Embiid candid on MVP race, analytics, and being ‘the bad guy'

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When asked about previous MVP races, two-time runner-up Joel Embiid has said on multiple occasions that two-time winner Nikola Jokic has been deserving. Still, he certainly hasn’t pretended to be fine with all aspects of MVP voting. 

In an interview with The Athletic's Shams Charania published Monday morning, Embiid was candid on the subject of voters’ MVP criteria shifting from year to year.

“The criteria does change,” he told Charania. “If we want to talk about the last three years since I’ve been in the running for it, the first year it was that I didn’t play enough games. Last year, I came back, I played enough games, I led the league in scoring, and obviously, Nikola deserved it and he won it. But then again, he won as a sixth seed in the West.

“And then this year, I’m leading the league in scoring, I’m doing all of these things defensively … I should be making an All-Defensive team too. I don’t care, but every year it’s something. And when you add analytics into it, which don’t make sense. You can talk about analytics all you want. When you got some guys in the league, the eye test tells you that they’re not good defensively, but analytics tell you they’re the best defenders. That’s when analytics don’t make sense at all. I don’t make the rules, I don’t choose whatever criteria that they use, so it’s really about whatever people’s preferences are.

“People always thought that I was crazy when I said this — I really believe that I’m not well-liked. And it’s cool with me, that’s fine. I’ll be the bad guy. I like being the a–hole anyway. I like being the underdog. So that’s fine with me. My thing is, when I leave the game of basketball, I want to make sure that people looked at me as … it’s hard to be the greatest ever because you’ve got to win a bunch of championships and not everyone is lucky to do it because only one team can win and you have to have the right pieces around you … but when I leave the game, I want to make sure that they say: No one was stopping him offensively and defensively, and he was a monster.

“That’s why I play the game — for the respect. I put in too much work. If you look at the beginning of my career and where I have been taking my game, offensively I’ve become like a guard.”

It’s hard to imagine much disagreement with Embiid’s final point about evolving into a guard-like offensive player. He’s been tremendous from the nail and elbow this season, averaging an NBA-leading 33.3 points on the best efficiency of his career — a 65.3 true shooting percentage and 131.3 points per 100 shot attempts, according to Cleaning the Glass. 

His thoughts on “analytics” figure to be more controversial. While Embiid did not name Jokic, it wouldn't be a major stretch to think he's insinuating that advanced stats have overrated the Nuggets big man’s defense. 

Our two cents here are that it’s a nuanced topic, in part because NBA defense involves a lot of things that legitimately may evade stats. For instance, the Sixers have several fundamental defensive principles — preventing drives to the middle, having the low man take the roller as much as possible, etc. — that define what good defense is in their team context. And like all teams, the Sixers coaching staff also has game plans for each opponent, instructing their players on everything from how to defend 1-5 pick-and-rolls to which jump shooters shouldn’t be treated as a threat. For the most part, a player who executes his role within a team’s defensive scheme and is sharp about small details will please his coaches regardless of what the public advanced stats say. 

It’s worth noting there are many advanced stats, too. Looking exclusively at “all-in-one” stats, you’ll find dramatically different defensive rankings. In FiveThirtyEight’s defensive RAPTOR, Jokic is fourth and Embiid is seventh. In ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus, Embiid ranks 10th and Jokic 75th. Neither player is anywhere near the top in Dunks & Threes’ estimated defensive plus-minus, though Embiid (plus-1.3) is ahead of Jokic (plus-0.2).

These disparities don’t suggest every statistic is meaningless, but they do highlight that essentially all methods of evaluation are flawed — “eye test" included — and many factors merit consideration in the MVP race besides numbers. 

Embiid also offered quite an interesting quote when asked if he has a “title-or-bust” mentality this season. 

“Not necessarily,” he told Charania. “I don’t care about the pressure that everybody puts on me. All I care about is the pressure that I put on myself to win. People have been talking about who has the most pressure to win. People want to mention me. I’m not at the top of that list. I’m not a two-time MVP, I’ve never made first team All-NBA, I’ve never won anything. So why is there pressure on me to do something when there are guys that have won two MVPs, a bunch of MVPs and haven’t done anything either?

“I feel it’s hard to win in this league. You got two great teams in Milwaukee and Boston in my conference. So we have to play them at some point. Those are two really good teams, and it’s going to be a fight to beat them. But I think we match up extremely well with each team, and for us to win, we have to be almost perfect. Everybody has to show up. I got to do my job. James has got to do his job. Tyrese (Maxey) has to show up. Tobias (Harris). The role players, the bench, we all have to come in and do our jobs. For us to win, we have to be perfect, and it’s going to take everybody.

“I’m so excited. Hopefully no freak injuries happen like the last couple years where I get unlucky, but I feel like this is, as far as myself and how I can take my guys, I have a pretty good chance.”

After their final eight regular-season games, the Sixers will aim to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs for the first time in Embid's career. Jokic has gone further than Round 2 once; Denver lost the 2020 Western Conference Finals to the Lakers in five games. 

Unfortunately, Embiid and Jokic won't wind up squaring off Monday night in Denver. The Sixers ruled him out in the afternoon with right calf tightness. 

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