Joel Embiid’s MVP Resume and Historical Comparisons
As Joel Embiid recovers from a 42 point, 10 rebound performance versus the Boston Celtics, the national conversation has begun in earnest about his MVP resume. Narratives in the NBA tend to start early in the season, heavily weighted by first impressions. And on a night like Wednesday, when Embiid dominated in every facet of the game, in a big game on national television, the statement he made was resounding. Embiid is not only an MVP candidate, he is historically good.
Embiid is averaging 26.4 points per game, but more impressively, he is producing at a historically elite efficiency level. The modern NBA is informed so heavily by analytics that the nature of the game has changed. Most of those changes have actually made it harder to be a post player. The small ball era, defined by the Golden State Warriors and taken to its logical extreme by the James Harden version of “Moreyball,” prioritized easy shots at the rim, extremely high volume three-pointers, and free throws above all else. In his MVP seasons, James Harden had a true shooting percentage of 61% and points per shot (PPS) of 1.5.
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Coaches, long wanting to draw up elegant team play, have had to adapt to create not just open shots, but the right kind of open shots. Add to that changes in how games are officiated, and being a big man has never been harder.
All of this makes what Joel Embiid is doing even more impressive. Embiid is currently carrying a True Shooting % of 66.3. Despite being double and triple-teamed routinely as soon as he touches the ball, sometimes even before he even receives a pass.
“The game is physical; other teams try to be extra physical against me,” said Embiid Wednesday after forcing 5 fouls on both Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis en route to 21 free throw attempts. “I guess I’m just smarter than everybody else. I take advantage of how they guard me.” Continued Embiid “You can call that basketball IQ if you stick your hand up there. I’m gonna take advantage of it, and I’m gonna get to the free-throw line because I know that I’m a great free throw shooter. That’s a better chance for my team to win in those situations.”
So How does Embiid at age 26 compare to other legendary NBA big men? Well, I took some time to compare Joel Embiid at this age to Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Kareem Abdul Jabaar.
By simply looking at his season thus far from both a raw and efficiency basis, Embiid compares extremely well with the all-time greats. His ability to shoot threes at a league-average level for all players while being truly elite from the free-throw line makes him one of the most dominant forces the league has ever seen. The common critique of Embiid’s play is his turnover rate, but as you see, his TO% is comparable to that of Duncan and Hakeem, thought to be two of the most mature, focused players of all time.
But his impact becomes even more impressive when you consider how rare it is in the modern NBA. He is an immense gravitational force down low, stressing defenses in ways they are no longer built to handle. This creates a center point for the offense that makes everyone else’s job on the floor easier.
As Seth Curry re-enters the rotation, likely Friday, the bones of a team that can contend for a title begin to be evident. Players like Danny Green, Furkan Korkmaz, and Seth Curry have to run off screens, find the right spots and be ready to shoot. When those players are forcing teams to defend the three point line, the combination opens up massive driving lanes for players like Tobias Harris, Shake Milton, Tyrese Maxey, and Ben Simmons. There are plenty of imperfections in how the 76ers play, but the roster’s structure makes sense.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the 76ers have the makings of a team that can compete in many different ways on different nights. They can force opponents to pick their poison. They are not perfect and may still be one more perimeter scorer from reaching their potential, but all of the signs point to something special in Philadelphia.