A healthy Joel Embiid will be more than a potential Eastern Conference All-Star next season. He'll be a legitimate MVP threat.
Joel Embiid has had a few well-documented injuries during his first few seasons in the NBA. So yes, his tantalizing upside means nothing if he can’t stay on the court. For the sake of this argument, however, let’s assume he can. Let’s assume Embiid plays at least 70 games this season with no significant restrictions on his playing time. There’s little debate as to whether or not a healthy Embiid will be an Eastern Conference All-Star. So let’s take it a step further. Here are five reasons why a healthy Joel Embiid can be the 2017–18 NBA MVP.
1. A much-improved supporting cast
While a few minor roster additions—like a healthy Jerryd Bayless—will bolster Philadelphia’s depth, let’s focus on the starting five. Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, and J.J. Redick will make Embiid a better player. The jury is out on the defensive side of the ball, but there are reasons for optimism. With a starting five that included Nik Stauskas, Ersan Ilyasova, and T.J. McConnell, Embiid still managed to anchor the Eastern Conference’s top-rated defense during a 10–5 January. Sure, McConnell is a hard-nosed defender that makes the most out of his limited athleticism, but will the new trio really be a defensive downgrade?
Redick is a capable team defender who can hold the younger guys accountable, and both Simmons and Fultz have all the physical tools to become at least average defenders. Should they fail to tap into their potential in year one, Embiid has already shown a propensity for carrying the team on his broad shoulders. At worst, the starting unit’s defense should be a net neutral. If that’s the case, Embiid will be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. Period. It’s on the other side of the ball that things get really interesting.
With the addition of Simmons and Fultz, Embiid has two dynamic ball handlers who can terrorize teams with pick-and-roll combinations. While he may not shoot as much if he has better teammates, easier looks should mean more efficient scoring numbers. Embiid should also be able to improve on his 2.1 assists per game. Last year, Stauskas shot a team-best 37% from three, and Robert Covington started the season in a dreadful slump. Enter Redick, a true knockdown shooter who has been more accurate from deep than anyone in the NBA across the last two seasons combined. Factor in Fultz’s promising stroke—without even projecting what Simmons might do off the ball—and Embiid will surely make teams pay for inevitable double teams. Don’t expect Jokic numbers, but Embiid’s assists will bolster his MVP candidacy.
2. Addressing his biggest flaw
As a rookie, Embiid overcame the Sixers’ offensive limitations by displaying a dizzying array of post moves, an unexpectedly potent outside shot, and an ability to draw fouls like a seasoned vet. He averaged an eye-opening 28.7 points per 36 minutes. Embiid also finished second among all starting centers in usage and eighth in assist percentage. So, what’s the problem?
Embiid averaged the fifth-most turnovers per game, a ranking usually reserved for ball-dominant guards. Though he was impressive from deep, Embiid caught the ball on the perimeter a lot for a big man. Sometimes, he tried to do too much. Rather than making a simple decision, he’d take his man off the dribble, getting caught in traffic along the way. While I don’t doubt Embiid’s ability to become a strong ball handler, he shouldn’t be trying to break ankles in isolation. You don’t need a lethal crossover when you can do this:
Which brings us back to Simmons and Fultz. Adding two playmakers lets Brett Brown take pressure off of Embiid. Let them handle the ball and initiate the offense. Let Embiid set screens, find space, command double teams and attack the rim. A simplified role should go a long way in helping Embiid clean up the turnovers. If he does, good luck finding a flaw in his game, statistically or otherwise.
3. The two-way factor
I’m not a fan of “two-way player” as a phrase. Basketball consists of offense and defense. There’s no difference between the best player and the best two-way player. That said, the prevalence of advanced stats allows us to scrutinize players like never before. Putting up hollow offensive numbers isn’t good enough. That’s why there’s uncertainty around a player like Andrew Wiggins.
Embiid, on the other hand, is a two-way darling. His defensive ability alone allows him to control a game. He averaged 2.5 blocks despite playing less than 26 minutes per game. He can switch onto guards and recover at an elite level. His instincts and IQ are simply astounding for someone with less than a decade of basketball experience. If he contributed almost nothing on offense, Embiid would still be one of the best centers in the game.
Fortunately, the big man can hit from deep and imitate Hakeem Olajuwon on the block. He has a soft touch on his midrange jumper, and he made 78% of his free throws. Embiid put up staggering numbers as a rookie despite playing relatively short stints due to restricted minutes. Once he’s able to establish a consistent rhythm, those numbers will only get better. Add it all up, and it’s hard to find players who can impact both ends of the floor quite like Embiid.
4. The competition
In the "superteam" era, MVP-caliber players are teaming up more often, making it harder for one player to truly stand out as a candidate. Russell Westbrook and James Harden are no longer solo acts. While Kevin Durant showed that he can still make a strong case when healthy, Steph Curry is obviously a factor. Aside from some outside shot veterans like Isaiah Thomas and Blake Griffin, that leaves us with Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and some rising stars.
Kawhi is the poster boy for the two-way player argument. He’ll likely put together another MVP-worthy season on a contender, but could the Spurs slide back a bit? There’s a chance that teams like the Rockets and Thunder gain some ground after offseason splashes. Also, in the era of positionless basketball, wing players assume more responsibility as playmakers. Could Kawhi’s low assist numbers hurt him? He only averaged 3.8 assists per 36 minutes last season, and he’s never had more than seven in a game. As for LeBron, it’s simple. If he wants to win the MVP, he probably will. If he’s not particularly interested in the regular season, someone else will. I’ll bet on the latter.
That leaves us with the rising stars. Guys like Anthony Davis, Giannis, Jokic, and Karl-Anthony Towns are all incredible talents, but I’ll take the guy who’s already shown an ability to dominate on both ends. I’ll take the guy who carried a team of backups and made them competitive. What Giannis did with the Bucks last year was extremely impressive. I believe Embiid can take next year’s Sixers on a similar ride.
5. The previous four seasons
Since Sam Hinkie kick-started The Process, the Sixers have been very, very bad. Last year’s team was actually entertaining and competitive with Embiid, but they’re often lumped in with the unwatchable rosters that defined this polarizing rebuild. That works in Embiid’s favor. Though it’s usually tied to a Coach of the Year candidate, who can resist a great single-season turnaround story?
Thanks to Embiid missing more than 50 games, the Sixers won only 28 last year. I won’t speculate how many they would have won if Embiid stayed healthy, but “more” feels like a safe answer. So, what sort of jump do they need to make for Embiid to receive serious MVP consideration? Westbrook broke the mold by taking home the trophy with a 47-win six seed. Can the Sixers reach a similar number in a much weaker Eastern Conference? I think so. And if they do, Embiid will be the leading force. If the Sixers approach 50 wins, that sort of a jump will be hard to ignore.
MVP expectations may seem crazy for a second-year player on a team that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs in the last half-decade, but Embiid has all of the talent and circumstances needed to take home the hardware. Let’s just hope he stays on the court long enough to prove it.