He Got Better Again
Joel Embiid started slow, but has heated up in a way we haven't seen before.
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and writes for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
Andrew's writing is brought to you by Kinetic Skateboarding! Not only the Ricky's approved skate shop, but the best place to get Chucks, Vans, any apparel. Use code "DAVESILVER" for 9.1% off your order.
Say what you will about enjoying a sport in Philadelphia, but it's pretty special to get to root for Bryce Harper, Jalen Hurts and Joel Embiid at the same time. Harper won MVP last year and had an all-time postseason run this year, Hurts is leading the best regular-season Eagles team in history and is now the odds-on MVP favorite this season (with a practically guaranteed top-two finish at this point), and Embiid just finished second in MVP voting for the second straight year. It will not shock you to learn that the Sixers, Eagles and Phillies have never all had top-two MVP finishers within the same 15-month period -- I'm actually shocked they even came close once, in 1980-’81 when Mike Schmidt and Julius Erving both won and Ron Jaworski came in third. (BTW, Hurts is gonna win this year, dammit, and feel free to join me in ruining FOTB and sworn Hurts MVP doubter Jason Lipshutz's Hawaii vacation by spamming him with tweet replies to folks calling him the award's front-runner.)
And Joel Embiid might keep the streak going this year. After a start to the season that probably most would describe as "slow," but would more accurately be characterized as "depressed" and/or "depressing," Joel has settled into a groove that is both staggering in its brilliance and disarmingly casual in its workmanlike efficiency. He'd be leading the league in scoring (again) if he had enough games played to qualify, and (if you care about such things) he's back to being top five in pretty much every relevant next-level stat; he just won his first Eastern Conference Player of the Week award (in a week where his team only went 2-1) after going off for 53 against Charlotte on Sunday.
As head-smackingly obvious as Joel's greatness has been this season -- there's no such thing as "a sneaky 53" in basketball -- you do still kinda have to squint for it this season between the twin distractions of the rest of the team's oft-flailing disarray and Embiid's own unimpressed ho-hummery. You can tell from the sound of the home fans that they're mostly just confused watching him bulldoze the Hornets, while the Sixers' bumbling perimeter defense keeps Charlotte in the game and Jo looks like he just wants to get home in time to not risk White Lotus spoilers. It wasn't until he checked out with his second 50+ night of the season and the W secured that the crowd seemed to really recognize what was going on (and Embiid broke character long enough to dance to Lil Uzi on the bench).
But even if it's tough to enjoy or understand with everything going on, make no mistake: for the second straight year, Joel Embiid is coming off an MVP-caliber season, and is even better this season.
The numbers are of course staggering -- 37 points, 10 boards and six assists over his past 12 games (since his first sickness-related absence), while shooting 54% from the field and getting to the free throw line 14 times a night. He scored over 100 across two games in November. He became the first center to lead the league in scoring in 30 years last year, and he's not only averaging three more points a game this season, he's doing so with easily the best FG% and assist rate of his career. He hasn't been perfect, of course; he's averaging over four turnovers a game (which is too many) and shooting just 34% from deep (which needs to come up, and has started to). And the main thing dampening excitement over his stats is that the Sixers are only 7-5 over that period, though that qualification becomes less damning when you note that Embiid himself is a plus-minus positive in all but two of the games, and nearly a +10 on average across the 12 contests.
But his magnificence now seems reliable on a night-by-night basis, independent (so far at least) of any kind of matchup concerns or shooting streakiness. Kyle Neubeck had a great piece in Philly Voice about how Embiid's doing it this season, and the biggest thing by far seems to be him operating in isolation at the nail by default instead of in the post. It's a simple thing, but just picture a quintessential frustrating Joel possession from years past and it almost always looks the same: him at the baseline, trying to work a post advantage where none really exists or materializes, then him spinning into an awaiting double team or into a difficult fadeaway jumper (or both) and the possession quickly going back the other way. There's no fading away at the nail, and not much doubling either, there's just rising for a jumper he's connecting on at a 53% rate or plowing by his guy for a dunk, layup and/or foul. Even when the doubles have come, he's done an excellent job spotting the now-open dunker or wing shooter to subsequently capitalize. (The TO rate remains high because his execution is still lagging a bit behind his conceptual understanding -- sometimes the difference between being a smart passer and a good passer -- but his continued evolution in the latter category seems the much more important development.)
