NBA MVP race 2021: Why Sixers' Joel Embiid should still win

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Adam Hermann
·4 min read
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Joel Embiid should still win MVP, and here's why originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Joel Embiid has played at an MVP level all season long. But is he actually in line to win the award?

Plenty of basketball fans and analysts alike have dismissed his candidacy because the big man has missed a number of games to injuries. But one former NBA player, and Big 5 college basketball legend, disagrees.

Tim Legler, the La Salle legend and current ESPN analyst, was asked who he thinks has the best chance to keep the Brooklyn Nets out of the NBA Finals. For any Sixers fans sick of the constant Nets chatter, Legler's response was a breath of fresh air:

"I think, for me, the only team that's really unique is Philly. Because they've got this one weapon that no one else in the league has. Right now, the way Joel Embiid has played all year - and for me, by the way, he's still the MVP. I don't care how much time he missed. I think this is the MVP of the league. This is the closest thing we've seen to Hakeem Olajuwon in his prime."

The Hakeem comparisons keep coming for Embiid, and this year? It's pretty hard to argue. I think Legler is right in that Embiid should be the MVP, even though the voting might ultimately choose a different winner.

There are usually two camps in the MVP argument: who is having the best individual season (which is normally proven with traditional stats like points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, and shooting percentage) and who is actually most valuable to his team (which can be proven with win-loss records based on playing time, or advanced stats like offensive and defensive ratings, and on/off stats).

Let's take a look at the five most likely MVP candidates: Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and LeBron James.

First, the traditional stats:

  • Embiid: 29.9 pts, 11.2 reb, 3.2 ast, 52/39/85 shooting

  • Jokic: 26.3 pts, 10.9 reb, 8.7 ast, 57/42/85 shooting

  • Antetokounmpo: 28.8 pts, 11.4 reb, 6.2 ast, 56/30/69 shooting

  • Harden: 25.2 pts, 8.0 reb, 10.9 ast, 46/36/87 shooting

  • James: 25.4 pts, 7.9 reb, 7.9 ast, 51/37/70 shooting

Is there really a winner here? They're all incredible stat lines. I'd call Jokic the most impressive of the five, but Harden's all-around game is insane, Embiid's shooting for a big man is mind-boggling, and Giannis and LeBron are both just fantastic.

Now let's look at the on/off stats, via Cleaning the Glass, to see how much each player's presence impacts their team's performance - on both ends:

Joel Embiid (Offense/Defense)

+12.5 pts/possession (98th percentile) / -2.6 PPP (71st)+7.1% eFG (99th) / -1.5% eFG (74th)

Just a huge impact on both ends from Embiid, which is why he feels like such a valuable piece every single night.

Nikola Jokic

+14.4 PPP (99th) / +6.7 PPP (9th)+5.0% eFG (95th) / +3.7% eFG (6th)

The offense is incredible, but the defense? Yikes. That's not MVP stuff.

James Harden

-1.1 PPP (42nd) / -0.1 PPP (51st)+0.7% eFG (60th) / +3.1% eFG (9th)

Harden is thriving in volume stats, but not exactly revolutionizing the Nets. They're fine with or without him!

Giannis Antetokounmpo

+2.7 PPP (70th) / -9.4 PPP (95th)+2.4% eFG (82nd) / -1.9% eFG (80th)

Giannis is really a game-changer on both ends, just like Embiid. Really impressive.

LeBron James

+9.4 PPP (96th) / -5.1 PPP (87th)+4.9% eFG (95th) / -1.4% eFG (73rd)

Like Giannis and Embiid, LeBron's impact on both ends is obvious.

To me, the combination of traditional volume stats and the on/off court team impact that Embiid is having on both ends makes him a perfect MVP candidate. He's the main reason the Sixers have led the Eastern Conference for the majority of the season, he's playing the best basketball of his career, and he's simply an unstoppable force in the league.

We'll see if voters agree.