No man is an island, but there are times when being an NBA coach can feel pretty darn close. The chain of command in any organization outside of San Antonio looks more like a vise, with the guy on the sideline occupying a perilous space between two sets of bosses: the ones who sign his paychecks, and the ones who execute his plays.
Sixers coach Brett Brown is a man who has always seemed keenly aware of the paradoxical reality of his position. The full-throated advocacy that you hear whenever he discusses his players in public might come more naturally to a man of his disposition, but lurking somewhere beneath the surface of his rah-rah positivity is a calculation rooted in cold, sober realism. In a league where the players are the ultimate power brokers, currying favor is a wise choice as one’s default mode.
Thus, nobody should have been surprised with the outcome of the first significant fire to arise in Brown’s new role as Coach to the Stars. Three days after Joel Embiid expressed frustration with his role in an interview with the Inquirer, the situation seemed largely resolved, with the coach publicly offering the player a pass, and the player publicly declaring that what he said wasn’t really what he meant.
After a 116-102 win over the Pistons in which Embiid reclaimed center stage thanks in part to a first-quarter groin injury to Jimmy Butler, the big man insisted that his earlier comments were born out of frustration, not with his coach or his teammates but with himself, and that much of the reaction to those comments was a case of poor contextual reading.
“That was just me frustrated with the way I was playing,” Embiid said. “I know everybody took it out of context, but I love everybody. I love my teammates. I love my coaching staff. I think everybody that knows me knows that.”
In Embiid’s defense, his original words did not come across as those of a malcontent.
“I haven’t been myself lately,” Embiid told the Inquirer on Friday before a game in Detroit in which he was given a day off for rest. “I think it’s mainly because of the way I’ve been used, which is I’m being used as a spacer, I guess, a stretch five, which [is why] I’m only shooting  percent [from the three-point line]. But it seems like the past couple games, like with the way I play, our setup, [Brown] always has me starting on the perimeter … and it just really frustrates me. My body feels great, and it’s just I haven’t been playing well.”
Within the context of today’s NBA, the comments were hardly the stuff of sinking ships. That same weekend, the league saw a near mutiny in Chicago by players who were reportedly peeved that interim coach Jim Boylen had scheduled a practice after back-to-back games, and it saw Suns rookie and former Sixer Mikal Bridges raise eyebrows with a sideline cold-shouldering of his coach.
But Embiid’s frustration came from somewhere, and it would be naive for anybody to completely write off his comments as water under the bridge. Were they immature? Perhaps. Impulsive? No doubt. Embiid was coming off a sluggish outing in an 11-point loss to the conference-leading Raptors that offered him plenty of opportunity to point a long finger at himself.
At the same time, this is a challenging time for the big man, as it is for the entire roster and coaching staff as it seeks to discover the optimal way to incorporate a third ball-dominant player into an attack that features two young players with prolific but eccentric skill sets.
In the 11 games since Butler joined the team heading into Monday night’s win over the Pistons, Embiid was averaging 23.8 points while shooting .431 from the field. Both of those marks are significant drop-offs from the first 15 games of the season, when he averaged 28.2 points on .484 shooting.
There were moments on Monday night when the old Embiid emerged, pulling up from the elbow, imprinting dunks on defender’s shoulders, calling his own technical foul on Andre Drummond. There are some players who are immune to the eyes that are focused on them at all moments of the day, players who would be perfectly content to play in a hermetically sealed arena in front of 20,000 empty seats. Embiid doesn’t just thrive in the spotlight — he feeds off it, deriving not just joy but a considerable amount of energy from his station in the center of it all.
“You can see what I see, what he is to us, especially when Jimmy goes out," Brown said. "I think that Joel, just his presence, and some of the plays he made late, and his spirit, was just exceptional tonight.”