Joel Embiid Losing MVP: It's Not Okay But It's Right
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I'm conceding Joel Embiid's MVP campaign.
You can trust me this is not easy for me to do, and you can double-trust me that this has nothing to do with his 28-13-8 performance in the loss to Golden State Monday night (which, by Embiid's original-run Velvet Underground standards, somehow qualifies as a quasi-dud, but was still largely breathtaking). The sad fact is that it's time — because the noise around the MVP race is getting to be ear-bleeding and because, as Dan Devine pointed out for The Ringer earlier this week, there's really nothing left for him to do at this point. Embiid has played like an MVP this season, but he's still not going to win the MVP this season -- or at the very least, he probably shouldn't. That's tough, but it is what it is at this point.
Nikola Jokic should win the MVP. Again, not easy for me to admit: I don't consider Jokic or the Nuggets true Enemies of the Process as ahem ahem loud coughing sounds some RTRS folks do, but I'll certainly ride for Embiid over him forever, and few things would make me happier than for Joel to take his revenge against Nikola for stealing his MVP by dunking on him in every regular season matchup from now until The Simpsons finally gets canceled. I think Embiid's been better this year. But by the traditional standards of the Most Valuable Player award -- what the award has long been interpreted to mean, and how it's been voted essentially every year but one until this point — Jokic should be the MVP this year.
Just because of games played, you groan? Yes, basically, just because of games played. Missing 18 games would be a lot during a normal season, and in the shortened season this year, it's a full quarter of the games. That's a lot of games. Well it's a weird COVID season, everyone's missed games this year! Yes, everyone except one guy -- the guy who should and probably will win MVP, who's played in 56 out of 56 so far. He could miss the rest of this season (which he won't) and still end up with more games played than Embiid. That's incredible given the season's schedule and his own usual workload, and it's enough to legitimately give him an edge not worth contesting in this MVP race.
This might seem cowardly, and perhaps it is, but one more time, please trust me that I was ready to go to the absolute mattressest of mattresses to combat an ill-earned MVP win over our guy. When it looked like LeBron James was going to use games played as the lead item on his MVP resumé, I was abjectly furious, because his season in the games he did play was simply not near the same level as Embiid's. Joel had him wildly outpaced in just about every possible statistic -- basic, advanced or theoretical -- and the primary argument for him winning (aside from him playing in every game to that point) basically amounted to "well, he's sick of not winning, and man wasn't he great in the playoffs last year?" It was absolute bullshit, and everyone who wasn't a Lakers fan, an ex-coach and/or currently in the employ of ESPN knew it.
But this isn't that. Jokic has been historically great this season. Like Embiid, he is putting up numbers no other big man has done before -- a preposterous 26-11-9 on 57/42/86 shooting splits — and some advanced stats don't just say he's having a better season than Embiid (or anyone else), but a significantly superior one. When the Nuggets were struggling to secure home court in the West, it looked like the team might just not be good enough to support an MVP case, but now that they've taken off post-Aaron Gordon trade, that's not really a concern anymore -- and even with the crippling Jamal Murray injury, it probably still won't be, with Denver responding to their first two-game losing streak in months by waxing the Heat and Rockets, and with no one else in their conference really breathing down their necks at this point. It's a legitimate MVP campaign.
Yes, Embiid plays elite defense at a level Jokic can't match, and yes, the Sixers have had a better record this season than the Nuggets, particularly if you only count the games Embiid has played. I agree that these things would be enough to give Embiid the MVP edge if their games played were close to comparable, but they're not. As has been oft cited this season, the MVP has only once gone to a player that's missed anywhere near as much of a season as Embiid has -- Bill Walton in 1978, who played in 58 of the Blazers' first 60 games before missing the rest of the regular season with a broken foot. In that case, Walton took advantage of a historically great Blazers run (they started the season 50-10 after winning the championship the year before), a lack of highest-level competition in perhaps the weirdest era in NBA history, and likely some overstated old-world reverence for a white big man so aggressively Playing the Right Way. It's arguable whether Walton was a deserving MVP, but I don't think it actually bears much on this particular MVP race -- it's a weird season, but the Sixers haven't been historically great, and Jokic has a much stronger case than anyone Walton trumped.
