Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid is ahead of LeBron James in MVP race

Joel Embiid | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Joel Embiid | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers have a true MVP contender in Joel Embiid.

No major award category is impacted more by narrative than MVP. It is often difficult to objectively select the “best” performer in a given season. There are so many variables at play. Team success, offense vs. defense, the fact that every voter has individual preferences — it’s a miracle we ever arrived at a unanimous MVP.

That said, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid is putting together a strong MVP campaign in 2021. The Sixers are in first place and have weathered various injuries to arrive at 20-10. Embiid is averaging 30.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 3.2 assists. He is shooting 54.7 percent from the field, 40.0 percent from 3, and 85.3 percent from the charity stripe — all career highs.

What Embiid has done as a thundering 7-footer in the modern NBA is nothing short of miraculous. The game has slowed down for him this season. He’s committing fewer turnovers, making better passes, and flat-out torturing defenses at every level. Leave him one-on-one, and he’s the odds-on favorite to win his matchup. Bring a double, and Embiid is handling them better than ever.

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It is too early for grand proclamations, but Embiid is putting together arguably the best offensive season in the league. On the other end, Embiid is among the handful of real Defensive Player of the Year contenders — joined on the shortlist by his teammate, Ben Simmons.

Embiid is doing it on both ends. He is wrecking defenses and offenses. The Sixers’ roster is deeply flawed and has struggled to survive any sort of absence this season. If not for Embiid, it’s clear this team would not have 1.5 games on Brooklyn and 3.0 games on Milwaukee in the standings.

It is therefore curious that Embiid is not more widely embraced as the MVP favorite. Sure, there have been plenty of worthy performers this season. Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, and Luka Doncic have all put together career-defining seasons to this point. And yet, it is LeBron James who constantly edges out Embiid in early MVP rankings.

No disrespect to James, who deserves his label as the best player in basketball. If I had to venture a guess as to who wins the championship, it’s probably the Lakers. If I had to venture a guess as to who wins Finals MVP, it’s probably LeBron. When it comes to the regular season award, however, the 36-year-old’s consensus lead over Embiid is confounding.

Narrative is, of course, at play. The Lakers are now down Anthony Davis for an extended period of time, shifting more of the focus on LeBron. He’s also doing historic things at 36 years old, playing in his 18th season and starting his 17th consecutive All-Star game. It’s not hard to see why the biggest name in the biggest market is getting extra love this season.

That said, James has not been particularly impressive — not relative to the general expectation that comes with his play. Many would argue LeBron has deserved more than the four MVPs on his resume. I would tend to agree. That said, forcing in a fifth MVP when it isn’t truly deserved does not feel like the proper compensation. That’s like Leonardo DiCaprio winning the Oscar for The Revenant — great performance, sure, but also a thinly veiled make-up for past snubs.

We have a long way to go, and a lot can change between now and when the media votes. The Lakers are 22-8 — two games better than Philadelphia. LeBron will have center-stage without AD for at least four weeks, and he is LeBron freakin’ James. Averages of 25.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 7.9 assists on 50.8 percent shooting are nothing to scoff at.

So far, however, Embiid has compiled the more impressive individual campaign — at least, it seems so on paper. We can debate the merits of a ball-dominant interior scorer vs. an elite-level perimeter creator, but Embiid has done his fair share of single-handedly steering the Sixers offense. He has scored with remarkable efficiency from every spot on the floor, while again, anchoring the defense. He is playing elite, career-best basketball on both ends of the floor.

James is understandably lauded by the broader basketball community. It’s impossible to underestimate his impact on the game. He’s probably going to win another championship or two before he calls it quits. But it’s Joel Embiid — not LeBron James — who should top MVP ballots right now.

Next. Embiid, the perfect blend of greatness. dark