The Door Is Open Again
Joel Embiid can once again win the MVP.
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and writes for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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It's been a scary couple months of the Sixers being really good again -- beating contending teams, winning close games, getting healthy, eliminating rotation holes, coming through in nearly all of the ways we always hoped they'd be able to come through. Now it's up to all of us to decide how back in we are on this team and their chances of getting past the Celtics in the playoffs for the first time since Rocky was in Golden Gloves. But at the risk of being too We Are Not the Same voice, I can't even really think about the playoffs at the moment, because another more urgent matter of litigation has been re-opened for Sixers fans: Joel Embiid can once again win the MVP.
I'm proud of myself that I made it through most of the season without wasting too much emotional energy on this. It seemed pretty clear that Embiid just wasn't going to win it: The Sixers were too far behind, Jokic was too far ahead, voters would rather give it to Doncic or Tatum for the first time (or Curry or Durant for the first time in a while). Then all those other guys fell back or out of the race, the Sixers surged, and Jokic suddenly finds himself in the midst of a largely inexplicable four-game losing streak -- with his vs. Embiid's stats not really a slam dunk in either direction. Bill Simmons says he might be leaning towards Embiid now, Zach Lowe doesn't seem far behind. Jokic's odds are dropping on gambling sites; Embiid's odds are raising in tandem. This isn't just Sixers fans being annoying anymore, this is now a real thing that's happening.
And that rules: An Embiid MVP would single-handedly validate the Sixers' regular season, the legacy of the Harden trade, the entirety of The Process and pretty much every moment of Sixers basketball dating back to Iverson first crossing over Jordan in his rookie year. But we've been here before. The door is once again open for Joel Embiid's MVP candidacy -- this time he has to actually walk through it.
Lest we forget, we were in a similar spot with Joel and the MVP race close to this time last year too. As Sixers fans, we've mostly convinced ourselves that the NBA's Voters That Be conspired to prematurely select Jokic for his second straight MVP back in November 2021 -- but in reality, Embiid was still ahead in the ESPN straw polling for the 2022 season as late as mid-February, just before the All-Star break. He had the stats (leading the league in scoring with the best passing numbers of his career), he had the narrative (keeping the Sixers near the top of the East with Ben Simmons pivoting to full-time gaming) and he had the momentum (with a dominant performance in Milwaukee in the final game before the break). All he really had to do at that point was to keep the Sixers humming near the top of the standings -- with James Harden on the way to offer reinforcements -- win a few big games against marquee opponents, deliver a couple signature performances, and generally keep kicking ass to maintain his supremacy after the break.
It didn't happen -- at least, not in a way that made it a no-doubter. Embiid went 10-7 in his next 17 games through the end of March, as the Bucks and Celtics passed the Sixers in the standings. Embiid's numbers were still strong on average over that stretch -- 31 and 12 on 48% shooting -- but with some nasty box score lines in big games. 22 points on 4-15 shooting in a 17-point loss in Miami. 27 points on 5-17 shooting in a 29-point loss in Brooklyn. 21 points on 6-20 shooting in a close home loss to Toronto. There were awesome lines in there too: 43 and 14 in a Chicago beatdown, 35 and 17 to beat Cleveland, 32-8-4-5 over Dallas. But fair or not, those performances didn't get the national exposure or pop in the national memory the way the underwhelming ones did, and there wasn’t the one absolutely undeniable performance or one truly signature moment to keep him at the forefront of the discussion. Meanwhile, Embiid played fairly well in head-to-head matchups with his two primary competitors in Denver and Milwaukee, but lost both showdowns in heartbreaking fashion. When Giannis blocked his potential game-tying putback at the end of the Bucks matchup in late March, it felt pretty symbolic for the extinguishing of Embiid's MVP flame.
Jokic wasn't worlds more dominant over that timespan -- he went 12-6, with most of the losses to good teams and most of the wins over bad teams -- but his numbers were a little better (28-13-8 on 61% shooting) and the expectations were a little lower for a team that wasn't really supposed to go very far in a season without Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. anyway. It was just enough to grab hold of the narrative from Embiid when the latter and his team were expected to rocket to the moon following the Harden acquisition -- particularly after they won the first four games with him in the fold -- and instead just kinda trotted to the finish line. Embiid did end the season strong, with three 40-plus-point outings in his last four games, but two were against the lottery-bound Pacers and one was against the injury-reeling Cavs. By that point the die had largely been cast anyway: The third ESPN MVP straw poll in late March showed Jokic taking a commanding lead in the race.
This is all to say: Just because it's all set up for Embiid to take control of the MVP discussion doesn't mean he definitely will. Many have pointed to Embiid's upcoming rematch with Jokic two Mondays from now as the game that will decide the MVP race, but I'm not so sure: It'll for sure matter, particularly if Embiid wins again in convincing fashion to sweep the season series, but the Sixers have 15 games to go and nearly all of them matter too. That starts with tonight's game against the still-relevant-for-now Cavaliers, with the Sixers poised to essentially clinch a top-three seed with a win, but it'll get especially real with the final ten games of the season, where the Sixers play (deep breath) the Warriors, the Suns, the Nuggets, the Mavericks, the Raptors, the Bucks, the Celtics, the Heat, the Hawks and the Nets -- all in a 17-day span without more than a day's rest between games. Some of those games will end up anticlimactic because of injuries or rest days on one or both sides, but many of them will be real tests. And regardless of what happens in Denver, Embiid will have plenty of time over the rest of that run to either seize hold of or let go of the rope.
If this sounds overly negative, though -- what fanbase is this again? -- let me also say: I do believe he'll actually do it this time. The Joel Embiid we've seen this year is not the one we saw even the past two years. From the first Jokic spanking to the two clutch wins in Milwaukee to the game-winner against Portland, he's had more signature late-game and big-game performances this regular season than any other year of his career by a goddamn mile; if he'd managed some of the performances he's had this March last March, we wouldn't be debating Jokic going for three straight MVPs right now. He also has more help than he had last year: James Harden is actually playing like the true offensive co-lead he's wanted for his whole career, and the rest of the team is (for now!) fairly stable from top to bottom. The next month will be a crucible but I expect to see Joel smiling and crotch-chopping on the other side of it.
He's gotta actually do it, though. The Nuggets may be spiraling currently, but they'll probably snap out of it at some point, and Jokic's numbers are gonna stay pretty convincing regardless. Meanwhile, Giannis is still out there as another two-time winner -- one playing for the team with the East's best record, and one who just posted 46-12 and 36-11 in consecutive road wins against the Kings and the Suns. The MVP is never gonna just default to Joel Embiid; he has to put it in a fucking headlock like it's Karl-Anthony Towns. And we are lucky enough that in this final month of the season, while he's playing the best basketball of his career, he will have every chance he could ask for to do exactly that. Trust the 180.