MIAMI — Joel Embiid was not surprised Monday morning when ESPN broke the news that Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic had beaten him out for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award for the second consecutive season.
The 76ers’ All-Star center had arrived at that conclusion late in the regular season, when ESPN’s expansive straw poll pointed toward Jokic winning. Then the Sixers lost to Denver and fellow finalist Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks in the final weeks.
And following the Sixers’ disastrous 120-85 defeat against the Heat Tuesday night at FTX Arena in a pivotal Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Embiid congratulated Jokic while acknowleding, “I don’t know what I have to do” to earn the sport’s most prestigious individual honor. He vowed to fully shift his focus to winning a championship.
“He deserved it,” Embiid said of Jokic. “He had an amazing season. There’s no right or wrong [answer]. There [were] a lot of candidates. It could have gone either way, or [to] Giannis or [the Phoenix Suns’] Devin Booker, being on the best team in the league by far. So I guess, every year, it’s all about whatever you guys [the media] decide, whatever fits the narrative as far as who’s going to win. …
“I’m not mad. That’s two years in a row I put myself in that position. It didn’t happen. It’s almost like, at this point, it’s whatever. Whatever happens, happens.”
Embiid’s first public comments on the MVP news came at the end of a horrendous night for him and his team. The Sixers are now down 3-2 and on the brink of playoff elimination after a game in which they admitted they did not match Miami’s physicality or energy level from the jump.
And over the course of totaling 17 points and five rebounds — and the worst plus-minus of his playoff career (minus-29) — Embiid also fell to the floor in pain after being inadvertently knocked in the face with the basketball near his orbital fracture, and appeared to hurt his back while diving into the stands.
In the middle of his expansive answer about the MVP result, Embiid said he took issue with a comment made by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons on his ultra-popular podcast because of what it could portray (or reveal) about award voters. Simmons, one of sports media’s most influential figures, said “[expletive] Jalen Green” while discussing his candidacy for All-Rookie honors while playing for a Houston Rockets team that finished with a 20-62 record.
“What if Jalen Green was in a position to earn a super-max [contract] or, I don’t know, an All-Star appearance?” Embiid said. “And you got someone sounding like that and has a lot of power. He can sway a lot of other media members. You got someone saying [that] type of stuff, I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t think it’s OK.”
Embiid’s MVP credentials included averaging 30.6 points per game to become the first center to lead the NBA in scoring since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000. Embiid also averaged 11.7 rebounds and a career-high 4.2 assists per game. He played the most regular-season games of his career (68) in an effort to diminish the narrative that he is injury-prone. And he helped the Sixers navigate the Ben Simmons saga, after the All-Star guard refused to play for the team before being traded to the Brooklyn Nets for James Harden at the February deadline.
Earlier Wednesday, coach Doc Rivers and teammates Tyrese Maxey and Georges Niang expressed their disappointment that Embiid was not the choice for MVP. Rivers said he believed “this whole analytic-driven society, world is out of control at times with some of the measures that they use,” a reference to some metrics that favor Jokic. Maxey praised Emibiid’s availability throughout the season. Niang proclaimed, “Now you guys get to see a [ticked-off] Joel … so you’re welcome.”
In Embiid’s first two games against the Heat since returning from the orbital fracture and concussion — and while continuing to play with a torn ligament in his right thumb suffered in Game 3 of the Sixers’ first-round series against the Toronto Raptors — the impact of his sheer presence had been on display. He unlocked shooters who had been woeful in Miami but went 48% (32-of-66) from three-point range in the victorious Games 3 and 4. Matisse Thybulle explained how Embiid played a “mental game” on the defensive end, to bait opponents into shooting floaters between the elbow and the charge circle.
But that did not carry over during Tuesday’s Game 5. Other than a stretch of seven consecutive points in the third quarter, when the Heat’s lead had already ballooned to a comfortable margin, Embiid struggled to establish himself as the dominant force he had been before the recent rash of injuries. He said he was not aggressive enough, even when the Heat deployed an array of double teams against him. He declined to go into detail when asked about his health, saying any answer he provided could be perceived as him making excuses or that he is soft.
“I’m just trying my best, honestly,” Embiid said.
In the midst of attempting to explain the Sixers’ atrocious performance Tuesday night, Embiid was equally subdued when speaking about not winning MVP. He acknowledged he had campaigned for the award last season, when many believe he would have won it if not for a late-season knee injury. This season, he “answered questions when I was asked.”
And moving forward?
“Not that I wasn’t focused on the bigger picture,” Embiid said. “but it’s really time to put all my energy into the bigger picture — which is to win the whole thing.”