March is here, and that means college basketball is now the focal point of the sports world. There are few things more jam-packed and enticing than a large group of college students coming together to play a bunch of super-mid basketball for four consecutive weeks.
I can picture it now... wide-open jump shots barely hitting the rim, moving screens, charges, and travels galore, and point guards that'll be accountants in Idaho two years from now. What a sight to behold.
For NBA heads, March usually means the league is turning the corner towards the playoffs and the MVP conversation is in full effect. And although the phrase, “This is a different kind of year,” has become a well-versed cliche, it’s apt in this scenario, as well. The NBA is just hitting the halfway point—with the All Star break coming in as a much-needed reliever—and the MVP conversation is gaining steam every day.
I’ve always been probably a little too passionate about the MVP race. And I don’t know if it’s necessarily passion or frustration that drives me to the brink of insanity when the final results are released each season, but it’s one or the other—if not both.
The MVP is determined by an overwhelming majority of idiotic pundits and basketball nuisances. Are there some voters that approach the award the right way? Of course. Are there some voters that I would like to verbally berate over a couple of cocktails? Abso-fucking-lutely.
I’m merely here to offer some humble solutions to the problems that are ingrained in the Most Valuable Player award while offering my own ballot of candidates who I believe have a chance at holding the title of “Best Basketball Player in the World for the 2020-21 Regular Season.”
My podcasting partner, Jack Martin, and I used to have a weekly segment on The Fro and The Flow called “Watch the Throne,” in homage to Kanye West and Jay-Z’s masterful collaborative album, where we ranked the Kings of the league in ascending order. So, in homage to another brilliant collaborative project, I’ve resurrected our ranking system and prepared it with a twist.
How I’ve determined the order:
The eye-test. This should be the first thing that every voter addresses because it's as subjective as subjective gets and is entirely dependent on your respective basketball knowledge. If the league did this, then they could trim the fat on all the voters and cut everyone who voted for Andre Drummond for MVP. It’s also the easiest way to digest basketball. It’s pretty easy to tell who the best player on the floor is without ever having to look at the numbers. Who’s dominating the game on both sides of the ball? Who’s controlling the game? Who’s seeing things that others aren’t and then executing on those extraordinary visions? Who’s asserting themselves every time down offensively and posing the most problems for the opposing defense? In other words: Who’s making the coach shit themselves at halftime, and then coming out in the second half, and making the coach purge himself when the final buzzer sounds?
Digest the statistics and analytics; ignore the talking heads. Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman, Skip Bayless, Shannon Sharpe, etc. all have their respective television spots because of one thing: ratings. Not knowledge or legitimacy as basketball connoisseurs, but as people who can entertain and boil the internet’s sensitive bloodstream. I realize that they all have journalistic backgrounds, and good for them. But their personalities are what've gotten them to where they're at. Do they know who the top five teams are according to net rating? Or who the top three players are according to John Hollinger of ESPN’s PER model? I highly doubt it. Those aren’t the only statistics that are going into effect here. I’ve also attributed the average box-score numbers (points, rebounds, assists, free throw attempts, steals, blocks, field goal, three-point, and free throw percentages), team record—DON’T REWARD LOSERS—with and without a player, individual offensive and defensive rating with a slight nod in favor of the offense, and a dash of Real +/- in order to dissolve the reprehensible Fake +/-.
Ask yourself: How much worse is this team without this player? Now, although this is last on the list, it may be the most vital one strictly because of the name of the award: Most Valuable Player. The award is given to the player who is most valuable to their team. That’s why we so often see the NFL hand the trophy to the best quarterback; he’s irreplaceable. The same can be said about the NBA. The Nuggets couldn’t replicate what they do on offense without Jokic being their Point God. The Jazz couldn’t replicate their defensive model if they lost Gobert and had to replace him with Derrick Favors. The questions you then have to ask yourselves are the big ones: What’s this team’s ceiling with this player? 50 wins? The Conference Finals? Awesome. Now, what’s this team’s ceiling without this player? 25 wins? A top-five pick? And on and on until you’ve dug yourself into a theoretical hole that only more basketball can save you from.
At the end, you rank your top five MVP candidates and everybody gets mad because their biases set in, so they yell at you over Twitter or text. Say it to my face, you frauds. Without further ado, here it is. The first textual installment of Watch the Throne...
1. Joel Embiid
29.8 PPG, 11.3 REB, 3.3 AST, 11.6 FTA, 1.2 STL, 1.3 BLK, 32.8 MPG
52/41.7/86 shooting splits
31.01 PER (2nd)
PHI 23-12 (1st in Eastern Conference)
For years we asked ourselves, “What could Joel Embiid look like if he sacrificed his gameday Chick-Fil-A routine?” And without definitively doing so (there’s no video evidence of him NOT drinking a Strawberry shake before a game), Embiid has become the most dominant offensive force in basketball this season. He’s one of the most fun players to watch in the league because there isn’t a spot on the floor that he isn’t a threat from. If he gets position on the block, it’s a wrap. If he faces up from the wing, then he can either bully his way to the rim or has soft enough touch to get a friendly roll on his jumper. Somebody Embiid's size shouldn't have the touch that he does and that delicacy is reflected in his shooting numbers. He's combined 90% of Shaq's game with 80% of Dirk's and has evolved into a weapon unlike anyone we've ever seen.
The numbers speak for themselves. JoJo—which is such a cute nickname for a man of his stature—ranks second in points and eighth in rebounds. At seven feet and 280 pounds, Embiid is the closest the league has come to an impossibly demanding presence down low since Shaq. He’s not just getting buckets down low, either. Embiid’s getting to the charity stripe almost 12 times per game and knocking those free buckets down like a guard at an 86% clip. For as impressive as he’s been on the offensive end, he’s been just as locked in defensively, recording at least one steal and block each game.
The only thing preventing Embiid from remaining atop the MVP race is an injury—knock on wood, because the big man has a rough history with those—or an unprecedented midseason slump.
What to watch: Philadelphia still has three games left against Milwaukee, two against the Clippers, and one against the Lakers and Nets. Joel loves the attention, but it’ll be interesting to see how he performs against the best-of-the-best as we near towards the playoffs in the second half of the season.
2. LeBron James
25.8 PPG, 8 REB, 7.8 AST, 5.8 FTA, 1.1 STL, 0.6 BLK, 34.6 MPG
51/36/69 shooting splits
24.49 PER (16th)
LAL 24-12 (3rd in Western Conference)
We all know that LeBron James is in his 72nd season in the NBA. We all know that he is one of the two best basketball players of all-time depending on your IQ level, local bias, and inherent stubbornness. Despite the world turning upside down after every Lakers loss, they still remain the three seed in a brutally tough Western Conference, and they’d be the first seed in the East. It’s a direct credit to LeBron James for, once again, putting the team on his back after having only two months off in between the Finals and the season opener.