The Philadelphia 76ers have barged into the race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference following a strong January driven largely–and dominantly–by reigning NBA scoring champion Joel Embiid.
Embiid zoomed ahead of the field over the month to take the lead in this year’s tight competition for the scoring title where a whopping seven players (The record is six) are putting up at least 30 points per game.
After tallying 30.6 points per game last season, the five-time NBA All-Star has managed to take his numbers up by another notch higher this year through his much improved efficiency. Embiid has recorded 33.6 points per game in 37 appearances this season on 53.4% field goal shooting, including 56.7% on two-pointers, which are both career-bests for him. He is also attempting double digit free throw attempts for the fourth time in his career and is converting them at an efficient 85.2% clip.
Aside from his dominant scoring numbers, the 7’0 Cameroonian is averaging 10 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.7 blocks which has once again placed him among the frontrunners for this year’s NBA Most Valuable Player award. Embiid has been the runner-up for two consecutive campaigns behind reigning back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic and it will be difficult to count on voter fatigue to help him finally get over the hump.
Jokic remains as dominant as ever, averaging a triple double through his first 44 appearances this season with 25.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 10 assists for a Denver Nuggets team that currently leads the West standings. He looks like the favorite to win what will be a historic third consecutive MVP award, but the recent surge of Embiid and the Sixers has made the latest chapter of this rivalry all the more compelling.
After wrapping up 2022 with a 21-14 win-loss slate that put them in fifth place in the East, Philadelphia has won 12 of their last 15 contests including a seven-game winning streak in late January. The Sixers are now 33-17 which puts them only a half game behind the second place Milwaukee Bucks. More importantly, they are just three games away from the first place Boston Celtics with 30 contests still remaining on their regular season schedule.
If Philadelphia can leapfrog the Celtics for the top seed in the Eastern Conference or at least keep things close, it should be a boon for Embiid’s MVP case. It will take a team effort for this to become a reality though as the East is as tough as it has been in recent memory.
Luckily for Embiid, his teammate and 2018 NBA MVP James Harden is slowly rounding into form.
Harden, who has been plagued by a nagging hamstring injury in recent years, is averaging 21.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 11 assists, and 1.2 steals so far this season. The assists lead the league and are his highest since 2017. The hope is that the 33-year-old can muster up this kind of production for at least the rest of the season in order to provide Embiid with the support that he needs.
While Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey, and De’Anthony Melton are all quality role players, it is Harden alone who has the talent that can combine with Embiid to take this Sixers team to the next level. Winning the championship this year is a realistic target for this team as well, especially if the best possible version of Harden can emerge during these next few weeks and carry over his strong play into the postseason.
In the meantime, the spotlight in Philadelphia will be heavily focused on Embiid who, at 28 years old, is smack in the middle of his basketball prime and rightfully competing for the league’s most prestigious individual award. It has been captivating to see him and Jokic push each other to reach greater heights these past few years and the whole world is curious to see what the ultimate ceiling is for these two great players.
The last player to win the MVP for this franchise was Allen Iverson in 2001 and he brought the Sixers all the way to the NBA Finals that season. Embiid is in a prime position to replicate this feat this season, with a legitimate chance to go all the way and win the title, but just like Iverson before him, he will only go as far as his teammates take him.