There's also a late-game patience and solidness with Joel -- yes yes I suppose you could call it a "clutchness," though any use of that word just seems like you're asking for trouble -- that I don't ever remember quite seeing before. You might have already forgotten it given everything else that went wrong in the Laker game on Friday, but I was ecstatic to see the play he made in the final minute: working his way from the elbow to the paint, drawing the attention of basically all five Lakers, and -- rather than go all arms-akimbo to attempt to draw a 50/50 foul while risking a crushing turnover -- he diagnosed De'Anthony Melton as the open/red-hot man on the wing, made the jump-pass decision before LeBron could hit the ball out of his hands, and found Melton with no one within 10 feet and enough time still to sink (what should have been) the game-sealing triple. He's closed games like that against the Jazz, Bucks and Hawks this season, proving himself trustable in situations where even in his two MVP runner-up seasons you'd have had your misgivings. (He's still not totally immune to chaos, as the L.A. and Houston games proved, but if he's not quite 2008 Brad Lidge as a closer just yet, he's much closer to that than the 2009 Brad Lidge he's been in years past.)
And what's really stunning is that this doesn't even seem like nearly the best version of Joel we're going to get this season. He and James Harden (plenty of reacclimating of his own to do after nearly a month off) are just starting to settle back into the pick-and-roll chemistry that laid advanced-stat waste to the league for the last few months of last season. He's only this past week started to find his three-point stroke again. Every game, even the ones where he scores 50+, he still feels like he's leaving points on the board. Last year, he didn't really get going until late December, and any Process neophyte knows January is always the month where Embiid just plops his ass down on the rest of the league like it's a Whoopee Cushion. Assuming good health -- ah, that -- there's more and better still to come with Joel.
Even with the improved play, there's still two very important questions to be considered with Embiid: Can we win with him playing with all the excitement and brio of a teenager clocking into his summer job in retail, and can we win with him being flanked by this once-again flawed and incomplete supporting cast? And does one have to do with the other?
When I wrote last week about Joel playing like the regular season didn't matter, Spike sorta challenged me to go a step further and say that Embiid's shoulder-slumped attitude wasn't just him recognizing that the team's regular-season play was meaningless, but rather him recognizing that his time with this team on the whole was meaningless -- that they just didn't have it. I wasn't ready to do that -- not yet -- but I'd be naive to dismiss the possibility outright; Harden and Maxey have not played like championship-caliber second options this season, Tobias is still mostly game-to-game, P.J. Tucker has been absolutely brutal for a month now, and most of the Hospital Sixers won't really be in play when the lights are their brightest. I still think it's too early and the season has been too choppy for Jo to reach any such conclusions, and that the team was in a spot last year where he can reasonably convince himself that if he were healthy they would have at least gotten by Miami. I think he's tired of regular season drudgery, doesn't find his earlier antics cute anymore, and just wants to get back to the Save Point and do better this time. But I could absolutely be wrong, and the longer we go with Maxey on the shelf, Harden stinking in big games and Tucker rusting like Neil Young, the less convinced I am that I'm right.
But what I remain convinced about is that, for the third straight year, we are seeing the best Joel Embiid we have ever seen, and that that is ultimately more important than any of the other noise surrounding this team. Even if Harden is just an untrainable postseason bedwetter, even if Tyrese remains unready to take the jump from fun exciting young guy to legitimate second star, even if P.J. Tucker gets so stiff he starts bleeding caulk on the court, give me this version of Joel Embiid fully healthy against anyone (well, anyone except the Celtics I guess) and I will like our chances in a seven-game series. He's probably going to finish second in the MVP a third straight year -- to Luke Doncic this time, I'd bet -- but he's still the best player in this suddenly star-studded city, and he's gonna keep getting better until proven otherwise.