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March 17, 2020

Joel Embiid just turned 26. How does he compare to Sixers greats at that age?

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17_Joel_Embiid__Sixers_76ers_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid turned 26 this week.

While you were all holed up in your homes looking for the fourth Netflix show of the week to watch, Sixers star Joel Embiid turned 26 years old. Celebrating a birthday during a coronavirus pandemic seems like a pretty miserable time, though I'm sure he's better equipped to enjoy the celebration at home than any of us could hope to be.

Before the season went off of the rails, the overwhelming consensus on this Sixers campaign was disappointment, with many unhappy Embiid hadn't taken the next step as a bonafide MVP candidate. Games being played or not, Philadelphia's position in the Eastern Conference standings is a long way from their own expectations coming into the year.

So with the big fella's birthday as a marker, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at what he has accomplished to date, and how that compares to a quartet of franchise legends who came before him. I'm sure some old man is going to shame me for not including players like Hal Greer or Dolph Schayes, and I'll just have to live with that. The point here is to answer the following question: how far ahead or behind is Embiid at this point?

A note before we get started — all of the players who turned 26 during a season were given credit for the full awards for that year, a la All-NBA awards, even though those accomplishments technically weren't announced until after those birthdays. Embiid may end up with more season-long honors after this year is called, though it's hard to say anything with certainty at the moment.

Joel Embiid

NBA debut: October 26, 2016 (22 years old)

26th birthday: March 16th, 2020

The tale of the tape: 24.1 PTS/11.8 REB/3.1 AST on 47.9/32.2/79.4 shooting splits. 3x All-Star, 2x All-NBA (2nd team), 2x All-Defense (2nd team), All-Rookie 1st team. Furthest playoff run: Second round, 2019 (loss, seven games).

How differently would we view Embiid's career to date had he not lost the first two years to injury? How different would his career actually be if he had those two years to suit up and take his lumps as a member of a rebuilding Sixers team? Those are hypotheticals that probably deserve full-length articles. Of course, he probably wouldn't be in Philly at all if not for those injuries, so going too deep down the rabbit hole here is probably a waste of time. But it is worth noting that he had the second oldest pro debut of any player in this list, despite the league's younger shift through one-and-done inclusion.

The bottom line — whenever Joel Embiid has been on the floor for Philadelphia, they have played like an elite team. Even when he was propping up the likes of Sergio Rodriguez and Gerald Henderson during his rookie year, he was dominant on both ends, inviting the comparisons to all-time great bigs that have faded during a rocky season this year. 

It has become popular to cite this season as an example of his own stagnation, but it is worth noting that it feels that way because of how successful his first three years were. From the moment he stepped onto an NBA floor, he was one of the most impactful players in the sport, full stop. Even with the world's most expensive backup plan in town this season, the Sixers have been unable to make up for his absence whenever Embiid has had to miss time.

Looking forward, the future is a lot murkier than we would have believed it could be when his rookie year ended due to a meniscus issue. The cap space has dried up, the means to upgrade around him have dwindled, and the fit with Ben Simmons looks more troublesome the longer his running mate goes without a respectable outside game. 

Before coronavirus threw the NBA into indefinite limbo, we were staring down a potential crossroads moment for the Sixers this summer. Would they reshuffle the deck while keeping both of their young stars again, banking on changes in management or coaching to do the trick, or could an early playoff exit inspire more dramatic changes? My position on this has been clear all along — the Sixers should be in the business of doing everything they can to change around Embiid/Simmons before moving on from either. But the natives were going to get restless if they didn't get past the second round once again.

In any case, you look at those numbers and his league-wide honors and they look pretty damn good. That continues to be the case when taking a look at other Sixers greats at the same agae. 

Allen Iverson

NBA debut: November 1, 1996 (21 years old)

26th birthday: June 7, 2001

The tale of the tape: 26.2 PTS/4.0 REB/5.6 AST on 42.6/32.3/74.5 shooting splits. NBA MVP 2001, 2x top-five MVP voting (98-99, 00-01), 2x All-Star, 3x All-NBA (2x 1st team), All-Star MVP (2001), Rookie of the Year (96-97), All-Rookie 1st Team. Furthest playoff run: NBA Finals, 2001 (loss, five games).

