PHILADELPHIA — Steph Curry is the game’s greatest shooter. Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic are the most fun players to watch since Larry Bird. Giannis Antetokounmpo, an Avatar character come to life, does things every night no human has ever done before.
But Joel Embiid is the NBA’s MVP.
He’s the No. 1 player on the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference, and while the Jazz and the Suns have better records out West, they are much more a sum of their parts. The Sixers are 36-11 with Embiid and they’re able to beat anyone. They’re 9-10 without him, and they look like a lottery team.
“If we keep winning and end up the No. 1 seed, I don’t know how you can argue [against] Joel Embiid being the MVP,” said his coach, Doc Rivers. “He affected winning as much as anybody else.”
And he’s affected winning by playing as often as he can and by playing hard every minute, every night.
Doc sent him that message when he took the job last year.
“It’s something we talked about this summer: For us to be great, he’s going to have to be great, and he’s going to have to play as many games as possible that will allow him to be in the playoffs healthy,” Rivers said. “It goes down to his conditioning and his mental preparation. I’m very proud of him.”
Yes, he’s missed some time, and yes, it is a regular-season award, but this has been a most irregular regular season.
The argument isn’t about who has been the best player. The only argument lies in whether Embiid has played enough to deserve the honor. Why?
Because all of the top candidates score, but only Giannis combines Embiid’s level of defensive effectiveness, and Giannis isn’t defensively dominant. Not quite the way Embiid is; not exactly. The Sixers built their defense around his presence, and he never disappoints.
He has campaigned for the award all year, and he’s backed up his braggadocio, but he didn’t begin to deserve it; not really. Not until two stories published by The Philadelphia Inquirer in February made the case for Embiid to not win.
Both pieces questioned Embiid’s willingness to play against top players. One of the pieces asserted that MVP candidates invalidate their candidacies if they don’t play every night they are physically able.
Occasionally, Embiid would sit himself, and Rivers wouldn’t even know why: Tight back? Sore knee? The vapors?
Load management is a load of ... well, you know. If you want to practice load management then you don’t want to win.
And so, Embiid began to want his team to win.
Quality over quantity
He has missed one back-to-back game since the mid-February stories ran, and that was the game after he returned from his knee injury. He missed one other game, in Milwaukee on April 24, two days after he hurt his shoulder.
He returned just two days later. The old Embiid would’ve missed a month.
He’s played in all six games since, and the Sixers are 6-0, and they regained the top seed in the East. He is, inarguably, the biggest reason the Eastern Conference’s first-place team is in first place.
Embiid has missed 19 of 66 games, and he’ll play in no more than 53 of the 72-game regular season, or about 72%. So what. Bill Walton played just 70% of the games in 1977-78, and he still won over George Gervin, who won the scoring title and played in all 82 games. Walton played in 58.
Embiid’s having a much better season than Walton did. He is averaging a career-high 29.1 points per game, but he would be an MVP favorite even if he averaged 10% fewer points per game — you know, like Jokic (26.4).
Piece of the PIE
Embiid leads the NBA in a metric called Player Impact Estimate, an NBA construct that seeks to measure every player’s complete contribution. He’s at 20.4. Jokic, currently the popular favorite, is second, at 20.1. Curry, carrying his team and scoring like a video game, is sixth, at 18.1.
The PIE usually predicts the MVP, but not always. Twice in the last 10 seasons the PIE leader didn’t win the MVP. Curry finished sixth in PIE when he won his first MVP award, in 2015, but that season Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook all missed significant time. Derrick Rose finished seventh in 2011, when voters grew tired of voting for the King. (LeBron, absurdly, finished third, behind Dwight Howard. So, yeah.)
What about “PER”? That’s John Hollinger’s ESPN Player Efficiency Rating system, and it is flawed, according to ... John Hollinger, who wrote, in 2007:
“Bear in mind that PER is not the final, once-and-for-all evaluation of a player’s accomplishments during the season. This is especially true for defensive specialists ... "
Embiid, twice named to the NBA’s all-defensive second team, is much more than a defensive specialist.
He’s the Most Valuable Player.