Philadelphia 76ers All-Star centre Joel Embiid has made his fifth NBA season his best to date, establishing himself as a legitimate MVP candidate in the process.
MVP LADDER: Embiid takes No. 1 spot prior to All-Star
Through 31 games, Embiid is averaging a career-best 29.9 points to go along with 11.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game on über-efficient .525/.422/.859 shooting splits. In addition to Embiid's scoring average currently being tied for second in the league with Damian Lillard, the centre's 42.2 percent shooting from deep is also a career-high.
Also strengthening Embiid's MVP case is the fact that Philadelphia has remained atop the Eastern Conference standings this season, largely in part to the fact that its All-Star big man had been healthier than he had ever been before prior to sustaining a left knee injury in a recent victory over the Washington Wizards.
While the Sixers can exhale knowing that the extent of Embiid's injury wasn't as severe as it initially appeared, his bruised left knee will still hold him out for at least two weeks - and eight games - of action. Prior to the injury, Embiid had missed only seven of Philly's first 38 games, with none coming consecutively and one absence being a result of the league's health and safety protocols.
The two-week timeline for Embiid is fluid, as he is set for a re-evaluation that could mean his absence is greater than eight games.
Given Embiid's injury history and the Sixers' sights being set on the postseason, the team could very well err on the side of caution with respect to bringing back their most valuable player. So what does that mean for his case to win the league's MVP?
There are a number of factors at play…
After the game in which Embiid went down, the Sixers held a one-game lead over the Brooklyn Nets for the East's No. 1 seed. While Philadelphia still maintains its hold on the top spot, Brooklyn and the Milwaukee Bucks are well within striking distance of overtaking it.
Based on opponent win percentage, Philadelphia and Brooklyn have the 21st and 22nd toughest remaining schedules, respectively. After splitting their first two meetings, the teams meet for a third and final time with the season series on the line on April 14.
Given the current divide in the standings between the East's top three seeds and the remainder of the conference, it's fair to assume the Sixers finish third at worst, depending on how they play without Embiid.
Therein lies the tricky part.
If Philadelphia plays too well in Embiid's absence, could the true concept of his value get lost in the team's success? If the team hits a snag and struggles, would it fall too low in the standings for Embiid to have a case over a player whose team finishes in one of the top two seeds?
For reference, Russell Westbrook is the only one of the last 10 MVPs to play for a team that finished outside of the top two as the 2016-17 Oklahoma City Thunder finished sixth in the West. It's worth noting, however, that Westbrook led the league in scoring and averaged a triple-double over 81 games.
This leads to the next factor…
As mentioned above, Embiid's total number of missed games will reach 15 before he is re-evaluated by Philadelphia's medical staff. Now, in this shortened season, Embiid will play in a maximum of 57 games barring any other setbacks related to this injury or anything rest-related down the stretch of the season.
Historically, the most games missed by an MVP was in 1977-78, when Bill Walton missed 24 games. In each of the last three seasons, the MVP has missed a total of 10 games, with Giannis Antetokounmpo appearing in 63 of a possible 73 games in 2019-20.
Both Giannis (2018-19) and James Harden (2017-18) appeared in 72 of 82 games en route to winning their first-ever MVP awards.
Generally speaking, availability is the best ability with respect to recent MVPs.
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Should Embiid return immediately after re-evaluation, he would have appeared in just under 80 percent of Philadelphia's games this season. If the number drops to a total of 50, the percentage would drop below 70 percent.
Again, for reference, the season in which Walton won MVP, he appeared in just over 70 percent of games. That season, however, Walton was a clear winner over runners up George Gervin and David Thompson.
The field of candidates wasn't nearly as deep as it is in 2020-21…
A crowded field
Given the amount of talent in the league this year, it comes as no surprise that there are several players worthy of legitimate MVP consideration.
In an unconventional year, it's not necessarily just the players whose teams find themselves at the top of the standings, although those teams have players that are right there in the mix. For the majority of the season, it has felt like LeBron James is well on his way to winning his fifth MVP in Year 18 but the West also has Kawhi Leonard, Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic and Stephen Curry each receiving consideration.
While LeBron's Los Angeles Lakers and Kawhi's LA Clippers have each been at the top of the conference this year, the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers have relied on their MVPs to keep them afloat in the middle, while the playoff hopes of the Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors almost solely rely on their MVPs.
In the East, Harden has entered the conversation due to his stellar play as a Net while voter fatigue has almost caused us to underappreciate what Giannis is doing with the Bucks. If Milwaukee continues to rise up the standings toward a third consecutive first-place finish, a back-to-back-back MVP could be in the cards for Antetokounmpo.
As for Embiid, the narrative surrounding his MVP case is a fun one.
For No. 21, the 2020-21 season marks the 20-year anniversary of Allen Iverson becoming the last 76er to be named MVP. On top of that, it's been 21 years since a centre won MVP, with Shaquille O'Neal taking home the honour following the 1999-00 season.
There might be too much working against Embiid this season but considering the fact he's only turning 27, his name will be right back in the conversation in the coming years. There's also one more MVP trophy that'll be handed out in July that I'm sure Embiid and the Sixers wouldn't mind at all.
We'll see how it goes…
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