In most seasons missing 12+ games is enough to keep a player out of the MVP discussion, but Joel Embiid continues to challenge that precedent with each passing win.
On the heels of Embiid’s ten game injury hiatus I had mostly ruled him out of the MVP debate for eligibility reasons, but his performance over the past two games—75 points on 46 shots in 59 minutes of basketball—has been enough to rekindle “EMVBiid” hopes, at least amongst Sixers faithful.
While this is the energy you want from your fan base, it couldn’t be further from the truth.
It’s worth noting that only one MVP winner in the history of the NBA has played in less than 87% of their team’s games: Bill Walton (‘77-78), who missed 24 of 82 games (70%). Currently, Joel Embiid has missed 18 games in what’ll be a 72 game season. If he doesn’t miss any starts the rest of the way he’ll have played in 75% of Sixers games—more than Walton, but far less than the next closest former MVP (Allen Iverson, who played in 87% of the team’s games in 2001).
While there’s precedent (no matter how obscure) for Embiid winning the MVP despite missing a big chunk of the season, the stars aligned for Walton in a way that they aren’t for Joel. With the Blazers fresh off winning the Finals in 1977 (Walton being named Finals MVP), posting the league’s top record in 1978, along with reigning/5X former league MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabarr missing twenty games on a 45-win Lakers team, his main competition was that season’s scoring champ and future HOFer, George Gervin.
The vote was tight, but the narrative skewed heavily in favor of Walton, who at that point of his career was on top of the basketball world having already been a household name in college and winning the Finals in just his third NBA season.
While there are certainly parallels you can draw from that example to support Embiid’s case—his narrative and brand is similarly strong to Walton’s—standing clear in his path is Nikola Jokic.
Opposed to Joel having missed 18 games, Jokic hasn’t missed a single start for Denver. In a league full of diva superstars who take nights off for “rest” whenever they see fit, it’s refreshing to see one of the game’s top players going old school. While that 18 game gap (likely more by season’s end) isn’t enough to hand the award to Joker over Embiid, it’s certainly the deciding factor in a close race, and Jokic has been every bit as dominant as Joel this season.
While the Embiid “narrative” argument is compelling, it doesn’t appear to be as real as previously thought. The above straw poll—an accurate sample of the media who vote on the award—is a clear indicator that would-be voters are seeing what Jokic is doing, and aren’t falling for any sort of “big-market bias,” as some anxious Denver fans suggest.
One thing’s for sure, in the age of small-ball and three-pointers the NBA will likely have a center win the MVP award for the first time since Shaq over twenty years ago—I just wouldn’t bet on that being Embiid.
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