5 Steps To Joel Embiid Winning MVP
Let's focus on Joel Embiid getting the MVP, and then we can figure out what our chances are of him then leading us to the title.
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A lot of ink will be spilled this week, both before and after his presumptive Sixers debut this Friday in Minnesota, about James Harden's fit with this Philly team. It's fair: How well and how quickly Harden fits with the rest of the Sixers core around him -- one both compromised enough to lose to Boston by 48 at home, and fortified enough to bounce back with a win in Milwaukee two days later -- will be the primary factor in determining whether this team has a real chance at competing for the championship this season. Already, it's more reason we've had to hope for these Sixers arguably since the Process began -- which is a pretty big deal, considering how many times we've already had setbacks major enough to leave us wondering if it's already too late for this team.
That's cool and whatever, and I certainly have some plan on blocking off some time to think way too much about all of it as we get closer to the postseason. But for me, it's still first things first: Let's focus on Joel Embiid getting the MVP, and then we can figure out what our chances are of him then leading us to the title. And I think I have a pretty good idea of the handful of things left for him to do to get it.
Luckily for us/him, Embiid does enter the second half of the season (which in reality is somehow already 71% over) as the legitimate MVP frontrunner -- easily the latest in any year that he's held onto that distinction. I wouldn't quite say the award is his to lose, though, because that would imply he can spend the rest of the season trying as hard as he does in first quarters against shit opponents and still cruise to the winner's circle: He has the edge, but it's not by such a safe distance that he doesn't have to work to keep it. (An ESPN straw poll posted last week had him squeaking past Nikola Jokic in the closest finish the survey has seen in its six years.) Jokic can't be discounted, Giannis Antetokounmpo is a factor, Luka Doncic and DeMar DeRozan are surging and Steph Curry may be prime for a late-season rebound. Embiid's gonna have to work his way to this W.
But like a team whose magic number is smaller than their amount of games remaining, Joel has the distinct advantage of basically being in control of his own destiny. He's posted the numbers and secured the wins to establish himself as a plausible candidate, he has the element of narrative on his side (for now at least), he clearly looked like one of the league's best players at the All-Star Game, and -- perhaps most importantly -- he's never won it before, always a key factor for voters when deciding between a handful of candidates with resumes that are close enough to one another. (Call this BS reasoning if you want and you would not be wrong, but when you consider LeBron James nearly browbeating his way to the award last year just by making it clear to national media he'd be a bad sport if he lost again, it's certainly not nearly the most BS of reasonings that we've seen to justify an MVP favorite.) The road to the MVP has been cleared and the map has been provided, now he just actually needs to get in his comically oversized vehicle and motor his way there.
How does he do that? Well, through a variety of checkpoints and achievements -- some of which are conditional, and some of which are compulsory. First and foremost, he needs to:
1. Play in at least 19 of his remaining 24 games. Even with a relatively small fraction of games remaining in the season at this point, injury and missed time remain the biggest threats to Embiid's MVP supremacy: It's just rare that we get through this part of the season without a Markelle Fultz shoulder or a Garrison Matthews poster fucking everything up for him. I believe there'll be a little more grace afforded to a compromised GP total in a year where you might not need both hands to count the number of relevant players who didn't miss a week or two in COVID protocols -- even the unsinkable Jokic has missed six games this season -- but Joel has already DNP'd 12 times, which means he can't miss that many more without it becoming a considerable factor in MVP discussions.
That said, I think if he plays in 19 more -- bringing his total to 65 for the year -- that's probably good enough. It's a number that feels substantial for Embiid, marking a career high (after playing 64 in 2018-'19) and getting to a round-enough number to act as some kind of less-important-than-it-really-is benchmark. Obviously 67 or 68 would be preferable, but five DNPs feels like a more reasonable buffer, and it's hard for me to imagine anyone really trying to disqualify him for playing 65 when most other dudes in the discussion are also in the high 60s or low 70s. Less than 65? It's not an automatic DQ for JoJo, but it opens the door for "well, Jokic has 74, and Giannis has 73..." negotiating while also reintroducing "Is Embiid ever gonna be healthy enough to play 65 games in a season?" to the narrative discussion -- the sort of question that's only ever asked in absurdly granular MVP debates, natch, but still.
