Philadelphia 76ers All-Star center Joel Embiid returned to action this weekend after missing the past 10 games with a bone bruise in his left knee. Embiid's return is obviously great news for a Sixers squad in the midst of a tight battle for playoff positioning at the top of the Eastern Conference and that needs a healthy Embiid to make any sort of a real run in the postseason. Unfortunately for Embiid, though, his extended absence likely cost him his shot at winning the MVP award this season.
Before the injury knocked him out of action in mid-March, Embiid was in pole position in the MVP race. He occupied the top spot in NBA.com's MVP power rankings, and he was the consensus favorite among many national pundits. His lead was slim, though, and games missed could ultimately be a determining factor in a race that is extremely close otherwise.
Embiid has played in 32 of Philadelphia's 49 games so far this season, as he also missed some games prior to the bone bruise. The Sixers have 23 regular-season games remaining on their schedule. So, if Embiid plays in every single game for the remainder of the current campaign, he will play in 55 total games. That would be the fewest number of games ever played by an MVP winner, other than Karl Malone, who played in 49 out of 50 total games for the Utah Jazz during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season.
Outside of Malone, Bill Walton holds the record for the least number of games played by an MVP, as he made just 58 appearances for the Trail Blazers in the 1977-78 season and still won the award. Other than those two, no MVP winner has ever appeared in less than 60 games during the season that they won the award. It also needs to be taken into consideration that Embiid will likely miss a couple more games this season, for rest in preparation for postseason play, at least.
To win despite playing in fewer games than any previous MVP, Embiid would have to be the runaway favorite for the award, and that just isn't the case. Even before he was injured, Nikola Jokic and LeBron James (who is now in the same position as Embiid as he is sidelined with an ankle injury) were breathing right down his neck in the award race, and since he went down other players like Damian Lillard, James Harden and reigning two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo have emerged as legitimate candidates. While Embiid has missed 17 games, Jokic has appeared in every single game for the Denver Nuggets and Antetokounmpo has only missed a handful of games for Milwaukee. It would be naïve to think that award voters won't take that into account.
At the end of the day, the most important thing for both Embiid and the Sixers is that the injury wasn't season-ending and that the big man will be available to try to lead the Sixers to their first Finals appearance in two decades. But that doesn't mean that having his shot at the league's most prestigious individual award taken away by something out of his control isn't disappointing for Embiid, who has publicly stated that he would like to win the MVP award multiple times. Plus, this will be the second time that injury issues cost Embiid a shot at laying claim to one of the league's major individual awards. He was clearly the best rookie during the 2016-17 season, but he was limited to just 31 games of action and the Rookie of the Year award went to Malcolm Brogdon instead.
The good news for Embiid, 27, is that this won't be his last opportunity to contend for the coveted MVP award, as he and the Sixers appear poised to be contenders in the Eastern Conference for the foreseeable future. But this year might not be his year, even though his numbers -- 29.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.4 blocks, and 1.2 steals per game -- are certainly MVP-worthy. During the broadcast of the contest between the Nuggets and Clippers earlier this week, Reggie Miller was discussing Jokic's MVP candidacy, and he had this to say:
"[Jokic] has played in every game this season. All of the other frontrunners for MVP, Joel Embiid, LeBron James, James Harden, all of these guys have missed significant time. Not so much James Harden, he's missed the last two, but you've got to give someone credit who has played in every single game and put up those numbers as well."
Unfortunately for Embiid, a lot of others, including award voters, are likely to share that view.