Can Joel Embiid settle the NBA MVP debate in one week?

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Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid reacts after the 76ers won an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Friday, March 10, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Over the past month, Philadelphia 76ers‘ Joel Embiid’s impressive play has put him right back in the fray of the MVP conversation. If he can continue this level of play, Embiid could perhaps be in position to play the most important regular season week of his career.

The NBA MVP debate has been a growingly tiresome discourse, especially earlier in the month, with ESPN’s Kendrick Perkins raising the question of whether or not the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic has received favor previously unpaid to potential MVP three-peaters such as Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Giannis Antetokounmpo because he’s white.

This has sparked a larger discussion on racial biases within sports media, the United States, and humanity as a whole. While Jokic certainly has the résumé and numbers deserving of the nomination, it’d be naïve and frankly ignorant to pretend that the systematic racism that is objectively evident within society as a whole was somehow evaded by sports media and the awards voters. Whether or not Perkins genuinely believed that Jokic is the heavy favorite for his third-straight MVP trophy due to racial bias or if he simply knew it would generate content and clicks is a whole other discussion entirely.

Regardless, the MVP debate shouldn’t be a closed discussion like the media is making it out to be. In Tim Bontemps’s latest straw poll for ESPN, the Joker was the runaway favorite despite Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo putting up better counting stats with similar team success. The Nuggets currently have two fewer wins than the Milwaukee Bucks and are just one victory ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers at the time of writing.

If the Sixers can close that gap and Embiid continues his historically dominant run, is there a possibility that there will be an upset for the 2023 NBA MVP? As previously established, the award is heavily dependent on narratives. Jokic’s continued run at the top of the ladder might very well be the media showing its preference for advanced analytics and a slight retaliation to those who shy away from the evolution of the game and its coverage.

Two things that Joel Embiid has working for him in this race — as adamant as he’s been in expressing his apathy for individual awards — are voter fatigue and league history. Voter fatigue is the theory that those in charge of choosing the winners may purposefully defect from a deserving player simply because they feel the need to be different or bring variance to the league and to the awards in general. A few recent examples of this are Giannis losing to Jokic in 2021, Russell Westbrook beating out Stephen Curry in 2017, and LeBron James falling to Derrick Rose in 2011.

Notably, all of these selections prevented three-peats and, in James’s case, the first-ever five-year MVP streak in NBA history. Jokic winning it again this year would give the implication, perhaps unfairly, that the voters deem him more deserving of being just the third player to win the award three years in a row than Giannis, Steph, LeBron, and others before them.

Is the tide changing in Joel Embiid’s favor?

Whether or not the voters like to admit it, popular opinion from fans does have an effect on their own analyses and decisions in award races. Anyone who’s active in online NBA communities has to have felt the tide starting to turn on Nikola Jokic. According to NBA Twitter and the rest of the chronically online fandom, the advanced analytics discussion has gone too far.

Even public voters such as the Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor have started to take notice of Jokic’s decline both in defensive effort and impact within the counting stats, and in turn, Embiid’s undeniable push for the top spot on the MVP ladder — even if he was a bit backhanded about it.

With momentum building on Embiid’s side and Denver playing with a pretty comfortable lead for the top seed in Western Conference, it wouldn’t be absurd if Joel was able to elevate the Sixers over the Nuggets in wins while Jokic continues to take it easy in preparation for the postseason. With that in mind, Embiid may just need one more storyline to wrap up this inspired narrative for his MVP Cinderella tale.

The Most Important Regular Season Week of Joel Embiid’s Career

It just so happens that Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers have the perfect opportunity to add a final bullet point to his résumé for the 2023 NBA MVP. Starting on March 27, the Cameroonian giant has the chance to take on his two biggest competitors for the award head-to-head within one week’s time.

On March 27, Philadelphia will travel to Denver to take on Jokic and the Nuggets in hopes of sweeping their season series. In their first matchup this season on January 28, Joel Embiid thoroughly outdueled the Joker en route to a seven-point victory.

If Embiid can embarrass Jokic again in a head-to-head, it will be pretty difficult for voters to justify selecting the Joker for MVP when the margins are this close, while Embiid has been objectively more dominant in their direct battles.

Then, just six days later, the Sixers will take on the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo on the road. If Embiid can topple the two greatest threats to steal his MVP award in one week’s span — just one week before the close of the regular season at that — it will be nearly impossible to deny him his rightful place at the top of the league when images of him standing over Jokic and Giannis are still fresh in the mind’s of the voters.

Joel Embiid has made it repeatedly clear that he isn’t concerned with individual accolades this season and is, instead, dead-set on leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the pinnacle. But if he were interested in gunning for the Michael Jordan Trophy, he could theoretically secure his chances in just one calendar week.