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December 05, 2020

Joel Embiid talks responsibility, roster changes and how Sixers must improve to contend

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15_Joel_Embiid_Sixers_76ersvsCeltics_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Sixers center Joel Embiid.

Nobody has worn the failure of the last two years of Sixers basketball quite like Joel Embid. When Kawhi Leonard's buzzer-beater ended their season in 2019, it was Embiid's teary breakdown that became the lasting image of the series for Philly. When they went down in quick fashion to the Celtics this summer, Embiid was the last star standing, the guy who had to answer for the team's failures.

The arrival of a new coaching staff and front office gave the big man cover, some of it deserved. Embiid, Ben Simmons, and all the rest of these guys have been let down by previous decision-makers. But Embiid says he didn't spend his offseason looking for cover or excuses, even when he had discussions with the team about what they needed to do to improve. Before they could have that discussion, it started with him.

"Being here for a long time, I gotta do better," Embiid said Friday. "I always gotta do better. It doesn't matter what I do, it doesn't matter if I score 40, if we lose I still feel like I could have gotten 50, and we could have won the game if I had done something better. So, you know, I'm always gonna take the blame."

That's a good starting point. If you only looked at a box score to assess Embiid's 2019-20 season, you'd struggle to call it a bad year. 23 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, slightly improved outside shooting, fewer turnovers, it wasn't all bad when you consider the structure of the team around him. But after a dominant 2018-19 season that had him rising into future MVP discussions, it was clear Embiid was a different, inferior player last year. His apathy on both ends of the floor was hard to miss, and Philadelphia's road struggles can be traced at least partially through the big man. Awareness is half of the battle.

The other half was cleaning up the mess around Embiid and Simmons. Consider that job done, or at least mostly done. Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers, who Embiid named as two of the best in the league in their respective roles, are here to oversee things. Embiid had nice things to say about ownership and GM Elton Brand, who hustled during a pandemic to make needle-moving changes to an organization in need of them. 

While Embiid would not cop to playing GM this offseason, he did make a simple request to the new brain trust: get us some shooters.

"I felt like we didn't have what we needed, especially when it came to shooting, because nowadays in the NBA you gotta be able to shoot the ball, you gotta be able to space the floor. It's hard to play just inside out all the time," Embiid said Friday. "You know, I lead the league in post-ups, or I led it last year, or the past few years, but people still want me to post up more. Like, that's understandable, but then again you gotta find a balance in between making sure everybody is involved, and then also giving me the ball.

"Then you also gotta mix your game. If I spend a lot of time on the block all game, they're not gonna respect my outside game, and I also need to do that to be able to space the floor and also give my teammates some space. So I think you just gotta find the balance, and what I told them was just, like, we just need more shooting. I mean, that was apparent looking at last year. We weren't able to shoot the ball well, so, I mean, and I thought they did a good job. I feel bad for the guys that we lost and, you know, those were my guys, but I thought them adding shooting was great."

Those points fall on deaf ears at times, but they're critical to Philadelphia's future. The arrival of Rivers does not mean Embiid is going to stand in the paint for 48 straight minutes, and it certainly doesn't mean the opposite, that a pick-and-roll coach will make a post-up big spend the whole game screening and moving. It's just a bit tougher to strike that balance when you're operating in a telephone booth on every possession. 

It wouldn't have taken an in-depth discussion with Morey and Brand to figure out what Embiid wanted on this team. He spelled it out quite clearly during a podcast interview with former teammate JJ Redick over the summer, pining for the days when he could run a two-man game with his buddy. The joy he showed on the floor with guys like Redick, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and eventually Jimmy Butler? That was gone last season, Embiid forced to share the frontcourt with former nemesis Al Horford.

The players coming back in the trade for Al Horford haven't arrived yet (that deal is expected to be completed on December 8th), but sharpshooter Seth Curry is already in the building and putting in work. The Sixers will soon put arguably the best group of shooters they've had on the floor together since Embiid and Simmons joined the franchise. It's a concept with great promise — as you've probably heard a million times, the Sixers' starters once had the best net rating of any group in the league, even though their flaws became more obvious under the glare of the playoff lights. Embiid plus Simmons plus shooters were all it seemed to take.

Before you go penciling the Sixers in as the 2020-21 net rating champs, make a note that even Embiid was cautious in his optimism for the new group. He sees similarities in the group they have now, but he knows success was built over time, not in an abbreviated preseason.

"With that team that we had, we had been together for like two years, so especially with someone like JJ, I knew him," Embiid said. "I knew what he needed, I knew where he needed the ball, I knew how to make him better, and he also knew how to make me better. I would expect the same from someone like Seth, but it’s going to take time. I’ve been watching a lot of tape just trying to figure out how I can help him, and also I can talk to him and tell him how he can help me."

The discussions have already begun about how they get there, and more importantly, how Embiid and Simmons will sync up and make the best of both their talents together. The duo has already had meetings with Rivers about their responsibility as leaders, their roles on the floor, and a proclamation Rivers has stressed all offseason — it's not that they can't win together, it's that they haven't won together yet

And really, that's been a playoff-specific problem. Even last year, battling the whims of their own front office as much as their opponents, the Sixers were still a decent, if erratic team in the regular season. We saw them turn it up in meetings with the Bucks, the Heat, the Celtics, the Lakers, and an assortment of high-level teams across both conferences. Raw talent has been there, the ability to mesh it has not.

Simmons' playoff faceplants have been louder, but Embiid has struggled to reach his normal level when times get tough. And he knows this is not 2017-18 anymore, they aren't a cute young story anymore, and all the success they can put together before the playoffs means nothing if they don't deliver results.

"In the regular season, you can go fast but then you get in the playoffs and the game slows down, and where we had our struggles last year was in the halfcourt. One of the things I told coach was basically we have to make sure our halfcourt game is great because last year at times we didn’t know what to do," Embiid said. "We’re not fighting to make it. We think we can make it, and that’s what we’re getting ready to do. We think we can win an NBA championship this year, with this roster.

"Every year we try to work hard and this year I did the same thing. I’ve been working out every single day for the past two months, just trying to get better, just trying to improve my game at all levels, whether it’s shooting the ball, whether it’s screening the ball, dribbling, posting up, shooting, everything. Like I’ve always said, I want to be a complete basketball player, not just a big man, a post-up player. Because the game is not played this way. I have an advantage down there. When it gets to the fourth quarter, yes, I can do that, I can dominate. But throughout the season, you’re dealt different hands and you have to figure it out."

If Embiid sounds older and a bit wiser, consider that he is and just might be. Hidden underneath his concern over the NBA bubble was a concrete reason to stay home this summer — Embiid's girlfriend gave birth to their first son, Arthur, named after Embiid's younger brother who tragically passed away the year the big man was drafted. His son's late September arrival has given Embiid plenty to think about and prepare for away from the court, the beginnings of a family to raise and care for and, in the case of the pandemic, protect from potential harm.

Maybe that gives him just one more reason to stick around in Philadelphia to see things through..

"I want to play in one city for the rest of my career and this is where I want to be," Embiid said Friday. "I want to be able to also make it happen that we reward the city and the players for the trust that they had in me, especially after missing two years and everything that I’ve been through, losing my brother and also starting a family here. I mean, my son was born in Philly. So that’s why I want to win so bad, and just reward the fans for the trust that they have in this process."

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