Here are some hard truths about Joel Embiid. He’s not a leader. He’s not a winner.
He’s not tough enough.
He’s 7-foot-2, he weighs 280 pounds, and he has the feet of Fred Astaire, but he spent 10 days getting manhandled by Bam Adebayo, who’s 5 inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter, and P.J. Tucker, who’s 7 inches shorter, 35 pounds lighter, and nine years older. He couldn’t stay erect: Embiid’s butt spent more time on the floor than his feet. All series against the Heat, Embiid asked permission to post up. The Heat denied him. He meekly left the paint.
And, so, the Sixers lost in 6.
Embiid is a massive talent, a player unlike anything the NBA has ever seen. Spurred by the birth of his son Arthur and his pursuit of the Most Valuable Player award, he has grown immensely in last two years, and that’s the good news. The bad news: He’s got a long, long way to go.
Every year, come money time, it’s something with Embiid. The 2018 playoffs, eye injury and mask. In 2019, knee soreness and two different illnesses -- issues that left national analysts agog with disgust. Embiid couldn’t win without injured Ben Simmons in 2020. Then, as he dealt with another knee issue, he couldn’t win with Simmons in 2021.
This year, Embiid, already playing with a torn thumb ligament that would require surgery, then suffered a concussion and right orbital fracture in the first-round series finale. He’d been cleared to play after the Sixers lost the first two games of the Eastern Conference semifinal in Miami, but his own teammates didn’t know if he’d play in Game 3 until 30 minutes before tip-off.
That’s not leadership. That’s performance art.
Over the next four games, despite missing just six days, he clearly was out of shape. He played, but he played poorly. Should he be commended for playing hurt? OK. Should he be celebrated? Only if he played well. Only if he played hard. Only if he played effectively. So, no.
Frankly, it’s not his injuries that hinder him as much as it is his attitude.
There’s a big difference between showing up and showing out.
The next step
The Sixers will never win anything unless Embiid grows into a real leader. A leader like Tim Duncan. Like Hakeem Olajuwon. Like Shaq.
He’s not a leader now. He’s not close. If you think that he is, then you don’t know the meaning of that word. He still acts as if he’s bigger than the team. He still operates on his own schedule. The franchise revolves around him, and he knows it, and he acts like it, and that’s the opposite of leadership.
Consider, simply, his conditioning.
For the past four years, we’ve heard that Embiid has arrived at training camp “in the best shape of his career.” That needs to disappear. The phrase “Joel is in excellent shape” needs to replace it. It’s inexcusable -- utterly inexcusable -- that a player so integral to a franchise’s fortunes presents himself in such a state every preseason.
If Georges Niang wants to show up looking like Humpty Dumpty, fine. He’s not making $31 million and playing 33 minutes a night.
The Sixers tied the series, 2-2, then laid down in Games 5 and 6. You couldn’t find their heart with an EKG.
In his scathing post-series review, Tobias Harris didn’t utter Joel Embiid’s name ... but he didn’t exclude Embiid, either.
“We’ve shown, when things are good, how mentally tough we are. On the flip side of that, we didn’t do a great job of that when things weren’t going our way,” said Harris, who’s been around for the Sixers’ last four playoff bed-soilings. “I could see if we came out and gave it 100 percent effort. If we gave it the greatest effort we could, and just lost. But that wasn’t the case in this series.”
Think back to Embiid’s effort this postseason. Try to exclude him from that review. If Embiid isn’t mentally tough, and if Embiid doesn’t give 100%, nobody else will, either.
You can’t say these things about Duncan, Olajuwon, or, as he progressed, Shaq. They demanded a respect that Embiid does not.
There’s a difference between admiration and respect. You admire talent. You can admire Embiid’s stats, and his versatility, and his effect on both ends of the court. You respect results. Embiid has gone to the playoffs the past five seasons. He’s never made it past the second round. That’s the main reason he gets so little respect.
Yes, there’s an anti-Philly bias thanks to the toxic, tanking strategy of The Process. Yes, too much credence is lent to analytics. But Embiid’s greatest obstacle in winning an MVP award he so desperately covets will, for the rest of his career, be the fact that he shrinks in the playoffs.
In their prime, Olajuwon, Duncan, and Shaq produced more in the postseason than they did in the regular season, in almost every category. Each was the focal point of the opposition. Each is a champion; 11 titles among them. Embiid produces less in the playoffs than he does in the regular season. He is not a champion.
He might never be.
This team will go as far as Joel Embiid takes it.
It won’t matter if the coach is Doc Rivers or Doc Holliday. It won’t matter if the point guard is James Harden or James Brown.
The bench can become as deep as the 1984 Celtics, but if the centerpiece doesn’t dominate every night in the playoffs it just won’t matter. As long as Embiid’s on the roster both the offense and the defense will run through him, and if he’s not engaged then the rest of the team won’t be, either.
He’s Philly’s darling right now. Ask Donovan McNabb how quickly that status can change without a title.
Basketball dilettantes point to hollow numbers and contend that Embiid already is among the greatest big men who ever played. Please. He’s not even among the greatest big men who’ve played in Philadelphia. He can be, and he should be, but anyone who thinks that Embiid in any way more valuable than Moses Malone or Wilt Chamberlain doesn’t deserve to watch another NBA game. For that matter, that last series Dolph Schayes would have eaten his lunch.
He just doesn’t understand his role. He doesn’t grasp professionalism.
Perhaps the most absurd moment of the year came in Game 5 in Miami, when Embiid dived into the stands to save a ball. He had a broken face, a torn thumb, and there he was, acting like some kid trying to make his high school team. Enough. Enough of that that. No more. Never again. He’s too important to risk injury for the sake of a mid-game loose ball. You ever see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Robert Parish jump into the scorer’s table? That’s why they played into their 40s.
Besides, the only thing in Philadelphia more fragile than Joel Embiid’s body is Doc Rivers’ ego.
This might come off as a harsh critique of a post-concussion victim playing with two injuries that would have benched him if they’d happened in November. Well, they didn’t happen in November, and Embiid didn’t perform as well as he should have. If your plumber showed up with a broken face and a bad hand and left with your pipes still leaking, you wouldn’t thank him for his effort.
Rivers keeps talking about how young Embiid is. He’s not. Embiid is 28. When he left college eight years ago, Ariana Grande was still best known as Cat Valentine.
He’s a basketball player, not a golfer, and chronically injured athletes seldom flourish into their 30s.
Worship him for his return if you like, but heroic returns are only heroic if you play heroically. Embiid did not. Warriors aren’t considered warriors because they simply gather shield and sword and march forth. Warriors produce despite their obstacles.
The Sixers need Embiid to be a warrior.