November 23, 2019
Six months ago, Philadelphia watched a real chance at an NBA championship evaporate into the Toronto night because their star big man wasn't 100 percent when it mattered most. The Sixers' offseason was driven by an urge to protect Embiid's body from wear-and-tear (and from himself, frankly) in order to give him the best chance to be in fighting shape when the games matter most.
Six months later, Embiid is restless.
After assuring reporters on Wednesday evening he would absolutely play in both games of a weekend back-to-back against the Spurs and Heat, Embiid got himself into foul trouble against the Spurs and played just 28 minutes in Friday night's win. When a reporter asked Embiid if that could be a good thing insofar as it would keep him fresh for the Heat game, Embiid used it as an opportunity to rail against the concept of load management.
"I mean, it doesn't matter, I want to play every game. Load management, that's some B.S. I want to play every game, I want to be on the court building chemistry with my teammates," Embiid said. "Hopefully we get [Josh Richardson] back and we get to play with each other, keep learning, that's how we're going to win, especially when it comes to playoff time."
"I want to play every game. I'm tired of sitting, I just want to play."
Compare these quotes to what Embiid said during exit interviews at the end of last season...
Looking at the way Toronto managed Kawhi last season, obviously I don't want to miss that many games but when you start thinking about back-to-backs and all that, obviously having a good team around you helps. Most of the time I kind of feel bad, because I feel like I let everybody down by not playing or suiting up. If you see that and you know that guys are going to take over or be sure that you'll definitely win, we have the talent to do so, I guess it's an easier decision for me. I think as long as I think we got it all covered and I feel like we have an opportunity to win games without me I'm up to it. Definitely got to take a better approach. Just got to keep working on my body, it's only going to get better.
...and you see quite a different picture being painted. The willing participant in load management is now back on the other side of the fence.
There are a couple of ways to receive Embiid's latest thoughts on the value of rest.
The truth, as it so often is, is probably a combination of those things. It may seem like Embiid just fires from the hip when he speaks, but there is a certain level of calculation to what he does when he decides to speak up.
Think about the players he has had public, trash-talking feuds with over the years. Most of them are guys he has routinely dominated in matchups, save for Russell Westbrook, who is sort of a special case on multiple fronts. He knows when to use his words for maximum impact, and he knows how to use them in ways that generally won't come back to haunt him. No one is going to kill the guy for advocating to play, and it is to his personal advantage to paint the Sixers as the bad guys in the fight to play more.
But there is also a competitive streak inside him which is hard to extinguish, and the Sixers have the unenviable task of trying to fan that flame without subjecting him to more wear-and-tear than is necessary. It's a no-win scenario, really. If Embiid gets hurt playing too much in the regular season or is less than 100 percent come mid-April, they're negligent for not having a better plan. If they piss off their star player by sitting him more than he wants, that's also a terrible outcome.
It was predictable the day the NBA schedule dropped that this back-to-back, in particular, would be one Embiid would advocate (read: demand) to play in. He has been vocal about his relationship with Jimmy Butler, and though he downplayed the importance of one game on the schedule when asked about it Friday night, he has also vowed to stop trash-talking, flip-flopped on the rest issue, and has assured reporters he doesn't even like shooting threes.
Embiid's desire to battle a guy he grew close with over time is obvious to anyone who knows him. Situationally, playing in back-to-back games isn't going to kill him, and GM Elton Brand even left that door open when we spoke to him about a variety of topics during the preseason.
Still, the team is aware of what is at stake here.
"It's hard, especially when you're as dominant as Joel is and can be," Brand said in October about managing his star's eagerness. "He wants to play, as competitive as he is, but I think the setback last year, losing game seven in the semi-finals, it really hurt. And he understood that look, I need to be the best in May and June that I can be. I think that hiccup helped us a lot."
The hope will have to be that Embiid's bravado is just that. Each side will play their respective roles publicly, and the Sixers would be thrilled to take the bullets as the bad guy if it means they can keep their star healthy with his buy-in.
They just better hope they have his buy-in.
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