Does Joel Embiid want to be great, or an all-time great? Is he satisfied with life as it is, or does he yearn for what it could be? Is he content with Springfield, or would he rather spend the rest of time in a realm above the mortals?
These are the questions that he should be asking himself after a performance like Monday night’s. They say that you can’t stop the greatest players, that you can only hope to contain them. But in a 101-96 loss to the Raptors, Embiid was stopped about as thoroughly as can happen: 0-for-3 from the foul line, 0-for-4 from three-point range, 0-for-11 from the field. Four turnovers. Five personal fouls. A big fat zero in the points column.
This wasn’t just a bad night. It was historic. Only four times in the previous 36 seasons had a player attempted 11 field goals in at least 32 minutes of action without scoring so much as a single point. Aaron Gordon, J.R. Smith, Devean George, Tom Gugliotta. If you’re judged by the company you keep, this was an inexcusable performance.
And this isn’t just about numbers. Stuff happens. Shots don’t fall. But when they don’t, it’s how you go about your business that matters. Embiid handled his limitations in a way that virtually ensured the Sixers a loss. When he wasn’t blank-faced and slump-shouldered lingering on the outskirts of the offense, he was careening wildly around the court like an amateur YMCA baller.
After the Sixers took a 96-91 lead with four minutes remaining, they failed to score another point on their final eight possessions. Half of those possessions were given away by Embiid: a missed-three-pointer, two turnovers, and an out-of-control attempt from the post that was blocked by Marc Gasol.
That final play is the one that encapsulates the current moment. The Sixers need this to be the season when Embiid puts it all together, and Monday night was the perfect spot for him to show them how far he’d come.
The last time he was in Toronto, he was an adolescent among men. Out of shape and out of sync, battling injuries and illness, his season ended with him weeping in the arms of an opponent who’d spent seven straight games shutting him down. Monday night was a chance for Embiid to show that they were the tears of a man and not a child.
Instead, he played like a wannabe bully still smarting from a punch in the mouth.
“Everywhere on the floor, he made sure he was next to me,” he said of Gasol.
It was an acknowledgment that spoke volumes about the psychological impact the matchup had. For a player who fancies himself as the most dominant player in the game, the words reeked of the sort of submission you never heard from Jordan or Kobe or Shaq. All great players encounter adversity. The greatest refuse to yield until they defeat it.
Which brings us back to the question that Embiid must ask himself: Am I content being an All-Star or am I willing to be the best?
That he can even have a decision to make is a testament to his absurd athletic gifts. Most players don’t get the opportunity to choose. They are stuck down here with the rest of us who have physical limitations.
Embiid is not burdened by any such constraints. Anybody who has watched him play is well aware of that. He was born a member of the athletic 1%, a genetic Hall of Famer from the moment he took his first breath.
Sure, his late discovery of basketball makes for a compelling rags-to-riches tale, but it is difficult to imagine a world in which the sport did not discover him. It is comical, even: 7 feet tall, 260 pounds, soft hands, quick feet, filling out deposit slips in a bank.
But let’s be clear. Where he goes from here is very much a choice. There was nothing self-evident about Jordan becoming Jordan, or Kobe becoming Kobe, or Shaq becoming Shaq. They could have just as easily become Carmelo Anthony, or Dwight Howard, or, yes, Allen Iverson, players content to play as they always have instead of dedicating themselves to getting better.
This isn’t a question of passion, or work ethic, or talent. Embiid would not be where he is today without healthy stores of all of those. He fell in love with a sport and turned himself into one of its best practitioners in less time it takes some of us to earn a college degree. He is the best defensive big man on the planet, one of the best 10-to-15 two-way players in the game today.
This is a question of focus. When you get to the margins that Embiid already inhabits, it almost always is. There is a single-mindedness required to become a player who can’t be beat.
Thirteen games into his fourth NBA season, the ground upon which Embiid stands is either a waypoint or a plateau. He is taking fewer shots and making fewer shots than he did in any of his first three seasons. He is getting to the rim less often. He is making fewer trips to the foul line. The differences are mostly negligible, easily written off as normal year-to-year variance. But, just as surely, they do not suggest progression.
We have seen flashes of the offensive player he can become. His 46 points against the Lakers two Novembers ago was the sort of individual dominance that wins championships. But, again, that was two years ago. A series of flashes does not equal fire.
“I would have never thought I would be here talking about zero points in an NBA game," Embiid said Monday.
That makes this the perfect time for a little self-reflection. The question isn’t whether he has the talent to be something more. It’s whether he has the discipline to make it happen.