The NBA MVP race has tended to follow a certain track over the past few seasons. In 2021, LeBron James was the early favorite, but Joel Embiid emerged in the middle of the season as a prime candidate as James faded. In 2022, the same thing happened, but with Stephen Curry as the early front-runner. The 2022-23 season started with Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum as the Vegas darlings, but yet again, Embiid has barged his way into the proceedings.
On Saturday morning, Embiid had the fourth-best MVP odds in the NBA at plus-700 at Caesars Sportsbook. Not bad by any means, but behind Tatum (plus-600), Doncic (plus-450) and two-time defending MVP Nikola Jokic (minus-165). Fortunately for Embiid bettors, Saturday gave him a showcase opportunity against the favorite, and boy, did he deliver.
Denver took a 15-point lead into the halftime locker rooms, but Embiid exploded from there. He scored 28 points in the second half to finish with 47 total in a 126-119 victory. In the process, he tacked on 18 rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks to move the Sixers to 32-16, just two games behind the Boston Celtics for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and the best record in the NBA. As you'd expect, the bettors took notice.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, Embiid had moved to plus-450. Minutes later, he'd dropped again, all the way to plus-360. That's where he has settled for now, with both Doncic (plus-550) and Tatum (plus-850) trailing him. You'd be hard-pressed to find many games in history in which MVP odds shifted that much without injuries being involved.
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Of course, Embiid still has one major flaw to overcome if he's going to win the award: durability. Embiid has already missed 12 games this season. No MVP since Bill Walton in 1978 has missed more than 11, and the Sixers still have almost half of a season, as well as six back-to-backs, ahead of them. Embiid has missed at least 14 games in every NBA season he's played, and often misses more. Jokic has missed only seven games during this campaign and has never missed more than nine in a season. The gap between them is relatively small for now, but with all of that context, Jokic remains the safer bet.
Still, if Embiid can stay on the floor enough not to scare off voters this season, he has a great shot at the award. He's on track to win his second consecutive scoring title at 33.4 points per game on a career-best 53.2 percent shooting, and his 76ers have a legitimate chance to earn the NBA's best record. The race is far from over, but Embiid needed a game like this to wrestle control of the narrative away from Jokic. He's done it, and now the two will duke it out for the trophy for the next three months.