Trust the process? Implied in that slogan for the modern 76ers era is that you must trust that Joel Embiid can make it through a season healthy. He is the cornerstone of the process — to the point that he nicknamed himself “The Process” — and for the elite big man who has now played a mere 240 regular season games in the seven seasons since he was drafted, trusting in his feet, back, knees, hands, and even orbital bones has proven to be a challenge.
But it was all coming together in 2021. Sure, he’d been having some back flareups since a flagrant foul by LeBron James in January, but all in all, Embiid was healthier than ever this season. He was in his best shape ever, playing at the highest level of his career, and leading the team to wins accordingly.
Heading into the all-star break, he even took over for LeBron as the leading NBA MVP candidate, according to the odds at legal Pennsylvania sportsbooks.
But then in the third quarter of a win over the Washington Wizards on Friday, Embiid hyperextended his left knee landing after a dunk, collapsed in a heap, and seemed to scream “season’s over” with every bit of body language he had. This was the Carson Wentz 2017 knee injury all over again — a dream season imploding when the MVP frontrunner suddenly went down.
Except (a) we know how that Eagles season ended, and (b) the Embiid news quickly got less dire. He limped off the court under his own power. And the MRI the next day said deep bone bruise, no damage to the ACL or meniscus, and he’ll be out at least two weeks, then reevaluated.
A city exhales.
But Embiid MVP bettors probably still have reason to pound the floor in frustration.
MVP odds tracker
At the outset of the season, Embiid was as high as 40/1 to win the NBA’s top individual award. A few games into the season, FOX Bet in Pennsylvania was running a special odds boost to 25/1 for either Embiid or teammate Ben Simmons to win MVP. Then the odds rapidly starting shrinking. Preseason favorite Luka Doncic got off to a slow start, the Brooklyn Nets had too many stars for one of them to stand out, and Nikola Jokic was playing brilliantly but his Denver Nuggets were scuffling along on the playoff bubble. So LeBron on the Lakers and Embiid on the Eastern Conference-leading Sixers emerged.
Prior to leaving Friday’s game early, Embiid was averaging 30 points (second in the league) and 11.5 rebounds, to go with his exceptional defensive presence (a big part of the case that he, and not Jokic, is the NBA’s best center). In this remarkable season he’s having, the Cameroon native is shooting 52.5% from the field, 42.2% on three-pointers, and 85.9% from the free throw line, all career highs. This is as close as any true center has come to joining the 50-40-90 club.
But making the biggest on-court impact in the league for one of the best teams in the league isn’t worth much in MVP voting if you don’t play enough games. And the odds movement since Friday’s injury suggests sportsbooks and bettors are dubious about Embiid’s chances of unofficially qualifying.
Whereas the Sixers center was no higher than +200 at any sportsbook before the injury, he’s slipped to +600 at FanDuel Sportsbook and at all of the Kambi-operated sportsbooks (DraftKings, BetRivers, PlaySugarHouse, Unibet, Barstool, and Parx), +550 at FOX Bet, and +650 at BetMGM. At all sites, Embiid trails James (around +150 now) and Jokic (between +200 and +250).
Can JoJo pull a Bill Walton?
Embiid has played in 31 of the Sixers’ 39 games so far, a pace that already would make him the least active NBA MVP winner since 1978 — 16 years before Embiid was born.
Giannis Antetokounmpo won in 2018-19 after playing in 72 of 82 games, and James Harden won with the same number played the year before. In the “load management” era, missing 10 or so games is seen as no big deal.
In 2000-01, former Sixers great Allen Iverson was named MVP after playing in 71 of 82 games. Nobody had won the award after missing that many contests since Bill Walton in 1977-78, when the injury-riddled Blazers big man suited up for 58 of 82 games.
The current season had already been already shortened to 72 games due to COVID considerations. Embiid had played in 30 of 36 at the all-star break, and if he kept that pace, even though 60 of 72 would be the lowest rate since Walton, he was in good shape to win the award going away.
But if he’s out for two weeks before reevaluation, that means he’s missing at least seven more games. If he returns March 30 at Denver, he could play 57 games total. If he returns for the Sixers’ next home game after that, April 3 vs Minnesota, his max is 55.
Missing a few games isn’t bad for Embiid’s candidacy, as it shows how vital he is to the Sixers, who are 24-7 in games he’s played and 3-5 when he sits out. But there’s a limit. It seems reasonable to assume that if he plays anything under 55 games out of 72, he can’t win. Even if he hits what would seem his current theoretical max, 57, he’s a longshot.
Specifically, he probably needs both LeBron’s Lakers and Jokic’s Nuggets to finish outside the top four seeds in the West (they’re currently third and fifth, respectively), without Giannis and the Bucks or Luka and the Mavs going on a phenomenal second-half run.
In short: Don’t tear up your Embiid MVP ticket. But come to terms with the fact that it lost almost all of its value on Friday night.
Sixers team odds not quite kneecapped
The 76ers’ odds to win the NBA title or at least get to the finals haven’t changed nearly as much as Embiid’s MVP odds. Whereas the team was anywhere from 10/1 to 12/1 last week to win it all, they’re now ranging from 12/1 (FanDuel and all the Kambi books) to 15/1 (FOX Bet).
Their odds to win the Eastern Conference sit between +500 and +550 at the PA books.
No matter how much time Embiid misses, it’s unlikely that the team would slip below the third seed in the East. (The Sixers are currently in first by one game over the Nets and 2.5 over Milwaukee, with everyone else at least six back.) The Sixers remain likely to avoid playing the Nets until the conference finals.
The bigger question is whether Embiid can be the same player and the Sixers can be the same team in May and June that they were in January and February. Embiid’s upgraded conditioning was a huge reason for his performance level this season. How much of that will he lose if his knee is compromised for multiple weeks? Will he be missing a little something in terms of running and jumping after he returns? Will he choose to play more cautiously? Will the team chemistry suffer if they play without him for a month and then he’s reinserted?
For Sixers fans who held their breath on Friday night, and for Sixers futures bettors holding a ticket that would have been near-worthless if it had been a torn ACL, it’s a relief just to be asking these questions.