Joel Embiid Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Joel Embiid Doesn't Play Like an MVP When It Matters Most

Andy Bailey

Joel Embiid won the 2023 MVP in a landslide. He collected a whopping 73 of the 100 possible first-place votes.

On Sunday, with his team's season on the line, he wasn't even the best player in the game. He wasn't even close.

Jayson Tatum dropped 51 points, a record for an NBA Game 7, plenty of which came against Embiid's flailing perimeter defense.

The reigning MVP managed 15 points on a dismal 5-of-18 shooting. He had eight rebounds, four turnovers, two blocks and one assist. He was minus-28 in the 112-88 loss.

Of course, he's been playing through a knee sprain for much of this postseason, but he was reportedly feeling "great" as recently as last week. He's topped 30 points in three games since his sprain-induced absence.

The knee injury is necessary context, but this is about more than that. And at this point, you almost have to expect something to slow him down by the end of the campaign. He's averaged fewer than 60 regular-season appearances per year, and that's not even counting the two campaigns he sat out entirely.

Sunday's stat line is more about the nature of the game than whatever Embiid is dealing with physically.

This was the ninth time Embiid has faced elimination in the playoffs. He's now 3-6 in those games, with numbers that look nothing like an MVP's.

Embiid had perhaps the best individual season of his career (though it was tied with 2021-22 in terms of box plus/minus), and he spent much of the year publicly campaigning for MVP. Now that he's won the game's highest individual honor, takes like the one in the headline are fair.

He's struggled in big playoff moments in the past, but he's largely been allowed to skate. That seems less likely this time around, now that there's an MVP on his resume.

As far as actual reasons why Embiid didn't look like an MVP in Sunday's blowout loss, those were pretty obvious.

For one thing, whether his fans want to admit it or not, Embiid's game is heavily dependent on his ability to draw fouls and get to the line. As is the case with his teammate, James Harden, those calls have been harder to come by in the playoffs, when physicality ramps up and officials tend to adjust to it.

Over the last three regular seasons, Embiid has averaged 17.0 free-throw attempts per 100 possessions. In the last three postseasons, that number drops to 13.5.

His reliance on mid-range shooting is pretty volatile too. When it's rolling, Embiid's face-up and pull-up game seems impossible. But when those shots aren't falling, as they weren't on Sunday, Embiid isn't quick enough to adjust. This isn't to say that he doesn't have a deep reservoir of post moves he could use to get him some closer looks at the basket, but that he simply doesn't use them.

Turnovers are another problem. And while he's improved in that category during regular seasons, he's been historically bad at taking care of the ball in the playoffs.

Embiid is one of just eight players in NBA history with 1,000-plus playoff minutes and an average of at least five turnovers per 100 possessions. Five of the players on that list also average at least 10 assists per 100 possessions, and Embiid's average of 4.1 tops only Shawn Kemp's 2.9.

Combine Embiid's 5.3 turnovers per 100 possessions with his 12.9 missed shots, and you're looking at an awful lot of counterpunching opportunities for opponents.

Finally, as good as Embiid has been as a rim protector throughout his career, the playoffs have exposed his lack of mobility on the perimeter.

During the third quarter that Boston won 33-10 on Sunday, the Celtics were flat-out hunting Embiid on switches outside. And when Tatum got him on an island, he was scoring on Embiid like he wasn't even there.

Of course, none of this is exclusive to Embiid. Scheming against traditional bigs has been relatively obvious since the Golden State Warriors glorified small ball at the outset of their dynasty. Very few centers, especially when they're forced to play defense outside the paint, can survive positionless or pick-and-roll heavy attacks.

And while a lot of the stats above are concerning, the Sixers are still dramatically better when Embiid is on the floor. During his playoff career, Philadelphia is plus-7.4 points per 100 possessions when he plays and minus-5.8 when he doesn't. Even in the aforementioned elimination games, he's a net plus-30 in raw plus-minus.

This conversation, of course, goes beyond the numbers.

Embiid has been treated like a superstar for years. By his regular-season production, he absolutely is a superstar. But it's now been nearly a decade since he was drafted. He's yet to advance past the second round.

And seemingly every time they fall short, it's everyone but Embiid's fault.

Basketball is a team sport rife with individual judgment, and Embiid has generally been able to redirect the judgment to teammates. Fair or not, the postseason failures are typically on the face of the franchise. Or at least they will be now that the previous primary talking point is behind him.

For years, the conversation on Embiid has been all about the MVP. Now that the media has given him one, playoff accountability is next.


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