If there’s a player who epitomizes “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” it’s Joel Embiid.
He looked like a sure thing to be the No. 1 pick back in 2014, but then a foot injury dropped him to No. 3. He’s suffered excruciating losses—between Kawhi Leonard’s four-bounce game-winner in Toronto during a Game 7 in 2019 and the stunning Game 7 loss to the Hawks in ’20, when Ben Simmons infamously passed up a potential dunk opportunity late—that scuttled golden opportunities to reach the Eastern Conference finals. He’s considerably improved his conditioning and durability, and has even averaged an NBA-high 30.5 points per game since the league’s bubble season in 2020. Still, it resulted only in him finishing as the runner-up to Nikola Jokić for the MVP award each of the past two seasons.
And despite finishing in second for the top award two seasons in a row, he’s also finished on the league’s All-NBA Second Team in back-to-back years because of the rigid positional designations that go into those voting procedures. With that in mind—and with just three frontcourt spots existing for Eastern Conference starters—Embiid, very much an MVP candidate this year as well, was held out of a starting spot Thursday night by Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Jayson Tatum. Embiid finished fourth in the East’s frontcourt vote tabulations, again leaving a perennial MVP-caliber talent just outside the limelight.
No matter how it turned out—whether it was Embiid, Giannis, Tatum or Durant—it was understood that a deserving superstar was going to be left out as a starter; at least for now. (Injuries may free up a spot later.) That it happened to be Embiid left out in the cold again had to be frustrating for the big man, particularly in a season where he’s not only leading the NBA in scoring at a whopping 33.4 points per game, but also has the Sixers—who were without second and third stars James Harden and Tyrese Maxey for a month and a month and a half, respectively—in second place, 2.5 games back of the defending-conference-champion Celtics.
Even with his usually dominant rim-protection numbers looking merely average this year, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Embiid is perhaps the league’s most feared two-way superstar. Embiid logged 101 points in less than 24 hours back in November and has the Sixers on a six-game win streak. He’s shooting 78% inside of three feet, per Basketball Reference, getting to the line nearly 12 times a night and has never been this efficient. His effective field-goal rate and true-shooting percentages are career highs, all despite owning the NBA’s highest usage.
All of which raises a question: How is it that he keeps finishing just outside the winner’s circle?
It’s one Embiid essentially asked last season, albeit in a way that might not have been productive. “If it happens, great,” Embiid said when asked about his chances of earning the MVP in 2022. “If it doesn’t, I don’t know what I have to do. I’ll feel like [the voters] hate me. I feel like the standard for guys in Philly or for me is different than everyone else.”
There simply isn’t evidence to suggest that voters—or fans generally—dislike the soon-to-be 29-year-old. He generated 4.9 million fan votes for the All-Star Game and can be seen on television commercials almost any night of the week. Even if there was criticism for him or his style of play—he does fall on the floor a ton, prompting flopping accusations—plenty of criticism existed about Russell Westbrook’s stat-hunting during his triple-double MVP season, and complaints abounded in the midst of James Harden’s MVP run because of his style of play. The knock on Embiid, for years, was his lack of durability; something that he’s since gotten more of a handle on, much like Stephen Curry seemed to after his first few injury-plagued seasons.
The challenge for the Philadelphia star, even as he’s been far healthier, is that Jokić—whom Embiid will face tomorrow on national, prime-time television—has been one of the healthiest superstars in recent memory. It was widely thought that Jokić would have a difficult time winning a third straight MVP award, particularly without a title ring on his résumé. But all Jokić has done is post the most efficient numbers of his career while basically averaging a 25, 11 and 10 triple double for a first-place Nuggets team. And, in what will often come down to a tiebreaker, Joker’s managed to do that while playing seven more games than Embiid.
A number of players—Luka Dončić, Tatum, Giannis—are lurking in the MVP conversation along with Embiid and Jokić. But another second-place MVP finish for Embiid this season would place him in pretty isolated company. The Logo himself, Jerry West, is the only player in league history to finish as the runner-up three straight seasons—1970, ’71, ’72—without ever taking the award himself. (He finished second one other time, landing a total of four runners-up.)
All that said, Embiid will certainly get a handful of chances to control the narrative. Because of his efforts, the Sixers can still finish with the top seed out East, though they’ll have a steep hill to climb to get there. They have the East’s toughest schedule and are tied for the second-toughest remaining slate in the entire league the rest of the way. But that includes three more matchups with Tatum and Boston, two more with Giannis and the Bucks, two more with Durant and the Nets, and yes—starting Saturday—two more with Jokić and the Nuggets.
But even if his season doesn’t result in him winning the award, rest assured: What Embiid has done these past few years is historic, even if he keeps finishing just outside the limelight.