The funny thing about history is that it can be hard to tell when it’s happening. The line between “notable” and “historic” is a tough thing to draw in real time. But it might be time for us to start considering the distinction. Because if Joel Embiid continues playing at his current pace, his 2020-21 postseason has a realistic chance to go down as one of the greatest individual playoff performances of all time.
Numbers are the best anchor we have when it comes to orienting the present within the context of the past. With six playoff games under his belt and at least three more to go, Embiid’s numbers tell a tantalizing tale. Take them as a collective, and a compelling argument begins to emerge.
Here are four statistics to consider:
1) Embiid is scoring an average of 37.5 points per 36 minutes, which would be the highest mark for a single postseason in NBA history.
Again, we’re only seven games into the playoffs, and Embiid has missed one of them. There are plenty of context and qualifiers you’d need to consider before using this single factoid as your basis for declaring Embiid’s current run as truly historic. Donovan Mitchell is a nice player, but does he deserve mention among the all-time greats? He’s No. 3 on the list, courtesy of his 34.6 points-per-36-minute average in the 2019-20 postseason. Russell Westbrook, Luka Dončić, Nikola Jokić — all are on the list, two of them this postseason.
But remember our initial thesis: We could be witnessing history. Could. If Embiid continues doing what he is doing and the Sixers advance to the Eastern Conference finals, he would be the author of one of the greatest postseason performances in NBA history.
2) Embiid’s points-per-minute average is more than 30% better than the single-postseason bests of any of the consensus best centers of all time: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, etc.
The context is what’s important. Nikola Vucevic once had a postseason in which he averaged 27 points per 36 minutes, and nobody is preparing a display case for him in Springfield. But look at the list of all-time great scoring performances by centers and you notice a couple of interesting things. One, Jokić was just named the NBA’s MVP in overwhelming fashion. He got 91 first-place votes. Embiid got one. This postseason, Jokić is averaging 32 points per 36 minutes, which would be the second-best single-postseason scoring performance by a center. Embiid’s average is nearly 20% greater than Jokić’s. The difference between Embiid’s 38 points and Jokić’s 32 points is greater than the difference between Jokić and the No. 10 center on the list.
Once again, Embiid is in outlier territory right now.
3) Embiid’s .708 true shooting percentage would be the highest single-postseason mark of any player who averaged at least 29 points per game (minimum six games). True shooting percentage takes into account field goals, three-pointers, and free throws.
As prolific as Embiid has been as a volume scorer, one of the most impactful elements of his game is his efficiency. Thus far this postseason, he is shooting .592 from the field, .429 from three-point range, and .862 from the free throw line. Long story short, Embiid is capitalizing on his scoring opportunities at a historic pace. His true shooting percentage would be better than any single postseason mark that Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, or LeBron James has posted, and those players had combined for five of the 10 most efficient postseasons before this current one.
4) On a per-minute basis, Embiid’s plus-minus this postseason is better than any player’s in the last 24 years.
When Embiid has been on the court this postseason, the Sixers have outscored the Wizards and Hawks 486-389. That’s a point differential of plus-97 in Embiid’s 168 minutes of action. Average that out over 48 minutes, and the Sixers have essentially been a team that has outscored its opponents by 28 points per game when Embiid has been on the court.
The exact number is plus-27.7 per 48 minutes, which would be the highest single-postseason total of any player with at least 150 minutes played since 1997, when Basketball-Reference.com’s plus-minus data begins.
Let’s be clear about what that factoid means. Or, rather, what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that Embiid has been more impactful than any postseason player in the last 24 years. There’s a lot of noise baked into an individual’s plus-minus stats, given how dependent they are on the other four players who happen to be on the court. Case in point: The No. 2 player on the list is Robert Horry, who averaged plus-22 per 48 minutes for the Spurs during the 2003-04 postseason. Horry was a very impactful playoff shooter. But it’s fair to surmise that Tim Duncan may have had more impact on that team.
Another case in point: The No. 3 player on the list is Seth Curry, who is at plus-20.7 per 48 this postseason. Like Horry, Curry is a very good postseason shooter. But his plus-minus is probably more a reflection of the fact that he plays almost exclusively alongside Embiid.
That being said, there is some signal here. For starters, Embiid’s mark is nearly six points higher than Horry’s. The difference between Embiid and the No. 2 player on the list is greater than the difference between the No. 2 player on the list and the No. 19 player on the list. He’s pretty clearly in outlier territory right now.
Here’s another interesting riff: if you look at the same list but only include players with at least 334 minutes played in a postseason, Embiid is still No. 1. In 2018-19, he finished the playoffs with a plus-20.4 per 48 minutes. The next four players behind him are Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson, all in 2016-17. The crazy thing about that is that those four players spent an awful lot of time on the court together, since they all played for the Warriors. Which means that their talent as a collective is heavily baked into that number.
By contrast, consider Embiid: His highest-ranked teammate on the list is Jimmy Butler, whose plus-11.2 ranks 41st. Does that say anything definite about where Embiid should rank as a singular postseason force? No. But think about the potential implication. When Embiid was on the court in the 2018-19 postseason, the Sixers outscored opponents by more points than the Warriors did with any of the members of one of the greatest collections of basketball talent ever assembled.
Consider all of these things together, and a compelling picture begins to emerge. Through six games, Embiid is playing at a historic pace on the offensive end of the court. And he might be even better on the defensive end. Other than plus-minus and on-off splits, there aren’t a lot of ways to even attempt to quantify individual defensive performance, particularly for a rim protector like Embiid. But we may eventually have to figure one out if the Sixers’ postseason extends beyond the current round. Because, right now, Embiid is on pace to put together a postseason that demands a full and thorough accounting.