Yes, Allen Iverson's 26th birthday was just one day after his iconic Game 1 performance in the 2001 NBA Finals. Talk about bringing in a new year in style.  

Iverson's career arc to this point of his career was the perfect ascent we'd like to believe is possible for all players. Thrust onto a miserable Sixers team, Iverson put up numbers for a bad team early on, made the playoffs by his third season, and after taking his lumps in the playoffs in back-to-back years, a more complete Sixers team made a run at the title in 2001, powered by Iverson's MVP campaign. With years of his prime still ahead of him, it looked like the Sixers had a bright future ahead of them, so long as they could put the right pieces around The Answer.

Life didn't work out that way. There were numerous attempts to bring in secondary scoring options to aid him, from Keith Van Horn to Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson to Chris Webber, with each option failing for one reason or another. Had the timing been better, Andre Iguodala might have been able to find a way to slide into that role, but by the time he had joined the team, Iverson's discontent with a deteriorating situation in Philadelphia was past the point of no return.

(He was not up to the task of being a No. 2, but I wonder if Toni Kukoc would have helped take pressure off of Iverson during that playoff run if he hadn't been included in the Dikembe Mutombo trade. The Sixers would have needed to value the three-point shot far more than they did under Larry Brown, but Kukoc shot over 44 percent from three for the season in 2000-01. A different game and a different time, of course.)

An interesting footnote in Iverson's career — he accomplished the rare feat of being named in the top-five in MVP voting without being named to an All-Star team in 1999, a game that was scheduled to be held in Philadelphia before being canceled as a result of the lockout-shortened season. 

Charles Barkley

NBA debut: October 26, 1984 (21 years old)

26th birthday: February 20, 1989

The tale of the tape: 22.1 PTS/12.0 REB/3.5 AST on 57.7/23.4/73.9 shooting splits. 1x top-five MVP voting (87-88), 3x All-Star, 4x All-NBA (2x 1st team), All-Rookie 1st team. Furthest playoff run: 1985 Eastern Conference Finals (loss, 5 games). 

Barkley's introduction to the NBA could not have been more different than Iverson's or Embiid's. Rather than being asked to carry a terrible team rebuilding from scratch, Barkley joined a team that had just won the title a year before he was drafted. And as Barkley is happy to tell people now, his first directive was getting in shape, a process veteran center Moses Malone guided him through personally.

By the time the playoffs rolled around in his rookie year, Barkley had settled into a groove as a major spark plug off of the bench for the Sixers, and after the Sixers went down 3-0 in the 1985 Eastern Conference Finals, it was Barkley who stepped into the starting lineup in Game 4 and gave Philly a lift, providing 15 points and a game-high 20 rebounds in their only victory over the reigning champion Boston Celtics.

Barkley's individual stock would continue to rise up until his 26th birthday in early 1989, and it's there we see his career take a similar turn as Iverson's. The disastrous Moses Malone/Jeff Ruland trade robbed him of his best chance to continue competing in the East during the late 1980's, leading to Barkley's eventual exit from Philadelphia following the 1991-92 campaign, his sixth straight All-Star season.

It seems hard to fathom now, but the Sixers had a member of the Dream Team, perhaps the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled, and couldn't get past the second round in any of his eight seasons outside of that last gasp from Doc, Moses, and Co. during his rookie campaign, when he was more of a role player. It hurts even worse that he immediately went west and won an MVP with Phoenix, carrying the Suns to the Finals (but once again losing to Michael Jordan).

While we're on the subject of Doc and Moses...

Julius Erving

ABA debut: October 15, 1971 (21 years old)

NBA debut: October 22, 1976 (26 years old)

26th birthday: February 22, 1976

The tale of the tape: 28.7 PTS/12.1 REB/4.8 AST on 50.4/32.2/77.8 shooting splits. 3x ABA MVP, 4x top-five voting ABA MVP (72-73 through 75-76), 2x Playoff MVP, 5x ABA All-Star, 6x All-ABA (4x 1st team), 1x All-Defense. Furthest playoff run: 2x ABA champion (1974, 1976).

This is the toughest player to compare Embiid to because he had already reached this age before even making the jump to the NBA in the first place. How you feel about his accomplishments depends on how you feel about the ABA generally, because Erving was the league's best player by a decent margin during his five seasons with the red, white, and blue ball. At the very least, you can't throw those accomplishments out, because they are significant and came in a league that produced plenty of talent that translated to the NBA once the leagues merged.

