogging game, especially the NBA blogging game, is being fair and consistent regardless of the topic. If that means I have to give the Lakers credit for a great trade deadline despite my wishing nothing but bad things for that franchise, so be it. At some point, telling the truth is important when talking about this sport and this league.
As you can imagine, this is also the case with MVP. It's why you won't hear me talking nowadays about how Jayson Tatum should be the MVP, his inconsistent play paired with how the team has been playing since the break has shifted his case. With this award, things are fluid basically right up until the end of the year.
What I have done is blog about Nikola Jokic and his insane season and what that means for the MVP race. In the spirit of being honest and fair, the time has come to do the same for Joel Embiid. Yeah, it may seem weird that a Celts guy is blogging about the Sixers, but I can put aside my personal thoughts and opinions when it comes to this debate and Embiid because I have eyes.
Unfortunately, honest discussions around this award have been dead for a long time. Shit like this
is performance art. It's meant to go viral and get a reaction out of people while providing nothing really of substance to the discussion.
At the same time, I think it's important to truly talk about what Joel Embiid is doing on the basketball court. We do the same with other MVP candidates, I've literally written the Jokic blogs about it, and given what Embiid has been doing on the floor can't really be ignored or dismissed.
A big thing with Joel is of course his availability. Well, here's the truth of the matter. Outside of his injury issues to start the year where he missed 8 of the Sixers first 20 games, Embiid has missed only 5 games since. Since 1/10, he's missed just 2. Jokic may lead the top 3 candidates with 60 games played, but Embiid's 54 aren't too far behind and currently are more than Giannis. What will be interesting is if Embiid plays all of the remaining 15 games on the Sixers schedule he'll finish with 69 games played. If you remember, part of what hurt him last year is he only played 68 games. It may be inconsistent, but given how he's playing and the team success, I do not think availability is going to work against Embiid the same way this year. To me, when talking Jokic/Embiid, the availability thing is a wash.
Since Embiid returned to the lineup on 11/27, if you are someone who cares about team success, the Sixers have the best winning% in the NBA at 35-13. From there, it goes Bucks (35-14) and Nuggets (34-15). Here's where I think things need to be consistent. Part of Jokic's case was the fact that the Nuggets were the #1 seed. Well, it's not exactly Embiid's fault that he plays in a tougher conference. If you took at the top 10 teams in terms of wins since that 11/27 date, 7 of the 10 are in the East. So, if you were someone who factored in the team success into an MVP case, you cannot ignore that Embiid's Sixers have checked off that box.
Some might say well, Embiid has better teammates, and I suppose that's true. There is no 2023 James Harden on the Nuggets. The Bucks seem to survive without Giannis just fine. But to me, the value and importance of a player shouldn't be knocked because he has good teammates. Their responsibilities might be different and the burdens they have to carry are not the same. For example, Embiid doesn't have to worry about shot creation or initiating offense or any of that stuff because he plays with Harden, the same way Giannis doesn't either because he plays with Jrue Holiday. But when you watch their games and you can clearly see how important both Giannis and Embiid are to their team's success.
Part of the MVP case whether you think it should be or not, is signature moments. At this time of the year, what you do on the court matters a little more. There's a degree of recency bias in there as something that happens in March/April is obviously going to be on your brain more than something that may have happened in December, but when talking about Embiid's case specifically, there's no denying that he has taken advantage of those "signature moment" opportunities as of late. That stuff matters, especially when seeding races are as tight as they are in the East right now.
Since 2023 started, the Sixers are tied with the Knicks for the 2nd most clutch time wins in the league (14), and outside of MIL's 15-2 mark, the Sixers are right there with one of the best clutch records over the last two months at 14-6. Embiid is a pretty massive part of that success. Did you know he's shooting 48.5/42.9% in those moments? I'd say that's pretty good.
Of course, there's also the defensive end of the court. This is probably where the largest difference between Embiid and Jokic lives. I wouldn't say Embiid has been better than Giannis defensively, but at this point it really feels like a 2 man race between he and Jokic, so I'm not sure that matters. Here's where things get interesting.
On the season, the Nuggets own the best clutch time defense with a rating of 93.0. The Sixers are right behind at 93.2. The thing is, I don't think it's a stretch to say Embiid's late game defense plays much more of a factor than Jokic on that end in these close games. In the 4th quarter this year, opponents' FG% drops from 50.1% to 44.3% when facing Embiid. With Jokic, it goes from 49.1% to 46.6%. It's a slight difference, but that matches what your eyes probably see. It's tougher to score on Embiid late than it is on Jokic late. I know there are viral videos of Jokic's defense that get put out by Sixers fans, but I don't care about 1st quarter defense. I personally care more about what you're doing when things count the most, and to me, that's at the end of games.
This is why the home stretch is going to be so much fun, especially the final meeting between PHI/DEN in a few weeks. While I disagree with Stephen A and Perk that things have flipped and it would be crazy to have Jokic as the front runner, it is true that Joel Embiid has more than closed the gap given his recent play combined with the team success. That's what we all say we want right?
I think it would be dishonest to suggest this race is over, or really that there is even that big of a gap between the #1 and #2 guy. Embiid's play has altered things a little bit, and there's still every opportunity for Jokic to do his thing and respond. It wouldn't shock me if that head to head meeting played a massive role not just in terms of how each guy does, but what it means for each team in that moment.
With 15ish games to go, everything is still on the table and for my money is as wide open between the top two guys as they have been all year. I think it's OK to acknowledge that without trying to slander or discredit either guy. Should be a run race to the finish.