In late March, in the back of a black sprinter van zipping through the streets of Los Angeles, I asked Joel Embiid about the importance of winning MVP. Embiid was in the final stages of his best NBA season, where he played more games (68), averaged more points (an NBA-best 30.6) and handed out more assists (4.2) than in any of his previous seasons.
His answer: Winning matters more.
“You can’t win this type of stuff if you don’t win,” Embiid told me. “So it doesn’t matter. Let’s say if I average 35 on a bad team, I can’t be the MVP of the league, because I’m not winning. So my whole thing, when you look at those awards, it all goes back to winning. So that’s always been my focus, winning, working hard to make my team better, offensively and defensively. Obviously winning a championship is the biggest thing. And I’ll be honest, I never thought I would be at this level.”
“Coming into the league, I was always like, ‘I’ve got to get a Defensive Player of the Year.’ My defense was always my focus. I’m like, ‘Defensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year,’ and then, over the years, I’ve gotten offensively … but I feel like people also forget about the [defensive] side of the court, where I’m still pretty good at it, especially when I’m locked in. But it all goes back to winning. It all goes back to winning games.”
Nikola Jokić will be named MVP, ESPN reported on Monday. And Jokić earned it. The reigning MVP’s scoring and rebounding ticked up from last season. His field goal percentage (58.3%) was a career-high. He led the NBA in almost every advanced metric and pushed the Nuggets—down Michael Porter Jr. for most of the season and Jamal Murray for all of it—to 48 wins and a playoff appearance.
There will be disappointment in Embiid’s camp—Drew Hanlen, Embiid’s personal trainer, is a good follow for that—but Embiid’s accomplishments this season go beyond an award. Embiid proved he can stay healthy. Foot, knee, back—Embiid’s body has been a game of Operation since he turned pro in 2014. He was a fixture in Philadelphia’s lineup this season, despite, as Hanlen told Sports Illustrated recently, often playing through a staggering amount of pain. In the playoffs, Embiid, dealing with a torn ligament in his right hand, a broken bone in his face and a steady diet of double-teams, is averaging 25 points and 11 rebounds and leads all players in double-doubles.
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He proved he could win. The Sixers were the Eastern Conference’s top seed in ’20–21, winning 49 games in the COVID-19-shortened season. But that team had an All-Star point guard in Ben Simmons. With Simmons out, Embiid, forced to assume a larger role, thrived in it, elevating teammates like Tyrese Maxey and Seth Curry in the (gulp) process.
“I think honestly, the Ben thing, it made Joel lock in even more because he wanted to prove to everybody that him and the Sixers could win, regardless of what the situation was,” Hanlen told me recently. “When the whole situation with Ben went down, I think the majority of the basketball world thought that Joel and the Sixers’ organization were consumed by what was going on with Ben. When the truth was Joel just looked at it as an opportunity to show people that they could win without him. That was all it was. It was Joel [who] had more freedom to really show the basketball world what he was capable of. The situation obviously sucked, let’s be real. It sucked. But for him, it was just an opportunity.”
He proved he could lead. While we may never fully understand Simmons’s reasons for wanting out of Philadelphia, we know that he did, a decision that threatened the Sixers title chances. Embiid could have lashed out. He could have forced the front office into a hasty deal. Instead, he routinely expressed support for Simmons while weaving into most answers that he believed, with or without Simmons, that Philadelphia had the pieces it needed to win.
“I can’t imagine the pressure he had individually because he was linked to it the most,” Doc Rivers told me. “So, yeah, I was very happy how he handled that. He handled that like a true professional.”
MVP-level seasons don’t happen often and, even at 28, Embiid may have missed his best chance to win it. Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo are in their primes while Luka Dončić, Jayson Tatum and Ja Morant are on the rise. It’s possible, maybe probable, that Embiid’s career will end without that particular piece of hardware. But that doesn’t diminish the success Embiid had this season. He won’t win MVP. But there aren’t too many MVP candidates the Sixers—or any team—would take over him.
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