Maybe the tears told us something that the rest of it never could. As visible as Joel Embiid is, as productive as he has been, as enthusiastic as he can be about establishing himself as one of the NBA’s most dominant players, there is something that we still don’t know. There is a lingering question that he still must answer.
How badly does he want it?
Not the accolades, or the plaques, or the All-Star berths, or the endorsement dollars.
How badly does he want the ultimate prize? The one that, for better or for worse, sits as the defining line between production and immortality?
It is a delicate topic, but a fair question, because once a player reaches the realm that Embiid inhabits, the decisive variable is often what’s inside. We saw it in Jordan, and in Kobe, and we see it in LeBron. It is in their words, and in their routines, and in their eyes. The desire to win is a sickness. To reach the top of Olympus, it must infect every aspect of your being.
At the dawn of the fourth season of his career, Embiid has left little doubt where his physical capabilities lie. His 24.3 points per game rank ninth all-time among NBA players at the same juncture (minimum: 150 games played). He ranks 16th in rebounds (11.4/game), and 30th in blocks per game (2.0), and is one of only four players to rank in the top 30 in each of those three statistical categories (David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Bob McAdoo are the others). On a per-possession basis, the greatness is even more pronounced: only nine players rank ahead of him in blocks, only Michael Jordan ranks ahead of him in points, and nobody ranks ahead of him in rebounds. He is a two-time All-Star, a two-time second-team All-NBA player, and a two-time second-team All-Defensive player.
Now, the question is, how much more does he want?
“I feel a tremendous responsibility to help him define his legacy,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said recently. “And legacies start with championships. And I didn’t take an ‘s’ off that word on purpose — it’s championships.”
Perhaps the watershed moment arrived last May. Throughout the two or three seconds that elapsed as Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 game-winner bounced in, there was still plenty of reason to wonder where Embiid’s motivations lied. For most of the previous couple of months, he had been a shadow of the sort of player who writes the history books himself. A bout of knee tendinitis had kept him sidelined for a pivotal three-week stretch. By the time he returned, the Sixers were six games behind in the race for the No. 1 seed and homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. All told, he missed 14 of their final 24 games. The Sixers went 7-3 with him, and 7-7 without him, and finished seven games behind the Raptors for the right to host a potential Game 7 between the two teams.
When Embiid was on the court, he was good, damn good, and very nearly good enough. But that only served to magnify the counterfactuals once Leonard’s shot dropped through the net. If only the big guy’s knee had been healthy. If only he had not gotten sick. If only he had been the force on the offensive end that his physical gifts suggest.
Maybe those were the sorts of thoughts that rattled through Embiid’s mind as he erupted into tears amid the mayhem at Scotiabank Arena. As we watched him break down, perhaps we saw a realization of all of the things that he could change.
“I feel like my focus when it comes to being in the gym, taking care of my body, making sure I’m strong -- I feel like it’s been on another level the whole summer," he said recently. "I’ve definitely been more focused than ever because I feel like if I take care of that stuff, basketball is going to be easier, I guess. ... I can’t accomplish winning 60 games or defensive player of the year if I don’t take care of my body. So, I think the main thing is just adopting a new mindset, a different mindset when it comes to taking care of my body. And the rest is going to take care of itself.”
The Sixers have done their part. They revamped their medical staff, bringing on a load-management specialist who will be tasked with optimizing Embiid’s chances of getting to April in peak physical condition. They signed a couple of big men in Al Horford and Kyle O’Quinn who will help lessen the load that their centerpiece must carry throughout the regular season. Brown has talked repeatedly about his desire to put Embiid in a better position to dominate in the post.
“When you look at him, he is a unicorn,” Brown said. "When we say who is Joel Embiid like, or who is like Joel Embiid — Joel can score in a variety of ways. Is he Shaq? He’s got a little bit of that in him. Is he Arvydas Sabonis? That was a pretty multidimensional player. Is he Hakeem [Olajuwon]? [Tim] Duncan was a good low-post player and could step out at the elbow or foul line and make a jump shot.
“When you start trying to put him in a box and say, ‘This is all you are,’ it’s a huge, naïve mistake. It’s a really naïve mistake. Where is he at his best? We get where it is, and we have to center our gravity more in that area of where it is. I think it’s going to equal free throws and kick-outs and all of that. But to think that’s the only floor spot where he lives is really recklessly naïve. You go Shaq, Shaq, Shaq — it’s deeper than that. It’s on me as his coach, and on him, to better understand how do I best impact the game, help this team win championships, take off like I want to take off at the start of the year."