Don’t get it twisted.
The 76ers made the right decision to move Ben Simmons to point forward, where the 6-foot-10, 250-pounder can make a great impact. Shake Milton, at point guard, also provides a much-needed floor spacer for the Sixers.
Tobias Harris has also shown why he’s an on-the-fringe NBA All-Star when his teammate get him involved.
But don’t get it twisted.
The Sixers will only go as far as Joel Embiid leads them.
When healthy and in shape, the three-time All-Star center is the most dominant player in the game regardless of who’s on the court. And everyone knows it.
“I know what I’m capable of, and I know what my teammates think of me,” Embiid said. “I know I’m capable of carrying the team, so it’s all about me being assertive. If I feel like I’m not getting the ball, I just got to talk to them and do what I have to do.”
That’s one of the knocks against the 7-foot-2, 280-plus-pounder, who hasn’t always been totally locked-in, especially not this season.
He actually admitted as much on Dec. 12 after Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal criticized his level of play.
The critiques came after Embiid had 22 points and 10 rebounds two nights earlier ina 97-92 victory over the Denver Nuggets at the Wells Fargo Center. The game was televised by TNT, where both Hall of Famers are pregame and postgame analysts.
Barkley, a Sixers legend, said Embiid’s performance didn’t qualify as “great.” O’Neal said that Embiid could be great, but that he’s not playing hard enough.
“I mean, that’s what they do. Maybe they’re right,” Embiid said in response to the criticism. “I do think they’re right. I need to be more aggressive, just look to impose myself, just look to dominate.
“I think the whole season I haven’t done that and you can see the way it’s affected my efficiency and my stats, so I guess I need to go back to having fun and just dominate. But I get what they’re saying and I think they’re right. I’ve got to make a change.”
He attempted to make those changes while also battling through several injuries.
Embiid averaged 23.4 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 blocks while playing in just 44 of the Sixers’ 65 games before the NBA shutdown in March. His 47.4 % shooting from the field is his worst percentage in three seasons. However, his three-point percentage of 34.8% is his best in three seasons.
The Cameroonian has missed nine games with a torn radial collateral ligament in his right hand. He was sidelined five more games with a left-shoulder sprain. Embiid was out two games because of left knee soreness, two for suspension, and one each for a right ankle/lip laceration, left hip contusion, and upper respiratory illness.
However, he’s all healed following the four-month NBA shutdown, and is in great shape, according to coach Brett Brown.
Embiid stayed with Sixers co-owner Michael Rubin during the shutdown, training six days a week.
He only logged 12 minutes, 57 seconds — all in the first half — during Friday’s 90-83 exhibition-game victory over the Memphis Grizzlies at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Embiid finished with 10 points on 3-for-10 shooting — including going 2-for-4 on three-pointers. He also had 6 rebounds, 2 turnovers, and graded out in a plus-12.
The Sixers’ second scrimmage is 12 p.m. Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Brown said he doesn’t plan to play Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Tobias Harris a lot during the three scrimmages leading into their Aug. 1 seeding-game opener against the Indiana Pacers.
The hope is that Embiid can remain healthy heading into the playoffs, which begin on Aug. 17. That’s something he hasn’t been able to do in the previous two postseasons.
Two seasons ago, Embiid missed the first two games of the Sixers’ Eastern-Conference first-round series against the Miami Heat after fracturing the orbital bone near his left eye and suffering a concussion against the New York Knicks on March 28, 2018. He donned a gray mask with a protective lens after returning to play in that series and in the conference semifinals against the Boston Celtics.
Last season, Embiid missed Game 3 of the Sixers’ opening-round series against the Brooklyn Nets because of tendinitis in his left knee. The same injury also sidelined Embiid in 14 of the Sixers’ final 24 games of the regular season.
Then he missed the shootaround for Game 2 of the conference semifinals against the Toronto Raptors because of gastroenteritis. Embiid nearly missed Game 4 of that series due to being sick. He didn’t sleep the night before the game and kept throwing up. He needed intravenous therapy at 6 a.m. the day of the game.
The Sixers eventually lost that series thanks to Kawhi Leonard’s 15-foot fadeaway jumper at the buzzer to lift the Toronto Raptors to a 92-90 victory in Game 7. But one has to wonder how they would have fared in last season’s playoffs with a fully healthy Embiid.
“Joel’s always a topic,” Brown said back in May during the NBA shutdown. “We get it. The importance that he represents as being a complete parallel to can you win a championship or not, is real.”
With him in improved shape, the team is specifically focusing on his ability to read double-teams in the post. They think that will help the Sixers advance deep in the playoffs.
“He’s going to be double-teamed more than he isn’t,” Brown said. “You can book it. He spins baseline, the whole gym is coming, I don’t care who we are playing.”
This season, Embiid has logged the fifth-most post-ups at 429 and the second-most direct points created from them (397). He’s been one of the league’s most dominant post-up players since he arrived.
But due to a lack of spacing and his drawing crowds, Embiid hasn’t experienced low-post dominance in each of the last two postseasons.
Brown wants Embiid to shoot 10 free throws per game in the postseason, and Embiid has been working on perfecting his fadeaway jumper.
“I’ve been working on them the past 2 ½ months, six times a week, just trying to perfect my [shots] in any ways that I can,” he said, “and I’m happy about that.”