2. Get the Sixers to a top five seed. Maybe top six is all you need in a year when the top teams in the East are all this bunched, but sixth is one away from a play-in spot, and I personally don't need any potential "How can he be the MVP if he barely got them a secure playoff spot?" cloudiness cluttering an otherwise clear-skied MVP campaign. Top three would likely be safer, but as long as they're within shouting distance from the top -- and I don't really see Miami or Chicago killing themselves to get out of earshot the rest of the season, especially when a top two seed might just mean a first-round date with the Brooklyn Nets -- I don't think it'll work against Joel much. The Sixers have won at about a 60% rate overall this season; keep that up as a baseline for the final 24 and he'll probably be copacetic.
Those are the only marks he pretty much has to clear. Then, he can secure the trophy if he can do any one of the following:
3. Lead the league in scoring (and/or end the season averaging 30+ a game). It's unlikely Embiid is gonna edge Jokic and Antetokounmpo in most of the secondary or advanced stats -- yes yes, who cares about that anyway, real hoopers know, what the hell is a RAPTOR, etc. -- but superficial numbers tend to more overpowering in these discussions regardless, and POINTS most of all. Joel can have both history and novelty on his side: In an age of shooters, no true center has led the league in scoring since Shaquille O'Neal in 2000, and none has averaged over 30 a game since Moses Malone in 1982. Embiid currently has the scoring lead with his 29.59 a game (inches ahead of Giannis' 29.49) and he's averaged 33.4 a night over his last 25 games. There's obvious reason to believe his scoring may take a hit over the next 24 games, but if he can still get over 30 -- or just manage to stay ahead of the rest of the pack -- it'll make for the kind of easily understood historic achievement to really hang an MVP push on, and one better than any of the other leading candidates are on pace to have themselves.
4. Win a head-to-head against each of Jokic, Antetokounpo and Doncic. It's the kind of thing that probably shouldn't matter as much as it does, but these kinds of head-to-head battles have a way of sticking out in voters' heads, particularly down the stretch. So far, Joel is 0-1 against Doncic, 0-0 against Jokic and 1-0 against Antetokounmpo; he's scheduled for one more against each of the first two and two more against Giannis. If he can win at least one of his remaining showdowns againsteach of these guys, I think that pretty much would make his narrative irresistible for voters. (FTR he's 3-0 against DeRozan and 1-0 against Curry; the Sixers have one game left against the Bulls and none against the Warriors.) Admittedly it's a pretty tall order, and one that might not even get a shot of coming to fruition depending on who's sitting when. But if he can at least stare down Jokic in their March 10 matchup -- which would be the first time the two have even faced off in the regular season since 2019 -- and give him the business like he did on Sunday in Cleveland, that alone would give him a NOS boost in the race that would make him pretty damn hard to catch in the season's final months.
5. Just kinda gel right away with Harden. OK, so I guess I do have to talk about Harden's Sixers fit a little, even here. I don't think it's imperative for Embiid's MVP run that he and Harden get to Hall & Oates synergy right away: These things take time more often than not, and as long as it doesn't totally submarine the team in the meantime, I think a little struggle period between the two would be palatable to most voters. But if they're Monday Night Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson from the jump? Well, it certainly didn't hurt Kobe Bryant's case any in 2008 when the Lakers rocketed to the one seed in 2008 after stealing Pau Gasol before the deadline; Kobe (mostly fairly) got credit both for keeping his team relevant as the only real star for the season's first half, then for adjusting his game for maximum potency once he had a worthy sidekick in the mix.
If the Sixers' new superstar duo can similarly propel them up the East standings in the season's remainder -- against a pretty tough end-of-season schedule no less -- while visibly vibing with each other and the rest of the team, then I think the individual numbers more or less go out the window. Embiid will simply be celebrated for his adaptability and commitment to winning above all else, as well as his ability to rein in the difficult and easily distracted Harden. It's not the likeliest outcome but hardly impossible either; the two are both skilled and smart enough that you could see them kinda figuring it out on the spot, like a couple of jazz greats in a casually brilliant jam session. Whether it could hold up for an entire postseason would still remain to be seen -- Kobe and Pau's dynamic did, until it didn't -- but we'll worry about that when the time comes. Pushing Embiid's MVP case over the top would in itself make it one of the most successful trades in Sixers franchise history.