The star that is Philadelphia center Joel Embiid has never shone brighter than during this current NBA season. Yet fans were deprived of seeing both him and fellow all-star teammate Ben Simmons during the all-star game due to potential Covid-19 exposure just before the weekend’s festivities kicked off. Nevertheless, news broke following the all-star break that Philadelphia’s big man is the new betting favorite to take home the most coveted of all regular season awards; the NBA’s most valuable player.
Below, I’ll sketch an outline of what the rest of Embiid’s season would need to look like for him to have a realistic shot at winning the MVP award. Next, I’ll survey other top contenders from around the league and highlight their strengths and weaknesses as it relates to MVP contention.
Embiid’s Path (Current Odds: +190)
Let me be clear, if the season ended today I think Embiid easily has the strongest case for the league’s most valuable player. Consequently, the award is his to lose. That’s not to say he can coast on his laurels the rest of the season and expect to come out on top, but rather that maintaining his current level of otherworldly on-court production should be enough to secure the trophy. At present, that production consists of 30.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.4 blocks, and 1.2 steals per game. Not only are his individual numbers terrific, but they are directly translating to victories. The Sixers have been at the top of the Eastern conference virtually all season and Embiid’s play is by far the most significant reason why.
Joel Embiid has also single-handedly eviscerated opposing teams on multiple occasions this season. He contributed a staggering 45 points, 16 rebounds, and 5 steals during an overtime victory against the Heat in January. He crushed the collective soul of a Chicago Bulls team to the tune of 50 points, 17 rebounds, and 4 blocks in January. And just before the all-star break, when the Sixers matched up with the streaking Utah Jazz, Embiid basically fathered Rudy Gobert and rallied his team to a victory in overtime with 40 points and 19 rebounds (side note: his game-tying three to send the game to overtime was absolutely legendary and did not receive the attention it absolutely deserved). These signature games are a hallmark of any MVP case and Embiid possesses a surplus of them.
The most obvious factor that could inhibit Embiid’s MVP campaign is his health. He’s played 30 games so far and in a shortened regular season consisting of only 72 contests, I think he needs to hit the high 50s mark to qualify as a most valuable player candidate. The possibility of a future injury certainly exists as Embiid is not a player particularly known for his health and conditioning. He is already slated to miss some games while he adheres to the league’s health and safety protocols, but expect Embiid to continue his stellar production upon his return. Another area he could improve is mitigating his level of turnovers as that’s weak point of his game right now.
Lebron James (Current Odds: +260)
A huge factor for Lebron’s MVP case seems to be the narrative angle, as many in the media feel that King James is overdue for the MVP trophy, an award that has eluded him for eight years despite finishing as a top-five vote getter in seven of those eight seasons. Lebron is certainly doing his best to feed that narrative as well, telling reporters “It’s go time” during a recent video conference call.
It’s far from all narrative for Lebron James who continues to play Father Time to a dead draw as he shows no signs of slowing down in his 18th season of NBA basketball. He’s averaging 25.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 7.8 assists while serving as the glue to the defending champions. His leadership and consistency has been especially important as the Lakers continue to await the return of his running mate, Anthony Davis. While the Lakers are certainly a worse team without Davis, his absence probably helps Lebron’s chances at another MVP run as he will have to shoulder a massive offensive load moving forward sans Davis. Should the Lakers claw their way to the top of the Western conference standings, it will be the direct result of Lebron going supernova across the second half of the season.
While Embiid’s health is a potential threat to his MVP chances, Lebron is practically a sure bet to remain healthy. He’s only missed one game this entire season and routinely laughs at anyone who dares breath the term “load management” in his presence.
Nikola Jokic (Current Odds: +480)
I think it goes without question that Jokic would take home a hypothetical MFP (most fun player) award this season. No one has a deeper bag of offensive tricks and teammates have to learn to expect the unexpected pass so as to not also be fooled when Jokic deceives the opposing defence. The Nuggets team, particularly young Michael Porter Jr., has been slowed by Covid-19 this season but Jokic himself hasn’t missed a beat. He’s currently averaging 27.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 8.6 assists and truly is must-see basketball.The story the advanced analytic statistics tell is one that clearly has Jokic being the most valuable player this season.
