December 10, 2020
Before I can even get through the first paragraph, I can hear the grumbling, imagine the eye rolls, and feel the skepticism in the air. Joel Embiid focusing on conditioning, possibly getting in career-best shape? Sure buddy, I've heard that one before. Next, you're going to tell me Ben Simmons is prepared to shoot when he's open this season.
Caution is warranted. Embiid's off-the-court approach has often lagged because his sacrifices have only gone so far. He'd get in the gym with a trainer but still suck down some Shirley Temples. To let the big man tell it, this year is different.
"This summer is the one that I really tried to really focus on it. By just having my own chef, nutritionist, my own [physical therapist] and massage therapist. Just doing whatever I can to take care of my body and so I'm able to play 20 years here in Philly," Embiid said Thursday. "I think that's the thing I've learned the most since I've been in the league, and it was a short time between the end of this past season and this new season, but it's a work in progress. You've go to start somewhere but it's been going great, and I'm still learning every single day."
Those are steps he hadn't been willing to take in the past, by his own admission. On Media Day 2019, Embiid opened his talk with reporters by affirming his commitment to getting better over the summer, the Game 7 loss to Toronto still fresh in his mind. Pressed on concrete changes, however, Embiid admitted then nothing had changed about his diet.
"I haven't done anything differently," Embiid said in 2019. "I just try to eat the right way, I haven't cut out anything, I've just been extremely focused on what I had to do."
The addition of dedicated staff to help him, then, is a material change from years past. It's still on the big fella to make use of the team around him, but it's a concrete sign that this could be the start of something different.
Perhaps that's because Embiid has something to prove this season, fueled by a drop in the eyes of people around the league.
Teammates claim they have seen something different in him this December. Justin Anderson, who played with Embiid and Simmons in the early days of that partnership, noted earlier in the week that Embiid had been matching Simmons' pace down the floor, drawing attention toward the rim and opening opportunities for trailers/shooters in transition. He sees a fire growing in them, one that is producing an actual shift on the floor and not just empty quotes in front of a webcam.
In years past, Embiid and Simmons were never shy about the individual hardware they wanted to compete for. Embiid has made no secret of his anger over being left off of all the All-NBA teams last season, falling from dark horse MVP territory to out of the top center conversation entirely last season. Both Embiid and Simmons announced during the 2019 preseason that they wanted to compete for Defensive Player of the Year last season, but only one guy put together a season worthy of consideration for that award. The team results are what spoke the loudest — without Simmons to help him in round one, his team was unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics.
Back to basics in 2020. Win games and the rest will fall into place.
"The main thing is winning," Embiid said Thursday. "If we win, that means all these awards, I'm part of it, I'm up there for those considerations. Of course. A player of, I guess, my talent, should always be in MVP conversations, or Defensive Player of the Year conversations and All-NBA, it should be like that every single year. To be able to accomplish that, you have to win. So I think that's the main thing. Winning cures everything, it makes everybody happy, it's going to help you when it comes to awards and stuff. So that's the thing that you know we as a team we've really got to focus on."
The roster overhaul should help with at least part of that. Conditioning has not been the only problem for Embiid over the years, with turnovers ranking near the very top of the list of issues in a post-centric world. Progress came in fits and starts last season as the lineup was altered to put more shooting on the floor, but Embiid's reads and passing out of double-teams have ultimately lagged behind where they should be by now, certainly far behind his scoring prowess on the block. The Sixers hope that getting Seth Curry and Danny Green will open lanes for Embiid, if not for direct assists at least for easier reads that lead to buckets elsewhere.
Embiid's partnership with Curry is one that a lot of people in Philadelphia are keeping a close eye on in the early days of preseason, despite Rivers' insistence that any partnership that involves the star center is a pretty good one. The list of interested parties includes Embiid, who can see the inklings of a successful duo there, much like he once had with another sharpshooter. The death of the DHO has been overstated.
"Especially with Seth, I would probably want to have the same relationship that I had with JJ [Redick]," Embiid said Thursday, "especially the way we moved and the way we played off of each other. Me setting screens for him and sometimes him setting screens for me and just playing that two-man game. I think we have some potential there."
"They put the team together to give [Ben and Joel] as much space as possible and I’m one of those guys who can hopefully take some pressure off of them by giving them space and being able to make plays here and there," Curry added during training camp. "It’s going to take some time for a lot of the new guys to get used to playing with them, but it’s exciting, because anytime you’re on the floor with two of the greatest players in the league right now, it makes my job a lot easier...we’re getting used to playing with each other and making the right play, but it’s just a basic play of basketball a lot of bigs like to use, especially Joel. We’re going to see a lot of that hopefully."
Former Embiid enemies will also play a part in determining their fate. Assistant coach Dan Burke, notorious for ripping Embiid's "flopping" as a Pacers assistant, is in control of the defense this year, and he has challenged his most important defensive piece to step up of his comfort zone. The Sixers expect to have Embiid playing "up to touch" in more pick-and-roll coverage this season, something many fans have hoped for and a contrast from his constant drop coverage in the past. It's even a departure for Burke, who historically has preferred to drop his bigs and protect the rim.
The two have been able to set aside their previous differences, which Embiid attributes to how frustrating it must be to watch him score and get fouled as often as he does on the low block. They make an odd couple, but the big fella is used to being part of those on the hardwood. And they know they need each other. The quick-twitch athleticism Embiid showed at Kansas and during his rookie year probably won't suddenly reappear because he ate home-cooked meals instead of Chick Fil A. But he is aware he will set the defensive bar this season, something he did a poor job of last year, and that a return to form there is within his control, a point of emphasis that could help push them closer to the top of the East.
I got to get back to two or three years ago when I used to be all over the place defensively and do my job and try to be up there when it comes to those awards and stuff," Embiid said. "That’s where it starts. It starts defensively and then as a team, we just got to come together. I feel like we’ve been doing a great job with the system that we put in place."
"I think [Burke] and the whole coaching staff is going to kind of look at me to kind of be the driving force of the defense, especially when we talk about being the Defensive Player of the Year, just making sure we have the best defense in the league protecting the rim. Which, I mean, the past couple of years when I’ve been on the floor we’ve always had most likely the best defense in the league, so they’re going to look for me to keep it going and keep that same energy."
Okay, so maybe he isn't ready to let the dreams of individual hardware go. If that's what it takes to keep him focused on doing the little things right, the Sixers would do well to embrace it.
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