October 21, 2021

Embiid leading early MVP running

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Joel Embiid was the prize for one of the worst seasons in 76ers history. Now in his seventh year in the NBA, the Cameroonian center known as ‘The Process’ has the team that did everything to draft him ruling the East.

It seems to be that you can only ever talk about Joel Embiid while knocking on wood. Unfortunately, health has proved to be a concern for the transformative big man ever since he broke the navicular bone in his right foot, ruling him out for two entire seasons just days before he was taken third in the 2014 Draft.

So far this season, and I’m tapping my desk as I write this, Embiid has led the Sixers to a 12-6 record and the top of the Eastern Conference – with a two game advantage over their closest rivals, the Celtics and the Bucks.

He has been rested for only four games and without him, Philly have gone exactly 0-4. More than that, they’ve looked completely lost without him on the floor.

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid shoots during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021, in Detroit. 1:44
Joel Embiid scored 33 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the Philadelphia 76ers victory over the Detroit Pistons on Sunday

But with Embiid, averaging almost 32 minutes per contest, the second highest mark of his career to date, the Sixers are dominant. They score 14 more points per 100 possessions and allow eight fewer as opposed to when he sits, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s a mammoth 22 point swing.

He is also averaging 27.7 points and 11.5 rebounds per game, gaudy figures themselves, but made even more staggering still by the efficiency. Embiid is shooting 55 per cent from the field and 40 per cent from beyond the arc, both career bests, for an effective field goal percentage of 59.2.

For comparison, that’s comfortably higher than both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis and only a fraction behind the other current MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic. He’s also topping the entire league with a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 31.2, just ahead of the Nuggets center’s 30.7

As it stands, Embiid has planted himself firmly in the conversation like it was just another bulldozing post-up.

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid with the free throw attempt during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Philadelphia. The 76ers won 117-109. 1:57
Embiid puts up 42 points and 10 rebounds in the Philadelphia 76ers’ win over the Boston Celtics in Week 5

Despite this, Basketball Reference’s MVP tracker has Embiid as the second most likely recipient of the award come the end of the season, behind Jokic. However, given the early resurgence of the Sixers following an embarrassing 4-0 sweep against the Celtics in last season’s playoffs, and the simple fact that they’ve lost every game without him, he certainly possesses the narrative to encourage voting in his favour.

If they do end the regular season as the first seed in the East it would be extremely difficult to argue with him taking the award, even if it is over someone playing as well (and as ridiculously entertaining) as Jokic is.

Philly’s roster appears revitalised under new head coach Doc Rivers and president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, who acted quickly and decisively during the offseason to improve the team around his new star big man. The results on the court under Rivers’ guidance are already paying dividends.

The floor spacing, largely provided by the gravity of Seth Curry (shooting a ridiculous 53.7 per cent from deep this season) and Tobias Harris (another player having a career year in multiple categories), is finally giving him room to feast on the block: Embiid is averaging a league leading 7.4 post-ups per game. He’s also getting fouled on a lot of them, demonstrated by his 10.7 free-throws. That’s another career-best mark and NBA-best figure.

Teams simply can’t defend against Embiid and as a result, he’s also seeing more double teams than any other player, per Synergy Sports. His array of post moves, overwhelming physicality and intelligence when additional defensive help does inevitably arrive is validating Rivers’ decision to run the entire offense through his hands. Which, again, simply isn’t going to hurt his MVP chances when he’s both scoring and freeing up teammates at this rate.

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid reacts to the 137-134 overtime win in an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola) 3:16
A season-high 45 points, 16 rebounds and four assists performance in an overtime win over the Miami Heat

It may well prove a blessing in disguise that Houston decided to deal James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets instead of the Sixers, if only because the Sixers’ other transformative player, Ben Simmons, appeared to be playing beneath a cloud through the opening weeks of the season. Reportedly, he knew a trade to the Rockets was coming.

Instead, Morey couldn’t give his old team the talent they wanted and Simmons has been granted something like a new lease of life at the Wells Fargo.

His relationship with Embiid hasn’t always been the smoothest but judging by their recent comments to the press, both players appear to be genuinely galvanised by the prospect of continuing to play alongside each other and push the franchise towards a first championship since 1983 – with the appointments of Rivers and Morey a clear statement of that intent from the ownership. Embiid’s play through this first stretch of the season is an even clearer statement still.

For a long time the conversation around Embiid, through no fault of his own, always seemed to stem from how much game time he was missing. Now, perhaps belatedly, certainly deservedly, all the talk is about something else entirely. A different kind of history for The Process in Philadelphia.