March 20, 2023
Just last month, I thought the NBA media's collective mind had been made up: Nikola Jokić would walk his way to back-to-back-to-back MVP awards, a feat unseen since Larry Bird in 1986. Deserved? Not quite to me, but it's the most divisive topic in the entire basketball world.
With less than a month less in the season, however, things have flipped dramatically. Joel Embiid, behind a bonkers scoring push, is the odds-on betting favorite to win league MVP, currently -220 while Jokić sits at +250 on DraftKings Sportsbook. Back on March 11, Embiid was at +425. What's changed in the short period since then? Well, no one on the planet can stop Embiid from scoring.
Over the last week alone, Embiid has averaged 35.0, 12.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game while bringing the goods on defense with the Sixers 3-0 in that span. They're on an eight-game win streak. The Sixers are 2.5 games back from the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference with 12 games remaining on the schedule. A season in which Embiid wins back-to-back scoring titles and propels the Sixers to maybe, just maybe, the best record in the entire NBA is in play, creating as compelling of a case as ever for the big fella to bring home the Michael Jordan Trophy.
For my recurring Monday feature here on PhillyVoice, Joel Embiid is once more my pick for "Who won the week in Philly sports." I imagine it's not the last time he'll win it this year. Hell, it probably won't be the last time this month.
I've been a bit more pessimistic about the Sixers this year than most around the internet. I was firmly in the "I'll believe it when I see it" and the "I've watched this movie a thousand times before" zone. Another inevitable playoff matchup with Boston? Yeah, have fun with that one, everyone. I thought Embiid would never win the MVP through no fault of his own, but because of this narrative national basketball writers have cultivated around the Cult of Jokić.
Everyone's been saying, "This team is different." I'm starting to actually believe that's true and if you follow the money, Embiid looks like the guy who'll win MVP. I would have shaken my head at my newfound optimism earlier this year. It looks like they've once again trapped me in their web.
In the internal Embiid vs. Jokić debate, I have a few choice points.
The concept of advanced stats and the way that's become the basis of basketball analysis has swung too far in the wrong direction.
Look, I'm someone who was always a proponent of analytics and trying to keep a progressive mindset about viewing the game in another way, pairing that with the eye test to make the best judgments possible about the sport. It's great that offensive and defensive rating have become the default team measuring sticks, eschewing points per game. True shooting percentage is an ideal way to evaluate a player's scoring efficiency while encompassing the importance of three-point shots and free throws. People have lost the plot though. Do we need RAPTOR and LEBRON? Does every Twitter talking head need to create their own wonky model with the goal to illustrate Jokić's superiority? I think not!
Media members have taken to one-up everyone and out-smart each other in the name of retweets and online fame. Is Jokić awesome at basketball? Yes, of course, but watch Embiid go to battle nightly and see he's as unstoppable of a force the league's since seen prime Shaquille O'Neal. The MVP award is how we trace the history of the league and view its peaks. Embiid's dominance needs to be acknowledged.
The funniest part of Embiid being the "eye test and wins" candidate is that his stats are damn good too.
Throwing aside his traditional 33.5 points per game, which leads the league, his efficiency at his offensive volume is unparalleled. Embiid has a usage rate of 37.2 percent, which is "an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while they were on the floor," per basketball-reference. That's the third highest-mark in the NBA. He's shouldering a huge load while also reestablishing himself as an elite defender on the opposite side of the court. Embiid has a true shooting percentage of 63.4 percent, which, again, is an updated version of field goal percentage that attempts to illustrate the correct weight threes and free throws provide. No one in Stathead's database (dating back to 1968) has hit both of those numbers. TL;DR... Embiid's scoring at a better rate while being relied on so heavily than anyone.
Embiid is averaging 47.5 points per 100 possessions. That's the second-most ever in NBA history trailing, coincidentally, his teammate James Harden's 48.2/100 possessions back in 2019 (via Stathead). Call him a walking bucket. Call him whatever you want. Embiid's ability to put the ball in the hoop, ultimately the fundamentally aspect of the game, is a sight to behold.
We can all cherry pick the statistics we like!
No Sixer has won MVP since Allen Iverson in 2001. After Embiid's MVP runner-up finishes the last two years, I had resigned myself to the fact that I'd never see a Sixer win the award again. That might all be about to change and it appears the race is his to lose.
Embiid was also named Eastern Conference Player of the Week on Monday afternoon. Not only did he win the week in Philly sports, he won the week in the East!
2023 Who Won the Week Tally:
Joel Embiid: 4
James Harden: 2
Mac McClung: 1
Haason Reddick: 1
Kenny Gainwell: 1
DeVonta Smith: 1
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