At last, it is Joel Embiid’s time.
The 29-year-old Sixers superstar big man was named the 2023 Kia MVP of the NBA, it was announced on TNT on Tuesday evening. A long time coming, it is the first such award of Embiid’s career.
When Embiid was finally healthy enough to play after missing the first two seasons of his career due to foot injuries, he played just 31 games as a rookie. He was, by far, the best rookie in that season’s class. But, availability hurt his case for the Rookie of the Year award. Malcolm Brogdon won it instead.
It turned out that that was something of a foreshadow for Embiid’s career, at least thus far.
Embiid picked up all-star nods in each of the next three seasons. But, his lack of maturity showed through in his game. He made many of the same mistakes on the court over and over again, trying to force things so much that he hurt his team more than he helped them. He struggled with conditioning and health. Embiid was compromised for some of Philadelphia’s most agonizing playoff losses.
Then, the Sixers were swept out of the Disney World bubble during the COVID-19 pandemic in the first round of the 2020 playoffs. Sure, the Sixers were without Ben Simmons for that series against the Boston Celtics. But, Philadelphia vastly disappointed in the regular season. The Sixers finished as the sixth seed in the East after a major roster makeover built expectations that the Sixers would be bona fide championship contenders. Former head coach Brett Brown was dismissed in the days immediately following the team’s Game 4 loss to seal the sweep.
But, that’s when everything changed for Embiid.
After a regression in that disappointing 2019-20 season, Embiid averaged a career-high 28.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. After missing 31 games in the 2019-20 campaign, he only missed 21 games in 2020-21.
A significant portion of those 21 games missed came when Embiid suffered a bone bruise on a hyperextended knee. He was arguably the MVP favorite up to that point. But, Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic played all 72 games that season to deem the statistical differences between the two bigs insignificant.
Another unfortunate miss for Embiid.
Embiid only upped his play the next season. He kept the Sixers afloat while Simmons held out of playing in his quest to be traded by the Sixers. Embiid won the scoring title in the 2021-22 season, averaging a career-high 30.6 points per game on the second best shooting efficiency of his career.
But, the Sixers suffered close home losses to Denver and the Milwaukee Bucks late in the season. With Jokic and Embiid neck and neck for the award once again, those marquee losses for the Sixers, at least in Embiid’s mind, pushed the Nuggets big man over the line once again.
Yet another unfortunate miss for Embiid.
With James Harden in the fold for a full season and team expectations as high as ever, Embiid responded again. He averaged a career-high 33.1 points — winning the scoring title again — and 10.2 rebounds per game in the 2022-23 season. With Harden serving as the co-star point guard next to Embiid, the superstar center enjoyed a significant uptick in scoring efficiency. He notched a career-best 65.5 percent true shooting.
A tight calf ruled Embiid out for the second matchup between Denver and Philadelphia late in the 2022-23 regular season. But, the one clash between the two-time winner and the two-time runner-up saw Embiid dominate Jokic. He lead the Sixers back from a 15-point deficit late in the third quarter en route to a thrilling victory.
Embiid on His Way to MVP
Embiid also captured a pair of victories against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. He won one game without Harden and Tyrese Maxey early in the season in Philadelphia. The other victory saw him take second fiddle to Harden. But, Embiid buried a three-pointer from the top of the arc to cap an 18-point comeback and end the Bucks 16-game winning streak in their house.
Perhaps the final dagger came against the under-manned Celtics. Embiid poured in a 52-point masterpiece in Philadelphia to drag the Sixers to victory on national television.
“Unfortunately, you know, story of my life,” Embiid remarked after a three-quarters-court shot that would’ve tied the game was waved off in a close loss to the Celtics in Philadelphia in late February.
Perhaps finishing in second place was the story of Embiid’s life for the first six seasons of his NBA career. But, this season has felt different — for both him and his Sixers.
This time, it isn’t the story of Embiid’s life.
Now, it’s his time.
I provide daily coverage of the Philadelphia 76ers for The Painted Lines / Edge of Philly Sports. As a reporter, I work every day to foster relationships with those around the NBA, shape my analysis of what I see in games, and keep tabs on what’s to come around the league. I also host a Sixers-centric podcast called The Feed To Embiid. Follow me on Twitter, @NBAKrell.