January 13, 2021
If a 10-game stretch was all it took to get in the conversation for MVP, Joel Embiid would have earned a lot more votes for the NBA's top individual honor by now. At his best, we have seen him absolutely dismantle opposing teams, often with ill-fitting or lackluster supporting casts around him. But there has always been a feeling of wait and see when assessing his chances to win that sort of hardware, an injury waiting to pop up that derails any chance he has.
But now, 10 games into his year, it's just hard to call him anything else except for an MVP candidate. The Sixers have been very good, and Embiid has come out ready to destroy everything in his path, seizing the team and leading in a way that distinguishes this start from any other he has had. Even if it takes some good fortune from time to time.
The Sixers were in the midst of a disappointing performance at halftime when they decided to bust out a play Doc Rivers called "Delay" where they operated through Embiid in the middle of the floor, utilizing Embiid as the world's biggest point guard. That play had only been worked on by Philadelphia on the day of the Miami game at their pregame shootaround, but it became a central plank of their path to victory over the Heat, a way to get Embiid the ball before he could be trapped by the opponent.
"Sometimes life is luck," Rivers said after the game. "I didn't know we're gonna run it entirely for the fourth quarter and overtime because we had no choice but to run it."
Embiid as the de facto point guard was about as good as it was going to get for Philly on Tuesday night. Ben Simmons fouled out late in the fourth in the midst of a miserable performance. Rookie Tyrese Maxey had a clunker on both ends, leading to Rivers booting him in crunch time for an extra shooter. And since they were going to call the big guy's number as much as possible, why not get it in his hands early in the possession?
"It helps a lot. It's hard being limited to being a post player in this league, especially with the way they guard me," Embiid said after the game. "They're going to front me, they're going to send doubles, triples, quadruple teams, it can get frustrating at times, especially if we're not making shots. I think the last few games a different part of my game has been open. I've always had it, but the last two games I've had to do it, and it's been working well. I'm enjoying it. Just playing point center, point guard or whatever you want to call it, point forward, I'm enjoying it."
"Second [quarter] we kind of had nothing going, and it just felt like I was just running, running, running, and we kept turning the ball over and then we get to the third quarter and we're down by 10. Now it’s like, when things get tough who was going to show up, and that's my job, just be aggressive. Aggressive doesn't mean scoring. It also means, especially with the way guys on other teams are guarding me, I can do so much and create shots for my teammates. I might not get those assists, but the simple kick-outs are going to end up [with] easy shots. Every year you learn and you're in different situations."
All it took was a few early makes in the third quarter to get Embiid in the mood to take over the game. His 20 third-quarter points put them back out in front, but the most noticeable change for Embiid was his demeanor, not the made shots or where they had him start a possession. When Tyrese Maxey was in the wrong spot for a kick-out pass, something the Sixers have drilled consistently to make Embiid's reads as easy as possible, Embiid blew up on the rookie, chastising him in plain view for having the audacity to move when he needed to sit still on the perimeter.
It's obviously not the first time he has been visibly mad with someone on the floor, as Shake Milton will attest to after they exchanged heated words in plain view during the bubble last season. Embiid afforded himself a charitable explanation for how he has led the young guys this season, noting that it's part of his responsibility as the team's best player to embrace teachable moments.
"I'm just trying to make sure I do my job," Embiid said. "But we've also got a lot of young guys, and they've got a lot of talent, and they need to learn. I've been in the league for a long time, and to be able to guide them through a lot of situations, Tyrese has been playing well, but sometimes he makes mistakes and you just got to let him know how everything works. At times we're not playing the right way so you got to get on them, you've got to explain to them how everything is supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing, and the best thing about all of them is that they are willing learners. They listen, they learn, and they go out and do the right thing. We've got a great group of guys, I really love all of them."
Leadership has not always come easy to Embiid, a natural introvert in spite of his spicy tweets and occasional press conference outbursts. One of the issues with last season's team, beyond the on-court fit, was the absence of a galvanizing force. Tobias Harris tried his best to be the glue for a splintered group, but struggling through his own tough year, Harris could not always get the buy-in he needed from the players that mattered.
The most important step Embiid has taken is the unseen work that allowed him to continue dominating deep into overtime with the gas meter dangerously low. Conditioning has not come up once in a negative fashion for Embiid, who spent the offseason getting in tune with a personal chef, a physical therapist, and a broader Team Embiid who would deliver him in the best shape possible for the year. Without that work, Embiid's 11 points in overtime Tuesday likely never happen.
Embiid's approach to the year has not been lost on his teammates. Dwight Howard, who himself has veered between franchise-altering talent and aloof knucklehead depending on the year and the situation, has emerged as a steadying force for Philadelphia in the locker room, a man intent on passing wisdom down to their current star. The way he sees it, everything is within reach for Embiid if he just goes out and takes it.
"I think he has the potential to be one of the greatest big men to ever, you know, play and play basketball, and it's really on him and how bad he wants," Howard said Tuesday. "I just want to be there for him be an ear for him, and just push him because I really believe in him. He showed tonight what he's capable of. And what he can do really for his whole career, and we just got to continue to trust him. you got to continue to trust us and just like he always been saying, you know, trust the process because it is a process. It takes time to be great...I just want him to continue to believe and push himself."
Having Embiid on the floor has often been the difference between the Sixers putting up elite numbers or drowning, and that remains the case this season. Lineups featuring Ben Simmons without Embiid have been outscored by over 15 points per 100 possessions, a quirk of small sample size but a fair reflection of how poor they have been when Embiid hasn't been on the floor. The idea has always been that these two would cook with shooters around them, but only one has made a leap forward with the benefit of new players and new coaches to help him out. Even Embiid's off nights have been basically automatic 20-10 games.
It has not been the one-size-fits-all approach of years past. The Sixers rolled to a hot start with Embiid inviting the double teams and punishing teams by finding his shooters, not playing jumbo point guard. Having multiple ways to win through the big guy is a new development for the Sixers, who often had to win in one way or not at all when the game flowed through their franchise player.
He has been called a franchise player often, but he finally grasps and possesses the wherewithal to proudly embrace the responsibility.
"We needed it tonight. We lost three games in a row," Embiid noted Tuesday. "Our mentality should always be we should never lose two games in a row and we lost three in a row, so there was no chance we were going down losing four in a row. So whatever I had to do and whatever my teammates had to do, we did it and we got the win."
Embiid appears to be in the midst of the hardest leap to make in sports: the jump from MVP-level talent to legitimate MVP candidate, ranking among the best of the best every time you step on the floor. If awards voters don't take notice, his organization should, because opportunities to build around a player of this caliber don't come around often.
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