Joel Embiid wrapped close friend Jimmy Butler into a hug near the 76ers’ bench before walking off the court late Thursday, the physical representation of one All-Star and his team moving on to the Eastern Conference finals and the other again falling short.
When Embiid emerged from the Sixers’ locker room about 90 minutes after their 99-90 season-ending loss to the Miami Heat, he said his team was not good enough to beat the Eastern Conference’s top seed in a best-of-seven series. Though Embiid emphasized and re-emphasized that he is not a front office roster-builder, he revealed that he believed the Sixers needed to get physically tougher. And though Embiid would not dwell on his unfortunately timed injuries, he acknowledged “it [stinks]” that his fabulous, MVP-caliber and previously healthy 2021-22 season ended like this.
“I’m not looking for any excuses, but those are just the facts,” Embiid said of his orbital fracture and torn thumb ligament. “It [stinks]. I don’t think anybody would believe that I was 100%, so it does [stink] to get to this stage and not be yourself, not being able to do what you want and your body not allowing you to just be yourself …
“I would say [I should] try to make sure it doesn’t happen again, but those are freak injuries. If it happens, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Embiid played 44 minutes Thursday, expending significant energy with his team’s season on the brink. It was the second consecutive outing that Embiid put up a stat line — 20 points on 7-of-24 shooting and 4-of-4 from the foul line, 12 rebounds, and two assists ― that was subpar by his exceptionally lofty standards as the dominant big man who averaged an NBA-best 30.6 points per game during the regular season. Embiid also confirmed after the game that, based on his most recent conversations with the Sixers’ medical staff, he will need surgery on his right thumb but not on his face, which was injured in Game 6 against the Toronto Raptors and protected by a mask after he missed the first two games of the Heat series.
The way the Heat denied Embiid the ball and prevented drives “because everything was just crowded” gave him a focus for his offseason workouts, he said, similar to how he began to open up his perimeter and off-the-dribble game after the Boston Celtics swept the Sixers out of the 2020 first round in the Disney World bubble. But Embiid also wondered “why we couldn’t replicate that” defensive strategy on Butler, whom Embiid said “was really playing one-on-one with a lot of space” while averaging 27.5 points per game in this series.
Embiid went as far as to say “we never had P.J. Tucker” during his time with the Sixers, a nod to the Heat’s undersized big man’s rebounding, hustle plays and ability to harass opposing ballhandlers.
“[He] believes that he can get from Point A to Point B and he believes that no one can beat him,” Embiid said of Tucker. “They have a few of those guys. … Since I’ve been here, I’d be lying if I said that we’ve had those type of guys. Nothing against what we have. It’s just the truth.”
When asked if that admission means Embiid — as the back-to-back MVP runner-up whose supermax contract begins in 2023-24 — will become more active in informing the front office of what he believes the Sixers need moving forward, he deflected by saying, “They can trade me any time they want.” Embiid added that Daryl Morey has done a “fantastic” job since he became the Sixers’ president of basketball operations before the 2020-21 season, but acknowledged that leadership has “a lot of decisions” to make during a critical offseason.
It’s particularly worth wondering about Embiid’s long-term partnership with James Harden, following the blockbuster deadline trade that brought the perennial All-Star and 2018 MVP to Philly in exchange for a package anchored by the disgruntled Ben Simmons.
Though the pick-and-roll combination with Harden was lethal during the regular season, Embiid conceded that “since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden. But that’s not who he is anymore. He’s more of a playmaker.” Harden has a $47 million player option for next season and said “I’ll be here” when asked after Game 6 about his future with the Sixers.
“It’s really just everybody being on the same page,” Embiid said. “Obviously, only having probably three or four months to work together and try to figure it out, maybe it wasn’t a lot of time. But, like I said, I don’t think we played our best basketball.”
After learning earlier this week that Nikola Jokic had been voted MVP, Embiid said he returned home from the Sixers’ Game 5 loss in Miami to a “Most Valuable Father” award. He will focus this summer on his son, Arthur, the “positive energy” his family provides, while mixing in rigorous on-court work.
That shift arrives after Embiid physically labored through the final four games of this series, and this season. Embiid said coach Doc Rivers told him the Heat did not play against the “best version” of the Sixers. It’s an assessment Embiid said that, “based on the circumstances, I could probably agree with … but that’s not an excuse.” After hugging Butler, the former Sixer who left during 2019 free agency, Embiid publicly lamented again that he “still [doesn’t] know how we let him go.”
Heading into another offseason, Embiid does not hold a grudge about the elbow that broke his face or the hodgepodge of jerseys and limbs that tore his thumb. He believes “there’s still another level I can reach” as an MVP-caliber talent.
And yet …
“The goal was to win a championship, and it didn’t happen,” Embiid said. “ … It doesn’t matter which round we lost in. We just lost, and we just have to get better.”