Let’s make one thing clear. None of what you’re about to read is to suggest that Joel Embiid has just sacrificed his life to save humanity with his decision to sit down against Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Monday night.
That said, we should at least give the big man a nod of appreciation for ending this year’s NBA MVP debate before he completely destroys polite society. True champions are consensus builders, and Embiid has somehow found a way to leave everyone in a better position. He and the Sixers get a chance to focus on the postseason. Everyone has a brain that is no longer soup.
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This first part is what matters.
It would be easy to view Embiid’s absence on Monday night as a form of resignation. This is definitely what Nuggets fans have seen. After news broke that Embiid would not fit in with his main rival for the Player of the Year Trophy, someone in Denver printed fake missing person posters and distributed them all over the ballpark.
And they are right. This was Embiid’s chance to remind voters that regardless of Jokic’s flashy baseline, he’s the bigger guy you’ll want by your side if winning a basketball game is your goal. Instead, Jokic converted with a triple, the Sixers lost their fourth of five, and Embiid watched it all from the bench.
You could argue that none of that matters. Embiid’s stat status for MVP is stronger than it’s ever been. His scoring average of 33.3 points per game is not only the best in the NBA this season. It’s historical. Only 10 players have made it this far. Only three have done so in the past 35 years: James Harden, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. It’s also 8.4 points above Jokic’s average, a gap almost large enough to negate Jokic’s +5.8 advantage in assists. After factoring in the eye test, and the massive advantage Embiid’s defensive impact provides, Jokic’s MVP resume is based mostly on semantics. That is, defining “value” as everything Jokic has to offer.
Of course, MVP is first and foremost a semantic award, and MVP voters have already decided that a season like Jokic deserves the name more than a season like Embiid. Anyone who considers Jokic the best player in the past two seasons will be hard-pressed to decide otherwise this year. His numbers are similar, his efficiency is better, and his team has the best record in the Western Conference.
Embiid’s best chance to prove himself was to prove it head-on. His decision not to do so was particularly damaging since his unavailability remains the most compelling argument against his MVP nomination. The conversation is now pretty much over.
But, again, this is a good thing.
You could argue that Embiid’s fixation on an MVP sounds hollow if he can’t even hold his own against the only guy standing in his way. But the more I think about it, the more I realize it’s a feather in his cap. It’s an indication that, for all of Embiid’s talk of individual recognition, his priority remains the running back looms for his team.
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With the No. 1 seed now an impossibility, the Sixers have more to gain over the next two weeks with Embiid off the court than on it. In a perfect world, Embiid would spend the rest of the regular season preparing his body to withstand the rigors of playoff series against Boston and Milwaukee. This is much better than spending that time chasing after an individual award.
At the end of the day, history will judge Embiid on his ability to pull his team out of the plateau where they have been stranded for the past five years. If he truly is the NBA’s MVP, Most Valuable, Most Outstanding Player or however you want to identify him, his presence should give his team an inherent advantage in the postseason.
There’s a very good chance the Sixers’ post-season fate will end up hanging on Embiid’s ability to control the proceedings. His current priority should be preparing himself for this possibility. After all, the only true MVP is that it’s not what matters.
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