Philadelphia 76ers: Comparing Joel Embiid to Shaq’s MVP season

Joel Embiid | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Joel Embiid | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /

The last player to win MVP at the center position was Shaquille O’Neal in 2000. Can Philadelphia 76ers’ big man Joel Embiid end the 20-year drought? Let’s look at how his current season stacks up with Shaq’s MVP year.

Prior to Stephen Curry becoming the first unanimous Most Valuable Player in NBA history in the 2015-2016 season, Shaquille O’Neal was the closest to a unanimous MVP vote in 1999-2000, missing out by one first place vote that ironically went to Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson. Shaq was unquestionably dominant, averaging 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds and 3 blocks per game. I have said this before, but in my 28 years watching basketball, I have never seen someone truly define the word unguardable more than Shaq in his prime. And that was never more on display than in his MVP season.

Joel Embiid is beginning to become a similar unguardable force. The main difference between Shaq and Embiid is that the latter has the ability to stretch the floor which he can use to create a mismatch when the opposing center is a strong post defender. The stats however are not so different. Embiid is averaging 29.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. Additionally, he is averaging career highs in 2-point field goal percentage (57.3 percent), 3-point field goal percentage (40 percent), effective field goal percentage (57.7 percent) and free throw percentage (85.1 percent).

Shaq had lower shooting percentages in all the above categories except for 2-point field goal percentage which was 57.5 percent, only 0.2 percent higher than Embiid’s current average. A key explanation for this is that Shaq rarely took shots outside of five feet from the rim, something that Embiid is not shy of. The game has moved away from the old school big man that was required in years past, yet Embiid has proven that he can dominate in the paint similar to those centers, while also being able to shoot and make shots from anywhere on the floor, an opponent’s worst nightmare.

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Looking deeper into Embiid’s stats, you can see he is also averaging career highs in steals and free throw attempts per game and career lows in personal fouls and 3-point field goals attempted. These stats speak to a more mature player who is leaning into his strengths and learning what he has to do to help the 76ers win. The increase in free throws attempted and decrease in 3-pointers are directly correlated. The more time spent in the paint closer to the basket, the more likely Embiid is to be fouled. Also, the decrease in personal fouls could speak to less aggressive play on the defensive end, but that is just not the case if you watch him play this year. Embiid understands in order to win, the team needs him to stay out of foul trouble and be available.

One important factor to note about MVP voting is that Shaq was the clear cut MVP compared to the other candidates when he won the award; there was no other choice. I am not naive to the fact that this year there are a number of players performing at MVP-caliber levels, namely LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. However, in my mind the only serious contender to challenge Joel for the award is LeBron. LeBron can and should win the MVP almost every season, but similar to Michael Jordan the voters got fatigue of the same player winning year after year. If the LeBron fatigue was over, as some media outlets suggest, then I believe he would have won last season instead of Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Since LeBron came in second to Giannis by a relatively large margin, I believe the voting committee is still looking for new faces to give the award to. If Joel stays healthy and keeps up this current production, he deserves to win the 2020-21 NBA MVP. The Sixers are first in the East and Embiid is a huge factor in that. And when you compare his play and stats to Shaq, the last center to receive the award, that only helps his MVP case.

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