The numbers Erving put up in the ABA are comical, and they would fall significantly the moment he joined the Sixers in the mid 70's. But the question was not really his year-to-year production — he made the All-Star team every year he played in the NBA, along with seven All-NBA appearances and an MVP in 1980-81 — but team success was harder for Erving to duplicate in Philly, with several high-profile team failures before Moses Malone came along to give the Sixers their final push.

That 1983 title is an interesting case study on how one ring can change a player's perception. Without Malone, Erving is the guy whose team lost as the overwhelming favorite against the Blazers in 1977 after going up 2-0 in the series, and the man who had a chance to push the Lakers to seven games without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, only for a rookie to walk into his house and dominate Game 6 in 1980. And that's before getting to Philadelphia's Eastern Conference Finals collapse against Boston in 1981, Erving's MVP season, where he managed just 16 points on 17 shots in the Game 6 loss at home that could have ended the series. After accomplishing everything there was to accomplish in the other league, Erving found it much harder to climb to the summit in the NBA, only winning a title after his team brought another MVP into the fold.

(The '77 loss is tough to place on Erving's shoulders, for the record. He had 40 points in the Game 6 defeat in Portland, and his numbers for the series were downright preposterous. But over time, those things tend to fade away and all people see is, "You didn't get it done.")

So this one is an eye of the beholder situation. If you think the ABA should be weighed equally, he's head-and-shoulders above the rest. My knowledge of that league is limited to reading about it, so hard for me to chime in.

Wilt Chamberlain

NBA debut: October 24, 1959 (23 years old)

26th birthday: August 21, 1962

The tale of the tape: 42.3 PTS/26.6 REB/2.2 AST on 49.4% FG, 57.0% FT. 1x MVP, 3x top-five MVP voting (59-60 through 61-62), 3x All-Star, 3x All-NBA 1st team, Rookie of the Year. Furthest playoff run: 1962 Eastern "Division" Finals (loss, seven games)

If you are reading this article, you most likely already know of young Wilt's early achievements, but let's lay them out anyway. In his very first season of professional basketball, Chamberlain averaged 37 and 27 en route to winning the MVP award as a rookie. By his third year, he averaged over 50 points per game and more minutes (48.5) than there are available to play in a regulation NBA basketball game. He is the NBA's version of Paul Bunyan, except Chamberlain actually exists.

Granted, the league was a heck of a lot different back then. Six teams made the playoffs in a league with nine teams, and you only had to win one round to make it to the "division" finals, which were the equivalent of today's conference finals. You can't hold it against Chamberlain that the league looked much different, but it's worth noting that he couldn't turn his jaw-dropping production into overcoming the Boston Celtics until late in his career.

When Chamberlain eventually had teams around him that would allow him to keep up with the Boston Celtics, he was part of two historically great title teams, the 1966-67 Sixers and the 1971-72 L.A. Lakers. Those teams won 68 and 69 games respectively, and neither was pushed past six games in any of their playoff series during the title runs. But his role was very different in each of those situations — he was the leading scorer and clear-cut best player for the '67 Sixers, but that Lakers team won 33 straight games with Chamberlain in more of a subdued role, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich leading the way on the scoring front.

Even though it's impossible to compare today's league to the one Chamberlain played in decades ago, it's his career that provides us with the most enduring lessons about experience over time and the importance of team-building. Chamberlain was the best individual basketball player of that era by an almost comical margin, and even that wasn't enough to lead him to success early in his career. After being humbled repeatedly by the Celtics, Chamberlain's style changed drastically in '67, his efficiency soaring and shot volume plummeting as he placed more of an emphasis on sharing the basketball.

In the cases of each of these great Sixers, mismanagement and stubborn styles ultimately derailed chances at more success, while increased buy-in and impactful moves helped deliver titles to Philadelphia under Chamberlain and Erving. It's easy to say that Embiid and Simmons are so talented they should find a way to deliver in the playoffs no matter what. History tells us it's much harder than that.

With the extra time we all have to contemplate these matters, it seems clear there is still time for Embiid to deliver on his significant promise and bring the Larry O'Brien trophy back to Philadelphia.

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