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Philadelphia 76ers

Joel Embiid belongs in the MVP conversation

Sean Kennedy

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Jan 28, 2018; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) is seen on the bench in a break in action against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, even the most casual NBA fan knows Joel Embiid. The Philadelphia 76ers center is one of the largest players, both in terms of sheer size and personality, in the game today. He is a marketer’s dream with the social media troll game to appeal to the younger generation and the on-court game to back it up. Still, for a guy with fewer than 80 professional games under his belt, last weekend’s All-Star Game was a chance for Embiid to prove he belonged alongside the creme de la creme of NBA stars.

Embiid passed this latest test with flying colors, putting forth a standout performance of 19 points, two rebounds, and two blocks, and play a prominent role on both ends of the court in crunch time. In media interviews throughout the weekend, it was clear Embiid has garnered the respect of his All-Star peers.

LeBron James showered praise upon his Eastern Conference competitor: “I think the skills that make Joel special on the court are his ability to do a little bit of everything. His ability to shoot, his ability to put the ball on the ground, his ability to use his footwork in the paint, his ability to be athletic as well.”

Kevin Durant offered a similar assessment: “He’s a great player, he’s definitely a guy you respect and is going to take over this league once I’m done.”

When the previous two NBA Finals MVPs are offering sincere compliments about a player, it’s safe to say he belongs.

While All-Star starter is a prestigious designation in its own right, maybe it’s time to consider Embiid in an even loftier category. I’m talking about the conversation for Most Valuable Player. Currently,¬†James Harden is the consummate favorite, with LeBron the only reasonably close competition, followed by a wide-ranging group headlined by Steph Curry, Durant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Getting past the fact that Embiid has yet to play the games equivalent of a full rookie season, it’s clear there’s little distinguishing his play from those presumptive top players in the game.

The raw numbers are obviously impressive. Embiid is 11th in the NBA in scoring (24 ppg), sixth in rebounding (11 rpg), and fifth in blocks (1.9 bpg). More importantly, the 76ers dominate the competition — playing like one of the very best teams in the league — when the big man is on the court. Among regulars who play at least 25 minutes per game, Embiid is ninth in the league in net rating at 10.6, and he is the only player in the top 13 of that list not on Golden State or Houston. However, unlike those other players on the top two teams in the league, Philadelphia completely falls apart when Embiid is out of the game.

Based on net rating, the 76ers essentially vacillate between playing like Golden State or Brooklyn depending on whether Embiid is in the game. The Greek Freak is the only other top star who makes as large of an impact on his team’s performance. If your definition of Most Valuable Player implies the guy who does the most to individually make a team better, Joel Embiid has as good a case as anyone.

Player Net Rating On Court Net Rating Off Court Difference
Joel Embiid 10.6 -4.7 15.3
James Harden 9.7 6.9 2.8
LeBron James 0.1 2.1 -2.0
Steph Curry 13.8 5.9 7.9
Kevin Durant 10.5 9.5 1.0
Giannis Antetokounmpo 5.6 -9.7 15.3

Of course, the natural reflex for many is to say that Embiid is rarely on the court.

It’s why Pistons All-Star center Andre Drummond responded to barbs from Embiid by saying, “When he can play a whole season without taking a rest, he can come talk to me.”

When a player misses two full years to start his NBA career, it’s only natural that his durability is called into question. Embiid’s rookie season being cut short after 31 games was how Malcolm Brogdon and his 10.2 points per game ended up as Rookie of the Year.

However, this year has been an entirely different story. Embiid has appeared in 45 of Philadelphia’s 56 games thus far, even getting his first career back-to-back under his belt. Among those in the MVP conversation, Embiid has missed fewer games than Curry this season, and only a handful more than Harden or Durant (LeBron hasn’t missed a single game because he’s a cyborg).

Looking at how the team has fared with and without Embiid is another good piece of evidence of how the 76ers disintegrate without him. Net rating differential can make it difficult to parse the impact of the drop-off between a good starting unit and a terrible bench. Stars naturally play the most with the starting unit. Those players on better teams with solid benches won’t have as much of a drop-off as Embiid, due to the huge gap between the starting five and bench unit for the 76ers.

However, removing Embiid from the game gives a look at how that same successful starting five for Philadelphia would fare without him. The answer? Not well. The 76ers go from a 51-win team to a 22-win team depending upon Embiid’s availability, again as large a drop-off as anyone in the MVP conversation.

Player Record With Record Without Difference
Joel Embiid 28-17 (.622) 3-8 (.273) .349
James Harden 41-10 (.804) 4-3 (.571) .233
LeBron James 35-23 (.603) 0-0 N/A
Steph Curry 34-10 (.773) 11-4 (.733) .040
Kevin Durant 38-13 (.745) 7-1 (.875) -.130
Giannis Antetokounmpo 30-23 (.566) 2-2 (.500) .066

I’m not going to make the case that Embiid should win the MVP award this season. Harden is putting up eye-popping numbers and we’ve also seen the Rockets experience a decline without him on the court. The fact that he’s helping Houston stay neck and neck with a historically great team like Golden State is evidence enough that he should take home the trophy.

Still, when people rattle off the short list of guys who are in the conversation, Joel Embiid deserves to be mentioned. It’s time to set aside the biases built up the last few years about his availability and acknowledge that he is contributing to his team’s success as much as anyone in the league. Sooner than you think, the MVP may stand for Most Valuable Process.

Sean Kennedy is a Philadelphia native who has been an avid fan of the local sports scene since the days of PRISM. Sean is the founder and lead writer for PhillyFastBreak.com, covering primarily the Sixers and City 6 college basketball. You can follow him on Twitter @PhillyFastBreak

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