It's Fine If Joel Embiid Loses MVP
I mean, it's not *fine*. But it's fine.
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No one cares more about Joel Embiid's MVP campaign than me. Really. No one. I guess maybe Joel himself, but not definitely. Is Joel watching Timberwolves games in February because he's hoping they can pull out wins against the Grizzlies or whoever, thus making their record slightly better and marginally increasing their chances of passing the Mavericks or Nuggets in the standings, thus weakening the MVP campaigns of Luka Doncic and/or Nikola Jokic by like 1.25%? I mean perhaps he is, because he's a lunatic too, but I feel like there's only so many hours in the day for a many-multi-millionaire new father NBA MVP candidate to spend on such things. That's a burden I bear for both of us. So yeah: In all likelihood, it's me, then Joel, then [drops hand to the floor so dramatically I sprain my wrist] everyone else on the planet.
So please trust me that I don't say this lightly: It's OK if Joel Embiid doesn't win MVP this year.
I mean, it's not OK. If I have to watch the NBA Hollywood Awards or whatever (they still have those, right?) and Scottie Pippen and H.E.R. take the podium to announce the final award of the night and they call a name that is not Joel Hans Embiid's, I will be inconsolable. Despondent. Any garment within 500 yards is getting the fuck rended. I've put hundreds of hours and thousands of words into this MVP run and it will be crushing to have it all be for naught a second straight year, especially when Joel is actually finishing this one upright, with a career-high in games played and (knock on an entire village of log cabins) no injury more major than that recently revealed cut on his shooting hand. And to imagine how dispiriting it would be for him in the moment, after six seasons and eight years of building up to this, after getting so close already last year, after playing in about 15 games the last four months he probably would've been wise to sit for were he not out campaigning, after performing better than not just he ever has previously, but better than any Sixer of our lifetimes has for an entire season (first month perhaps excepted) -- well, it's not a moment I'm looking forward to.
In that sense, it's not OK. But in the sense of, like, the karmic balance of the universe? Of the ever-expanding nine-year list of Enemies of the Process? Of the hellfire we've been known to reign down on those who have unfairly wronged us over the years? In those senses, I have to acknowledge at this point that it's basically OK.
Basically, Joel Embiid deserves to win MVP. Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo also deserve to win MVP. Maybe slightly more, maybe slightly less, depending on how you define the award’s parameters. But I think if you're strictly defining it on who was the best player for the season, it's a little tough to argue at this point that it's clearly Joel. That's not to say it's clearly Jokic or Giannis either, but I see the Clearly Jokic argument a little better, because his superficial stats are comparable and his advanced stats are obviously better. The latter point tends to attract a lot of virtual noogies from Sixers Twitter, and fair enough, but personally I can disregard any one advanced stat a whole lot easier than I can disregard the entire concept of advanced stats, which rose in popularity in large part because basic stats obviously suck at telling the whole (or the most important) story. And the fact that Jokic leads Embiid in pretty much all of them is hard for me to brush off as meaningless -- especially when his basic stats are pretty stupefying too.
This is usually the point in Twitter discourse when the conversation turns to Just Watch the Games dunking, and all I can say about that is, boy have I. I can't tell you how many close Nuggets games I've watched down the stretch hoping that Jokic would pull up lame, would expose some gaping hole in his game that the numbers couldn't catch for whatever reason, would lose the game and be the secret (but obvious) reason that the team lost. One time against the Thunder it actually happened; every other time he grabs some annoying defensive rebound or tips in some annoying putback or makes some annoying pass that ends up getting them the W. It's never a Damian Lillard stepback 35 footer in the eye of Paul George, but you know winning plays when you see them -- because they lead to the team the dude's on winning the game -- and Jokic always seems to make them. You can never really tell how good a player is until you need them to lose for your own selfish purposes and they just fucking refuse to cooperate -- hopefully Denver fans feel that way about Embiid too, but that is 100% how I've felt the second half of this season monitoring Jokic. I promise you, if you want to convince someone of Embiid's slam-dunk MVP candidacy, telling them to watch MORE of Jokic is not the answer.
I had long sorta resigned myself to Jokic's technical case for MVP being stronger than Embiid's -- and I really feared that at least one of Luka or LeBron was going to go on a combined individual and team run that they might insert themselves into the deep end of the discussion, too -- but man, I really didn't see the Giannis thing coming. He's such an unsexy candidate at this point in his career -- a two-time winner and reigning finals MVP just having another awesome season where he gets better at all sorts of shit -- that it seemed like he was gonna need to go on some absurd statistical tear punctuated by dominant big-game snapshot performances to have any chance of nudging himself ahead of Embiid. Then he got his scoring average over 30 (and over Embiid, at least temporarily), led the Bucks back up to the two seed, and posted 40-14-6 along with the game-winning block (on a JoJo putback, no less) in his most recent visit to Philly, and well, yeah. It was a nightmare scenario for our guy's late-season push -- the second it happened I could see the memes of the block with "Joel's MVP chances" captioned under the ball. The ESPN MVP straw poll has turned on Embiid and so have most commentators worth a damn; when you’re turning to Nick Wright and Chris Broussard as champions of the cause, you know you’re in trouble.
