The Curious MVP Case of Joel Embiid

In recent years, the NBA has seen an increase in the number of dominant big men, all with Unicorn skill sets, being able to do things almost unthinkable a generation ago. Joel Embiid may be the crown jewel of the current breed of big-men, but can he realistically win an MVP award?

Coming out of college in 2014, Richard Harris of nbadraft.net wrote this about Joel Embiid’s NBA potential: “[he] has just as much chance to become the next Greg Oden as he does the next Hakeem Olajuwon”.

Nearly half a decade has passed since that draft and you could argue Embiid can still achieve both outcomes.

Embiid is statistically dominating the league. Per Cleaning the Glass, when he is on the floor the 76ers have an efficiency differential of +17.9 which is equivalent to 42 added wins if stretched out in an 82-game season.

In the shot-clock era, eight players have averaged more than 26/13/3 in a single season. Out of those eight, only one player isn’t in the Hall of Fame today: Joel Embiid. If he can maintain these numbers for the remainder of the season, he can find his name permanently on a list sporting greats such as Shaq, Wilt and the player he is often compared to, Hakeem Olajuwon, among others.

But not every player on that list has won an MVP award, so why should Embiid? Why should Embiid beat out front-runners such as Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kawahi Leonard?

Defense

Embiid is a monster on defense. The biggest tar on his Defensive Player of the Year campaign last season was that he didn’t play enough games.

Ironically enough, it might have been when he was sidelined with an orbital fracture near the end of the season after colliding with Markelle Fultz that lost him the award.

With or without the DPoY award, there is no question Embiid adds MVP-level value on the defensive end. When Embiid is on the court, opponents shoot 4.3 percentage points worse than when he is off, per Cleaning the Glass. For reference, in Rudy Gobert's DPOY season (2016/17) opponents shot 2.6% less.

What’s more remarkable is that Embiid doesn’t just stop opponents from making shots at the rim, he literally stops them from taking shots at the rim. When he is on the court, opponents shoot 6.2% fewer shots at the rim, good for a top two percentile in the league.

The shots opponents aren’t taking at the rim are being taken in other places, the most often conceded shot being the long mid-range shot (arguably basketballs worst shot). Due to Embiid’s presence as a rim protector, the 76ers hold the top rank in opponents effective field goal percentage in the league, per Basketball-Reference.

In this clip, you can see Reggie Jackson has a clear path to the rim as his man got lost at the screen, but one look at Embiid under the rim and he’s jacking up an inefficient mid-ranger like a Daryl Morey night terror:

It’s clear that the 76ers understand the attention opposing offenses are giving Embiid and as a team, they are capitalizing on it:

In this clip, you can literally see his head look away from Bojan Bogdanovic and his silly little shot to focus on the roller and boxing out.

And he does box out. Arguably the most important part of a defensive possession is the final rebound, and Embiid leads the league in total defensive rebounds.

If a team is going to beat you with just long mid-range shots, let them beat you. While the 76ers as a team haven’t been as successful on the defensive end as they would’ve hoped this season, they have a solid defensive philosophy and All-Defensive team big man to build around for years to come.

Also, his blocks are so much fun to watch. In this clip below you could tell he was going to go for the block on Dillon Brooks the entire way down the court:

MarShon Brooks*. Now I can see how easy it is to confuse those two…

Offense

Even after the acquisition of Jimmy Butler, another high-usage player, Embiid has still been getting his touches on the offensive end. He has a 32.1% usage rate, which places him right near the top of the league, per Cleaning the Glass.

Following a minor slump after the Butler trade, Embiid has returned to posting monster numbers each game. More specifically, since resting at the front of a back-to-back with Detroit, Embiid has been back to his usual self. He followed up a 33 point and 17 rebound game with 40 and 21 against Indiana, where he had 28 points and 10 rebounds at halftime.

With his three-point shot not hitting as effectively this year as in others, he has relied a lot more on his post play and the pick and roll to get his points.

At the rim, he is shooting 71%, per Basketball-Reference, and is assisted on just over half of those attempts (94% of his three-point attempts are assisted). It’s lucky he has one of the best point guards in Ben Simmons who can feed him the ball.

Regular Season: 2-Man Combinations Table

Lineup MP PTS FG FGA FG% 3P% eFG% FT FTA TRB AST BLK PF
J. Embiid | B. Simmons 715:19 +8.2 +1.2 -5.2 +.040 +.021 +.040 +6.4 +8.8 +3.9 +3.9 +0.4 -2.3

But his bread and butter is in the post where he can lull defenders to sleep and tempt them into reaching into the cookie jar. Embiid is fouled on 18.8% of his shooting possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, which puts him in the 89th percentile in the league. He is also leading the league in free throws attempted with a good margin ahead of second-placed James Harden, who is notorious for his foul drawing.

Sometimes the fouls are a bit soft (not to say that they shouldn’t be called, but mainly I just feel bad for the defenders tasked with guarding him one-on-one), such as this one with Larry Nance Jr.:

And then sometimes it just seems impossible to stop. What else could Anthony Davis do here to stop this layup? He covered middle, so Embiid went baseline and the rest is history:

The Curious Case

The MVP award is usually given to the best player on the best team, the 76ers have some ground to make up on Toronto and Milwaukee for that to be true. If they increase their win total to a number closer to sixty, Embiid’s greatness on both ends of the floor could make for a very good MVP resume.

Only Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon have won both the MVP and DPoY awards in the same season and wouldn’t it be poetic if Embiid were able to complete the Olajuwon comparisons through his career by being the third name on that list?

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