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May 25, 2023

Sixers season grades: Weighing Joel Embiid's MVP year against playoff shortcomings

If you can believe it, the Sixers' Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics was only 11 days ago. Those of you who can't shake the emotional trauma of that egg-laying are free to continue ignoring the Sixers as a general concept, but it feels like an appropriate amount of time has passed to evaluate the season that was for Philadelphia. And any look back requires us to start with Joel Embiid, who defined the year for better or worse.

How would you grade Embiid's year, considering the playoff failure in addition to the dominant regular season? 

Stat line: 33.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists on 54.8/33.0/85.7 shooting splits

The highs

The guy won the MVP award. Do I really need to give a rundown on how insane his season was? Maybe I do since the wounds of the playoffs are so fresh.

Embiid led the NBA in scoring for the second year in a row, becoming the first center to do so since the Vietnam War. His efficiency was at a career-best level despite Embiid regressing as a three-point shooter, a reflection of his inside-the-arc dominance. Embiid had three 50-point games, including a career-best 59 against the Jazz in November and 52 against the Celtics in the final week of the season, lending hope to the idea they might finally slay their playoff dragon.

What separated this season from two previous great Embiid years was the resolve the Sixers showed on both ends of the floor in the regular season, with the Sixers regularly fighting back and climbing out of big holes thanks to his ability to tilt the floor on both ends. Embiid’s tough night against the Memphis Grizzlies in February was made up for with six blocks and 19 rebounds, as he showed his teammates that he could win a game with his defensive effort in addition to the bucket-getting. Doc Rivers summed up Embiid's season-long dominance as early as November, following his 59-point outing against the Jazz that included 11 rebounds, eight assists, and seven blocks.

“I've seen a guy score a lot of points. I haven't seen a guy score a lot of points, rebound, and then the blocked shots. That was impressive. He was getting everything," Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said following that win in November. "I have never seen a more dominating performance when you combine defense and offense."

In many ways, it felt like Embiid had finally solved many of the problems that had plagued him in the past. He read doubles well, in part because Philadelphia moved many of his touches to the elbows to help him see the floor better. The Sixers scored high-profile wins throughout the season, including an epic clash with the Finals-bound Nuggets, a comeback victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, and he created a reputation so ironclad that competitor Nikola Jokic came to his defense following Denver’s conference-clinching win this past week.

It was a terrific season, until it wasn't.

The lows

How do you weigh that MVP regular season with, well, another disappointing playoff run? How do you factor in health, and perhaps more importantly, can you separate the concerns of this run from the concerns of the last half-decade or so? The verdict right now appears to be no.

Embiid’s numbers being down in the first round against Brooklyn (in the three games he played, mind you) felt like a fair reflection of the Nets’ obsession with stopping him. The big man moved the ball away from pressure and empowered other teammates, making “the right plays” against a team selling out to stop him. Then the second round came, and the same things did not hold true. Embiid had his moments against Boston, but his efficiency went off of a cliff and he looked indecisive against a team mixing up coverages, struggling with Al Horford as we’ve seen many times before.

Even Embiid's good games in the playoffs, which included Philadelphia's Game 5 triumph over Boston, felt like they lacked the oomph of his dominant performances during the season. Conditioning clearly played a factor in Embiid's play late in games in the playoffs, as quick starts turned into sluggish finishes for the big man.

You can diminish the weight of Embiid’s struggles through a couple of different methods. His LCL injury was a tough one to battle in the midst of a playoff series. Doc Rivers didn’t have an answer to counter Boston’s two-big lineup when it mattered, putting extra pressure on Embiid to create something from nothing. But health has been an issue in every non-bubble run of Embiid’s career, and Rivers was not responsible for Embiid’s indecisiveness at spots on the floor where he dominated for most of the season. 

The image of P.J. Tucker needing to talk some sense into him at the free-throw line in the middle of a playoff game looked like a great display of veteran leadership at the time, but also a reflection of a star player who was lost in his own mind in the moments that really count. Had Embiid simply missed shots or struggled with a tough team, he may have been shown some grace, but his multi-faceted impact disappeared into a Boston afternoon, with Embiid lifeless on the glass and unable to slow down Jayson Tatum's shooting barrage to close out Philly's season.

Grade: B

Ultimately, here’s where I land — Embiid had an A+ season and a great year if you are judging him against the entirety of the basketball-playing world. No one can take away his regular-season dominance, and he was a joy to watch for much of the year. But if you are judging him as a superstar and a franchise-driving player, then he simply was not as good as he needed to be when they needed him most. He was not “best player on a champion” good, and would have needed someone to be that guy for him in order to win four consecutive playoff series. That would put him in the B-tier of stars, who are great players but dependent on context.

That will be the debate about Embiid as we move forward into the future. Is future growth ahead of him, with Embiid simply needing a clean bill of health and more inventive coaching to break through? Or, as many in Philadelphia fear, is this simply who he is and what they are with Embiid as the lead dog? I’m not clairvoyant enough to know which path he and this team will take. But the answer will define the immediate future of Sixers basketball, for better or for worse.

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