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May 02, 2023

Joel Embiid wins NBA MVP, breaking through with his best season ever

Sixers center Joel Embiid becomes the first Philadelphia player to win the NBA's MVP Award since Allen Iverson in 2001.

Joel Embiid has been named the NBA’s Most Valuable player for 2022-23, capturing the league’s top individual honor after finishing as runner-up in each of the two previous seasons. In what was expected to be a photo finish, Embiid’s place at the top of the MVP pile has felt assured for most of the last month.

Embiid is expected to be presented with the trophy prior to Game 3 of Sixers-Celtics on Friday night in Philadelphia. 

In a race that was expected to be close, Embiid ended up pulling away in the end, receiving 73 out of 100 possible first-place votes. The full voting totals can be seen below:

The big man’s credentials in this race spoke for themselves. Averaging a league-leading 33.1 points per game, Embiid became the first center to repeat as NBA scoring champion since Bob McAdoo’s run of three straight scoring titles in the mid-1970s. Embiid managed that feat while improving his efficiency to career-best levels, making nearly 55 percent of his field goal attempts despite living from a midrange area that has largely been abandoned by NBA teams.

Embiid’s scoring evolution was powered in large part by an off-season adjustment to shift his favored spots on the floor. Philadelphia’s offense revolves around the Embiid/James Harden pick-and-roll connection in the middle of the floor, with the big man attacking opposing defenses primarily from the elbows instead of the post. That small but significant shift allowed Embiid to leverage his scoring gifts while protecting him from the danger of double teams, which was highlighted in his pass-first approach to Philadelphia’s first-round series against Brooklyn. 

“Getting the ball at the nail and getting doubled, you got the vision of everything,” Embiid said following a win in mid-April. “Everything is wide open as long as we've got the right spacing and everybody is flat. I can see everything, and you can make plays from the left side and right side, just because you're in the middle of the floor."

Embiid’s 2022-23 campaign distinguished itself from previous seasons due in part to big-time wins and performances from the big man when the narrative was there to seize. In the only game he played against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets this season, Embiid powered a massive Sixers comeback and scored 47 points in one of the season’s signature moments. Embiid and the Sixers split their season series with the East-leading Bucks, scoring a nationally televised win on the road in Milwaukee with a 48-point fourth quarter that ended with an Embiid dagger from deep. And as the tail winds behind him died down late in the year, Embiid saved one last fireball for the final week of the season, dropping 52 points on national television in Philadelphia’s final regular season battle against the Celtics. 

All told, Embiid had 13 games of 40 points or more, including three different 50-point games, highlighted by a career-high 59 points against the Jazz in mid-November. On that night, Embiid turned in perhaps the most comprehensive outing of the season, adding 11 rebounds, eight assists, and seven blocks to his gargantuan scoring total.

“I've seen a guy score a lot of points. I haven't seen a guy score a lot of points, rebound, and then the blocked shots. That was impressive. He was getting everything," Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said following that win in November. "I have never seen a more dominating performance when you combine defense and offense."

That all-encompassing impact ended up being the clearest argument for Embiid as the league’s top dog. With Embiid suffering another injury in the playoffs, dissenters have resurfaced recently to pick at his case for this award. But judging their respective bodies of work, Embiid outclassed Giannis Antetokounmpo in the scoring department and offered a stiffer defensive presence than Jokic, offering voters (and the public) a straightforward case as the best two-way player in the league. 

That argument appeared to sway many of his peers around the league, too. Embiid was the decisive MVP winner in an anonymous players poll posted at the end of the regular season and was shouted out by starry peers around the league in recent weeks, including four-time champion Steph Curry and former Sixers teammate Jimmy Butler.

“Joel’s the MVP,” Butler told reporters in April. “He should have been MVP last year, too.”

The biggest feather in Embiid’s cap, however, could end up being the trajectory Philadelphia is headed on as a group. Throughout the season, teammates and coaches have noted the importance of Embiid’s leadership, both as a voice in the locker room and as a tone-setter on the floor. Behind his leadership, the Sixers fought through early season adversity and overcame a plethora of double-digit leads during the season, showing a level of resolve that has been missing in past Sixers seasons. Philadelphia ended up finishing with the third-best record in the league and their best record as a franchise in over two decades, with Embiid dragging them to quite a few victories all by himself this season.

This award carries great personal significance for Embiid, the high mark of a remarkable path from obscurity in Cameroon to stardom in Philadelphia, on a journey littered with personal loss and significant injury, and even doubt that he would play in the first place. But as he has moved closer to the mountaintop, it is that quest to win games and achieve the ultimate team goal that has served as the endpoint for all of his discussions this season. In his quest to leave behind a towering legacy for his son, Arthur, named after the younger brother he lost while chasing his basketball dream in America, Embiid knows the most important step toward inner-circle greatness remains in front of him.

Tonight for me was kind of disappointing,” Embiid said after dropping 52 points on Boston in April. “We found so many ways to try to lose a game tonight. That's on all of us, I'm part of it, could have been better, I had a couple of dumb plays over-helping…we’ve got big goals in mind, we've got to be better than that."

If there is an Embiid better than the one who overwhelmed NBA teams on both ends of the floor this season, then this journey still has a few stops left, as the MVP tries to steer Philadelphia toward a goal that has eluded them for 40 years. 

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