It stinks. This should have been Joel's year. His body was right, his mind was right, his team was right, his coach and GM were right. Every game he's suited up for, he's played the way an MVP should play -- maybe not always all game, but every game. He's made us see the stars. It's been beyond what our wildest, already super-fucking-creepy dreams had been for our JoJo, and it absolutely should've ended with him hoisting the whatever-random-ass-forgotten-dude-name-we-give-to-the-MVP-trophy trophy. I wanted it as much as anything. He might never get this close again, and it's gut-wrenching to think that a poster dunk on Garrison Matthews may have ruined his only real chance.
But it's not worth chasing something that just isn't there. The ESPN crew was saying during last Friday's game against the Clippers that Embiid's strong play was forcing his way back into the MVP conversation, which is just nonsensical at this point -- sure, he's playing great (as he has all season), but the only ground he actually needs to make up in this discussion is a gap he can't close on his own, and likely won't close at all. It's pretty clear the national media and NBA world at large just needs something to talk about that isn't how many key players are missing key games in this Dave Silver fever dream of an NBA regular season, so they're forcing a still-heated MVP race when in reality this thing's been cold for weeks. Maybe it'll work -- LeBron's certainly proven this season that the MVP is half media narrative at this point -- but I don't think it'll be enough to make the difference for Jo, and I can't take the sheer nonsense of all of it anymore anyway. Enough already.
Fact is, MVP hope is a dangerous thing for a player like Embiid to have at this point. If he gets fed enough media hogwash about how the trophy is still close, so close! if only he continues to play at a high-enough level and he doesn't miss any more games from here, he could end up playing too many minutes in too many games where he's really not required at this point. The Sixers are only one game up on the Nets in the East, but it's really two games with the tiebreaker -- and Brooklyn has shown no pressing desire to push for the one seed, letting their guys matriculate in and out of the lineup with injuries minor and major, taking an understandably very relaxed attitude towards getting them back. Their schedule is much tougher than Philly's down the stretch. We don't need MVP Joel every night to secure the top seed, and him pushing for it every night is how he ends up tweaking, spraining or breaking some random body part on some fluke play and getting re-evaluated in three weeks. There's just no way it's worth it, for him or for the Sixers.
And that's probably the healthiest way to look at this, really. Jokic is going to win the MVP, because it's a regular season award and because that's really where his relevance ends this year. The Nuggets are hardly a non-factor in the West this year, but with Murray's season-ending ACL tear, they're not really contenders either -- they're a true fourth seed, and given that they're currently ticketed for a first-round matchup with the reigning champ Lakers (presumably with LeBron and Anthony Davis back), they might not be particularly long for this postseason at all. Meanwhile, Embiid is on the likely top seed, with a real chance of getting to the finals, and maybe even getting that other trophy named after a dead guy -- which probably means (slightly? maybe?) more to him anyway.
He's in good company on the Sixers, too -- we're chock full of almost-but-not-quite awards contenders this year. Despite his Tracy Flick-degree campaigning, Ben Simmons is probably not actually going to win Defensive Player of the Year, because Rudy Gobert's stats are gaudier and because big men are more traditionally valuable and because the Jazz have a better record (and no second-best defender anywhere near Embiid's level) and because Rudy Gobert is really, really fucking valuable on defense. And despite taking the Sixers from a six seed to a one seed with largely the same roster, and coaxing career years out of seemingly half the lineup, Doc Rivers is probably not actually going to win Coach of the Year, because Quinn Snyder and Monty Williams have done similarly good jobs squeezing wins out of rosters not expected to be contenders this year, and because neither has an Embiid dragging them to the finish line every night. Both have good cases, but they're going against competition who also have good cases, and a likely edge where it matters.
It sucks but it's fine. I know we'd all had hopes of the Sixers echoing 20 years ago, when the Sixers swept MVP (Allen Iverson), Coach of the Year (Larry Brown), Defensive Player of the Year (Dikembe Mutombo) and even Sixth Man of the Year (Aaron McKie). We'll get pretty damn close in all of them -- well, maybe not Sixth Man, though I still believe in you Shake!! -- and the fact that we aren't likely to take home any of them at this point will indeed gnaw at me. But our award-season battles of past Process years (Jo and Dario vs. Malcolm Brogdon, Michael Carter-Williams vs. Victor Oladipo) have been waged in large part because there was nothing else to come after -- once those arguments were over, that was it for us until draft night. This year, we get the privilege of nursing our award-season snubs with a hopefully deep, vengeance-wreaking playoff run. Jokic can enjoy running the two-man game with his *Maurice Podoloff Trophy* from the thin-air comfort of his Denver living room.