While the Joker can point to all kinds of individual numbers for his MVP case, Denver’s team performance is another story. Traditionally, MVP winners play for teams that are at or near the top of the league’s standings (I still maintain that Westbrook’s 2017 MVP was a sham and the result of sheep en mass letting the allure of someone averaging a triple-double blind them). After a cold stretch to start the season, the Nuggets have seemingly righted the ship and are currently the fifth seed in the Western Conference. Still, the Nuggets have a worse record than other teams with MVP hopefuls like the Sixers, Lakers, Bucks, and Nets which will ultimately hurt Jokic’s case.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Current Odds: +1800)
As a smaller market franchise, the Milwaukee Bucks scored a huge victory this offseason when they inked Giannis to a five year supermax extension worth $228.2 million. That figure represents the richest in NBA contractual history and Giannis is proving he’s worth it on the court. While he’s not generating the fervor he has in past seasons, his statistical averages are still mighty impressive. At present, he’s posting 28.9 points, 11.6 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game. He remains a deadly two-way player and demonstrates his importance on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court on a nightly basis.
Working against Giannis is the ridiculous notion of ‘voter fatigue’. This is the idea that since Antetokounmpo has won the award each of the last two years, voters will be tired of his success and be unwilling to vote for him again (Think Mike Trout in the current MLB or Stevie Wonder in the early 70s when he was basically synonymous with the Grammy award). The Bucks, understandably, have a lot of skeptics who are patiently waiting through the regular season to see if this team will finally deliver in the playoffs. But the MVP is a regular season award and the season that Giannis is putting together shouldn’t be ignored.
James Harden (Current Odds: +1800)
James Harden deserves to win something for playing alongside Kyrie Irving in the Nets backcourt and making it look easy. Many expected there to be serious chemistry issues when the Nets formed their superteam but under the direction of Harden the team looks absolutely electric. Apparently all it took was a conversation clarifying which of the stars was playing point guard and which was inhabiting the role of shooting guard (I can’t be the only one who finds the fact that that conversation legitimately happened to be hilarious). Anyway, Harden continues to be an offensive phenom, averaging 25.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, and a league-leading 11.0 assists per game.
However, it’s been some time since Durant has been on the court and its probable that with three all-NBA caliber options, no single star will shine bright enough to win the MVP. Additionally, history is not on the side of James Harden as no player has ever won the MVP after switching teams mid-season. The manner in which Harden left Houston also shouldn’t be forgotten. I don’t think voters are going to opt for Harden given the way he absolutely mailed in the beginning of the season and quit on a franchise that bent over backwards for him for most of the 2010s.
Others Worth a Mention
The quantity of players producing at an MVP level this season is abnormally high. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the following names and give each at least a sentence of praise. Damian Lillard has been an absolute assassin in the clutch this season and has posted per game averages of 29.8 points, 8.0 assist, and 4.3 rebounds. He’s managed to keep his team afloat in a competitive Western conference even while key contributors like CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic have been out with injury. Steph Curry has basically matched Lillard’s figures with per game averages of 29.7 points, 6.3 assists, and 5.5 rebounds and just absurd shooting splits (47.8% from the field, 41.1% from three, and 93.4% from the line). Luka Doncic, fresh off having the most productive sophomore season in NBA history, is proving his play was far from a fluke with per game averages of 28.4 points, 9.1 assists, and 8.5 rebounds. And though he’s getting virtually no buzz at all, Kwahi Leonard continues to be an efficient offensive machine while routinely shutting down the opposing team’s best perimeter option. However, it remains unclear if Leonard is a legitimate candidate for the MVP as the award is traditionally bestowed upon humans, not robots.
It goes without saying that should Embiid collect enough votes to garner the MVP it would be a historic occasion. No true center has managed to take home the hardware since Dirk Nowitzki won the award back in the 2006-2007 regular season. He would also join an elite class of Philadelphia basketball royalty which includes Allen Iverson, Moses Malone, Dr. Julius Irving, and Wilt Chamberlain.
This Sixers squad will ultimately be judged by their playoff performance, not by any individual players award attainment. Still, it will be a thrilling subplot the rest of the season to mark Embiid’s progress toward a possible MVP trophy.
All MVP Odds are according to FanDuel Sportsbook and current as of 3/12/2021