This sucks. A month and a half ago, the MVP seemed a month and a half ago to be Joel's to lose, and he didn't really do anything to lose it, and he's likely gonna lose it anyway. He's been consistently awesome since the All-Star break, but not quite awesome enough to separate from the other guys as they started to gain on him. The team (and Doc) let him down in important moments, letting the Nets wipe the floor with them in the most-hyped Sixers game of the season, allowing the Nuggets hang around in their second-most-hyped game of the season (where he actually did outplay Jokic), not elevating him to a signature win in Phoenix or against Milwaukee. (Mike convinced me before the All-Star break that Harden's presence on the team now meant that there was no way Embiid would be considered as an MVP candidate after this season; watching James in some of those games I'm not so sure of that anymore.) The loss in Detroit last week could end up being the final straw, a humiliating defeat for which there was no possible acceptable excuse, coming at what was already a new low point for the Harden-era Sixers. Now the Sixers' record and point differential is worse than Milwaukee's and close to indistinguishable from Denver's, deflating another potential argument for Joel's clear supremacy.
Such credible arguments are getting pretty hard to find. Drew Hanlen, perhaps trying to atone for previous sins against the Process, reached deep in his bag this Monday on Twitter and pulled out the at least somewhat novel Nuggets Bench Better argument to prove his guy Jo was working with weaker firepower in his supporting cast. This of course conveniently ignored that the reason the Nuggets average greater bench PPG numbers than the Sixers is because they get on the court a lot more, since they don't have non-Jokic starters worth playing 38 minutes a night over them. (Austin Rivers is averaging 22 minutes a game for these Nuggets, depth is by no means an advantage for them.) But that's kind of what we've been reduced to -- digging in the crates for stretchy statistical arguments that show our guy to be Greater Than when all the numbers seem to point in the other direction. So failing those, we get stuck with less-tangible higher-ceiling debates, and claims to how much better Embiid's defense has been (even though we know from watching that he took a lot of the pre-All-Star break off on that side of the ball), and then finally, inevitably, the conversation-ending Just Watch the Games hand-waves. Hey man, tell me which games to watch and what exactly to look for that will expose Jokic (or Giannis) as the frauds they are and I'll be pulling them up from the League Pass archives within seconds. I want to believe, I just haven't seen much to convince me so far.
For the record, I do still think Joel's MVP case isn't closed just yet. He does have one primary argument in his favor that isn't going to change no matter what happens the last four games of the Sixers season, and it's the one that Spike and Sharp discussed on the pod a couple weeks ago: He has a better story, and one that feels more crucial to this particular NBA season. He kept the Sixers together through one of the weirdest player-team standoffs in modern sports history, he demonstrably evolved and improved his game in countless key areas, he made the Sixers an attractive landing spot for a Harden trade and now he's powering them to a top-four seed and playoff relevance in the East in what should have been a lost season. You can't tell the story of this regular season without Embiid's chapter; that's just not the case for Giannis' undramatic 60-something games for the winter-hibernating Bucks, or Jokic's impressive job wringing competence from an undermanned team that's still almost certainly a doomed first-round exit. (And yeah, Jo's the only dude that's never won that before.) Maybe all the narrative and novelty stuff shouldn't matter so much, but the MVP's always been a pretty goofy award, and another year Embiid might deserve it more and lose it to some other motherfucker with a better script. Anyway, as long as he has that going for him, and his numbers are still within range, he's got a shot at doing just enough to get the votes back on his side.
He's going to have to actually go out to win it now, though, and his margin for error is basically non-existent. The team will have to win out from here -- bringing the Sixers to 52-30, and hopefully a top-three seed -- and Embiid's gonna have to do some at least marginally spectacular shit in at least one of these games. 44 and 17 with five blocks against the Cavs was certainly a good start, but a nice 50-plus in one of these games against Indiana (who Jo has always tortured) would also be pretty clutch; while he's at it, he might want to also inflict some hurt on the Raptors for that extremely painful defeat we suffered at their hands in March. Check all those boxes and he might be able to finish strong enough to still make a difference, assuming Jokic and Antetokounmpo don't do some even-bonkerser shit to overshadow it, which has been an infuriatingly unsafe assumption of late.
But if he doesn't, and one of the other two guys ends up winning? It's gonna feel like 10 Emmanuel Mudiay buzzer-beater punches to the stomach at once, but I just can't get with the "It means they hate us" or "It means they only care about numbers on a spreadsheet" or "It means they don't watch the games" nonsense -- some of which Embiid is starting to spout himself, even. I get why he's frustrated, because intrinsically, it feels like he should win the MVP; he's done everything he should and played well enough to deserve it. But so have a couple other dudes this year. It happens. If LeBron had won it last year because he glared at Brian Windhorst once in December and everybody panicked and fell in line, that would've been a travesty, and I would've laid my reputation and body on the line to protest the shit out of it happening. If Jokic or Giannis wins it this year, the ache will be there but the fury will not. It's fine. We'll just have to do the same thing we've done with everything involving the Sixers pretty much forever -- pivot to saying that next year is the year that really matters for Embiid's MVP, anyway.