Photograph: Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports
The Philadelphia 76ers’ slim chances of winning their first NBA title in 39 years pretty much cratered Tuesday when they were blown out by the Miami Heat in the fifth game of their second-round playoff series. The Sixers need to beat the Heat two in a row just to survive.
Related: Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić named NBA Most Valuable Player for second year in a row
Then the Sixers would need to win eight more games over two series for the title. That hardly seems likely, given the way they wobbled in the dismal 35-point loss to Miami, even with Joel Embiid, the banged-up superstar center who has had the best season in his career.
Word had leaked out Monday through ESPN that Embiid had lost to Denver’s Nikola Jokić for the second straight year in balloting for the league’s Most Valuable Player award, and Embiid tried to swat the rejection away by saying he would really rather win a title. And yet…
“I wonder what else I have to do to win it,” Embiid said in a news conference after Tuesday’s game, “and to me, it’s like, at this point it’s like, it’s whatever. It’s all about focusing, not that I wasn’t focused on the bigger picture, but you know, it’s really time to really put all my energy into the bigger picture, which is to win the whole thing.”
It should be no surprise that the sports fans in Philadelphia have not taken the leaked news well, no less since the award was conferred on Wednesday night. Jokić’s impressive season notwithstanding, this, to them, appears to be the latest example of the Most Valuable Player trophy not being won by the current most valuable player.
“Jokić is a peerless offensive player,” the columnist Marcus Hayes, who is far from a homer, wrote in Tuesday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. “He’s a better passer and shooter than Embiid. Embiid is close – more power, better moves to the basket, better in transition. Defensively, though, the chasm is massive. Which means, in totality, Embiid is better. He does things Jokić cannot. He’s a combination of Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Dirk Nowitzki. Jokić is Larry Bird, plus two inches and 50 pounds.”
Related: Ben Simmons’ Philadelphia return was the NBA at its soap-operatic finest
Embiid does the simplest stuff that does not lead to sellout houses on the road. Consider this stat: The Sixers were second in the league in home attendance, but 29th among 30 teams in road attendance (the Bulls, Lakers and Warriors were the top three).
Awards that should be purely subjective – based on the gut – have been diminished by analytics, but, if you really must, Jokić’s player-efficiency rating of 32.94 was higher than the 31.24 rating posted by Embiid, who also finished behind Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Much to his credit, Jokić had a higher value to his team, per those statistics, by driving the injury-ravaged Nuggets to an unlikely playoff berth, but Embiid had the second highest value while carrying the Sixers through a far more ludicrous, the Ben Simmons holdout.
Now speculation has arisen that the Brooklyn Nets, who were suckered – or, rather, convinced – to take Simmons from the Sixers in a blockbuster February deal, might trade Simmons, besieged by back and personal issues, before he plays even one game for them .
“I don’t know if a guy could’ve done more than he did this year,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said this week. “He played without the second-best player all year.”
Embiid propelled the Sixers to 51 regular season victories, as many as Boston and Milwaukee, without Simmons, who chafed at being considered “second-best.” The Sixers then beat Toronto in four of six playoff games before Embiid’s face literally was broken.
With the Sixers leading by 35 points and less than four minutes to play in the series finale against the Raptors, Embiid, who was already playing with torn ligaments in his shooting thumb, was elbowed by Pascal Siakam, fracturing the bone around his right eye. I have missed the first two games of the Miami series.
The Sixers lost both of those games. But then Embiid returned, wearing a face mask that made him look like a cyborg. Philadelphia won the next two games. Then, for an inexplicable reason, the MVP news leaked, becoming a topic Embiid had to address Tuesday.
“I’m not mad,” Embiid said of not winning the MVP award, which is expected to be formally announced this week. “That’s two years in a row I put myself in that position. It didn’t happen. It is almost like, at this point, it is whatever. Whatever happens, happens.”
The MVP award is voted upon by a panel of news media, based on regular-season performance. of course an NBA MVP would happily trade his Maurice Podoloff Trophy for the Larry O’Brien championship trophy, and Embiid still had a shot at the latter Tuesday night.
Philadelphia has not had much to cheer since the Eagles won the Super Bowl more than four years ago. The Phillies were supposed to be better this year with the additions of Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber, but they already appear dead in the water, getting no-hit by the Mets on one weekend and coughing up a six-run ninth-inning lead to their division rivals the next.
The Flyers are looking for yet another coach after missing the playoffs for the sixth time in 10 seasons – a dismal run that is now costing them longtime fans. Their average home attendance was the lowest this year since 1973, or two years before their last Stanley Cup. The Eagles appear to be getting better, but they will need a few years to peak, if they ever do.
Embiid, the native of Cameroon, has all but carried the sports dreams of an entire working-class city in the meantime. He started his NBA career very slowly, with leg injuries costing him two seasons, but endeared himself to the city’s fans by playing hard, and often playing hurt. The city celebrated when Embiid won his first NBA scoring title this spring.
Siakam earned a permanent place among Philadelphia sports villains – booed for all eternity – by elbowing Embiid’s face. Many Sixers’ fans thought the elbow was intentional, thrown because Embiid had playfully taunted the Toronto fans minutes earlier.
Everywhere you go in Philadelphia, you see shirts with “PHILA” on the front and Embiid’s No 21 on the back. He has made $31.58m this season, but he has been made a hero, a rare honor. He looked rundown on Tuesday, but he has been hoisting a team all season by blocking shots and taking charging fouls and seizing rebounds, the unspectacular but valuable things.