Joel Embiid: MVP?
More like Joel Embiid: DNP.
The most compelling line in the NBA race doesn’t involve points, or rebounds, or Win Shares. It’s this line: 28-28-36.
That’s the number of games the Lakers have played, the number of games LeBron James has played, and LeBron James’ age.
Embiid? He’s 28-22-26.
To put it another way: the oldest starter in the NBA has played in 21% more games than a man 10 years his junior. A decade. Further, the younger man keeps missing games against top competition, including Monday’s last-minute scratch at Utah. This fact should not be lost on voters.
Maybe they’ll factor in LeBron’s dirty play on Jan. 27 — a shove to Embiid’s midsection, mid-dunk, that put the big man on his back — which might cost Embiid games down the road. That would be just. But unlikely, since that’s LeBron’s brand.
Objectively, individual awards are little more than marketing tools designed to drum up midseason interest in overlong seasons. Recent NBA results make its accolades the most absurd; LeBron hasn’t won the MVP in eight years, despite winning two titles and making seven NBA Finals appearances. But that doesn’t mean the awards don’t drive conversation, or that they aren’t important to the stars themselves. Hey, it’s February.
Embiid, the most aggressive self-promoter since Deion Sanders, is campaigning to be the NBA’s Most Valuable Player harder than the last sitting president campaigned for reelection. But the Sixers needed their MVP against the Jazz, the best team in the league, and he decided to not play. The Sixers started Mike Scott. Missing Embiid’s 29.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, and about 15 instances in which opponents simply decline to drive the lane, they lost.
When Embiid does not play, they lose more often than not (1-5).
Which, incredibly, is still more often than not.
Since Sam Hinkie drafted him in 2014, Embiid has missed 280 regular-season games and played in 231.
That’s a bit misleading, and maybe a tad unfair since Embiid missed the entirety of his first two seasons. But he was paid for them. So there’s that.
More fairly, then: Embiid has missed 119 of the last 373 Sixers games, including playoffs. That’s 32%. So this season’s 21% absence rate is an improvement. Maybe voters will credit him for progress.
The (fragile) Process
Embiid is the Cadillac Escalade of hoopers: big, powerful, refined, and notoriously undependable. He’s 7 feet tall, weighs around 280 pounds (depending on his Chick-fil-A order), and he’s always hurt. He’s had back, foot, and knee issues since he was drafted.
To his credit, Embiid plays like a maniac, diving and sprinting and continually selling out. To his harm, maybe he shouldn’t.
Maybe it really is chronic back tightness. Embiid generally has determined his own fitness to play for at least the past two seasons, and he says he wants to play all the time ... but then, I say I want to eat less cake and more quinoa all the time, yet here we are.
Maybe, instead, it’s chronic load management, wink, wink — which now is outlawed, especially for road games. This seems unlikely, since Sixers coach Doc Rivers said Monday night, “I thought there were no issues with Joel. I thought he’d play.”
Maybe Doc should have checked the Jazz’s roster.
Because maybe this is really chronic center-itis. As The Inquirer pointed out Tuesday, the six games Embiid has missed involved matchups against: Rudy Gobert (Jazz); Andre Drummond (Cavaliers); Nikola Jokić (Nuggets); Jonas Valančiūnas (Grizzlies); and power forward Domantas Sabonis (Pacers).
And most of those big men aren’t even that good.
The rest of the field
At this point, among those players, only Jokic has a real chance in the MVP race. Notably, Embiid played against the Lakers, who featured not just LeBron but also Anthony Davis, an MVP candidate himself until he sustained a calf injury Sunday, which might cost him a month.
Most candidates have significant flaws. Giannis Antetokounmpo won the last two MVPs with the Bucks, but his playoff failures have diminished his popularity. Former MVP James Harden, now with the Nets, finally has been recognized for the volume-shooting, one-dimensional gunner that he is, while Nets teammate Kevin Durant, LeBron’s only worthy challenger in the last 10 years, has injury issues of this own. Luka Dončić and the Mavericks might miss the playoffs, and Steph Curry’s Warriors are a borderline postseason team, and it’s rare for postseason afterthoughts to produce MVPs.
Personally, I’d love to see Damian Lillard get a lot of votes — he’s carrying the Trail Blazers in the absence of injured CJ McCollum — and Devin Booker and the Suns are the fresh new story, but the MVP looks like a two-man race.
And the old man has a six-game lead.