Last Friday, the 76ers got Joel Embiid back for their game against the Wizards after he and Ben Simmons missed the All-Star Game due to health and safety protocols. He swiftly returned to his stellar form that’s been on display all season—23 points on 8-for-11 shooting, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists in 20 minutes is nothing to sneeze at.
Embiid received a pass from Tobias Harris and flushed it down hard at the rim halfway through the third quarter. But on the way down, his left leg locked and all 280 pounds of his 7-foot frame landed on it. In less than a second, Embiid’s knee hyperextended and he crashed down to the floor, writhing in pain. It’s even nastier to watch in slow motion.
Somehow, Embiid avoided major structural damage to his knee. He was diagnosed with a bone bruise and will be reevaluated in two weeks. Embiid already hyperextended his right knee last month against the Trail Blazers, but he returned later that game. He had managed to stay healthy thus far in a statistically dominant season. But these two weeks (or more) will likely dictate the race for this season’s Most Valuable Player Award.
“Though Embiid has been playing at an insanely productive level, his less-than-stellar bill of health throughout his career gives me pause.”
That’s what I said about Joel Embiid’s MVP case in January. And now, it holds true. He’s currently enjoying the most productive season of his injury-riddled career, averaging 29.9 points (2nd in the league), 11.5 rebounds (7th), and 3.3 assists with a player efficiency rating of 31.48 (2nd). His efficiency is also through the roof to the tune of 52.5% from the field, 42.2% from 3-point range, and 85.9% from the free throw line—all career-highs.
What’s most stunning about Embiid’s season is how adept he has become at scoring from all three levels. We knew that he isn't scared to shoot from deep: he’s attempted 3.5 3-pointers per game in his career. But he was never a true floor-stretching big, as he’s also just a 33% shooter from deep through his five years in the NBA. This year, he’s shooting the lights out from behind the arc, mid-range, and of course, in the paint.
Embiid has also become a foul-drawing maestro, joining the club of superstars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and Trae Young that can get to the line at will. He loves to hook defenders’ arms on the way to the basket, make them bite on a convincing shot fake, or stick out an elbow on his lethal mid-range jumper. We’re a bit more than halfway through the season, and Embiid already has five games with over 15 free throw attempts.
That second part of my statement about Embiid has come to fruition for the first time this season. Now, his lead in the race for MVP will likely diminish as healthy candidates are leading their teams toward the playoffs. But who are these candidates for the award?
In my mind, Nikola Jokić and LeBron James are the two next likely contenders to be named Most Valuable this season. Both have the keys to their Western Conference “muscle cars,” and their respective offenses flow through them.
Jokić is the only player in the league this year who is in the top-ten in points (27.3), rebounds (11.2), and assists per game (8.5). He’s even fourth in steals per game as well! He’s the league leader in win shares (8.9), box plus-minus (11.8), and value over replacement player (4.9). Do you remember when I said that Joel Embiid is second in player efficiency rating? Guess who’s first. That’s right, the Joker himself.
There’s no doubt that the Denver Nuggets lean on him in every facet of their offense. Jokić is second in the league in total minutes, one of the few statistics that league leaders don’t feel great about. But unlike Embiid, Jokić is fairly durable for a 7-footer. And his well-rounded offensive approach is one of a kind. His court vision is unreal—Jokić is the only center among the 25 players with the highest assist rates.
Another viable contender for the award is none other than LeBron James. Despite this being his 18th season, James is ninth in the league in total minutes. That’s definitely not what he anticipated, but it hasn’t been a luxury he and the Lakers can afford at the moment. Anthony Davis hasn’t played in a month due to a calf strain and Achilles soreness, and Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported yesterday that he will likely miss three more weeks.
James’s statistics this season aren’t earth-shattering (25.5/8.1/8.0) but it’s impressive to see how he’s led the Lakers to wins, no matter how unspectacular. The Lakers are currently third in the Western Conference, but they’re only 2.5 games behind the first-place Jazz. James would have no problem wooing voters if he pushed Los Angeles to the top seed in the West without Davis for most of the second half of the season.
Of course, there are MVP arguments to be made for several other mega-stars. Damian Lillard is single-handedly pushing the Trail Blazers toward another postseason appearance. Luka Dončić and the Mavericks are 12-4 in their last 16 games and appear offensively synchronized. James Harden has posted 11 triple-doubles for the Nets and is holding down the fort while Kevin Durant is out with a hamstring injury. Giannis Antetokounmpo is having yet another impressively efficient season, and Steph Curry is trying the best he can to will the Warriors to the playoffs.
It only takes a string of dominant performances for the MVP race to swing in someone’s favor. One thing is for sure: for however long Joel Embiid takes to heal, it’s anyone’s game.