We’ve seen this happen to Shaq and LeBron.
It seems to be happening to Joel Embiid.
Occasionally, a player enters the NBA who is bigger and stronger than everyone else, but just as athletic. Other players generally are overwhelmed by any play that involves contact. They look like bullies.
Eventually, officials appear to allow opponents greater license with these bigger, stronger players. Their arms get hacked and their backs get pounded but they don’t get foul calls. That’s where Joel Embiid is. Before long it takes excessive, even violent contact to even draw a whistle. Embiid is not there yet.
This is what appeared to happen Monday against the visiting Nuggets. This might happen again when the Sixers visit the Pelicans, and when the Sixers visit the Pistons on Sunday, and on, and on, and on.
To harass Embiid, the Nuggets cast ponderous 7-foot, 280-pound center Jusuf Nurkic and 6-8, 230-pound bruiser Kenneth “Manimal” Faried in their front court to deal with Embiid, who is 7-2 and nearly 280 chiseled pounds.
Faried set the tone for a bruising game when he fouled Embiid on the opening possession. The tone clearly affected Embiid. All night he was pushed and prodded. When double-teams came, he was raked and slapped. It was like watching bear-baiting.
In the third quarter, the bear retaliated.
Faried blocked Embiid’s shot early in the third quarter. Embiid turned the ball over less than a minute later. He trailed the resulting fast break and – after a whistle stopped play – Embiid clobbered Faried from behind, knocking him into the stands. That earned Embiid a technical foul. In less than 5 minutes of the third quarter Embiid had missed all three shots, turned the ball over twice and was issued the technical.
Brown took Embiid out. When Embiid reached the bench he punched himself in the side of the head twice, pretty hard.
This exit was doubly remarkable because the Sixers increased Embiid’s minutes restriction from 24 to 28 for Monday’s game. Brown had hoarded those minutes for the second half, playing Embiid just 9 minutes in the first two quarters.
Frustrated and ineffective, Embiid played just 25 minutes in all. He scored 16 points, missed 10 of 15 shots and grabbed just four rebounds, half of his average and his fewest since his second game, in which he played only 15 minutes. Monday’s performance was actually a little worse than the line; Embiid was 3-for-13 until the final 75 desperate seconds, when he hit two long jump shots.
Afterward, Embiid refused to acknowledge the extremely physical nature of the game. After all, he gives as good as he gets -- except, when he gives, he does lots of damage with little effort. For better or worse, Embiid will not defer. He doesn’t care if you’re a veteran star. He will finish his fouls and deal his trash talk. Already, he has been separated from other players three times in his 14 NBA games. He walked away without complaint or grudge.
Brown pointed out that Embiid relishes a physical style of play. Shaq and LeBron enjoyed pushing around other players, too … until the retribution began and the refs looked the other way.
Will this type of abuse continue? Probably. It shouldn’t, because all players should be officiated equally. But it worked, and officials are human.
Did Embiid bring this upon himself? Maybe, a little.
He studies players known for questionable tactics and he puts those tactics into practice. He also complains loudly and visibly to referees. Officials hate it when anyone seeks to embarrass them. They especially hate it when it’s a rookie.
What can be done?
Players with equal bulk or strength lack Embiid’s athleticism. He’s the new, improved Shaquille O’Neal: big, strong, agile, talented; fiendishly clever but unfairly attacked.
Embiid cannot change his rough style of play. That would diminish his effectiveness.
Perhaps he could complain less. Perhaps he could retaliate less.