WASHINGTON — Back on Aug. 23, Joel Embiid wondered out loud about his future in Philadelphia.
The 76ers had just been swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics. The team had more than $400 million tied up in Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and Al Horford over the next several seasons. And the squad didn’t figure to be among the Eastern Conference’s elite for the 2020-21 season.
So some were questioning if the Sixers should try to trade Embiid or Simmons, their cornerstone franchise players.
“I don’t make the decisions,” Embiid said in August about the team’s uncertain future. “I’m here in Philly. Whatever happens, happens.
“I’ve always said that I want to end my career [in Philadelphia], and if it happens, good. If it doesn’t happen, well, you move on and all that stuff.”
It’s great for Embiid and the Sixers that the organization made moves that didn’t involve parting ways with the now-four-time All-Star center. Not only did the Sixers take money off the cap, they’ve played better than expected during the regular season. And with Embiid leading the way, Philly takes a three-games-to-none advantage into Monday’s Game 4 of the best-of-seven series against the Washington Wizards.
Monday’s expected victory at the Capital One Arena would complete a convincing opening-round sweep nine months after the Sixers were swept in the first round.
That would signify a remarkable transformation that began with several roster moves, the departure of Horford, and a revamped front office and a new coaching staff.
But Embiid’s dominance has been the one constant throughout the 2020-21 season and three games into the playoffs.
The MVP finalist is averaging 29.3 points and 7.0 rebounds in the three games against the Wizards while shooting 67.4% from the field, including shooting 54.5% on three-pointers.
On Saturday, Embiid finished with playoff career-high 36 points to go with eight rebounds and three steals. The big fella hit 3 of 4 three-pointers. Twenty-five of his points came in the first half. He played just 27 minutes, 54 seconds while sitting out the fourth quarter.
In the process, Embiid has gone from questioning his fate to being an unstoppable force in the postseason.
“He’s about as good as he can possibly be at that position,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said Sunday. “I was fortunate enough to play with [Hall of Famer Hakeem] Olajuwon for almost three years [with the Houston Rockets], and he’s doing things I haven’t seen since then.”
It’s like Brooks knows he doesn’t have the manpower to stop the Embiid-led Sixers.
He talked about Embiid seeing all of the defenses and schemes. In this series, the Wizards tried to defend Embiid in various ways and failed at all of them.
“He’s skilled, athletic, tough, high IQ basketball player,” Brooks said on Sunday. “So if you make a mistake, he capitalizes on it and their team does, as well. Even if you don’t make a mistake, he was making shots over our guys. He was making shots over a double-team last night.
“Like I said, I haven’t seen anybody since Olajuwon to be able to dominate a game on both ends of the floor like he does.”
That’s high praise, considering Olajuwon’s accolades include being the 1994 league MVP, a two-time defensive player of the year, a 12-time All-Star, 12-time All-NBA selection, nine-time All-Defense team, two-time NBA Finals MVP, and two-time NBA champion.
Sixers coach Doc Rivers doesn’t do the comparison thing often. He thinks that Embiid is his own guy.
“But yeah, I can see that,” Rivers said of Embiid doing things that Olajuwon did. “I can see that and Patrick Ewing. ... I think Joel has a little bit of all those guys. You know the footwork of Hakeem and [Kevin] McHale, the fadeaway, the shooting of Ewing.
“He puts a lot of work into his game. That’s what makes him such a good player.”
Embiid averaged 30 points and 12.3 rebounds in last season’s playoff series against the Celtics. However, he’s been more well-rounded and shooting much better this postseason. Embiid shot 45.9% from the field, including going 25% on three-pointers, in the series versus the Celtics.
But you have it twisted if you think he’s satisfied with his improved play and the Sixers being up, 3-0.
“There’s nothing to be happy about,” said Embiid. “The job’s not done.”