It's Joel Embiid or It's the Raptors
Do I truly believe in Joel? Should I truly believe in Joel? Has he done enough to merit that level of unconditional faith as an NBA superstar?
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Not to break the First Rule of Ricky Club by talking about another 76ers podcast -- let alone a member of the RTRS family ripping a hole in the the space-time continuum by paradoxically featuring on one -- but I was all but shaken to my core by comments made by the great Mike O'Connor during his recent appearance on the Gastroenteritis Blues, when explaining his wary-but-stout prediction of a Sixers victory in their upcoming first-round series against the Toronto Raptors. "You gotta believe in Joel," he asserted. "Like, if we're gonna make this big stink about him winning MVP, we have to believe that he can win a first-round series… as the best player in the series, that he bears the brunt of responsibility if they don't win. Like, I believe in Joel. I just... I believe in him. And I think that that will carry them through this series, and probably the next one too."
It's not an unreasonable point, nor one not totally out of the realm of the usual "If Embiid dominates, they'll win" takes that have dotted most analyst predictions about the series' outcome. But the simply stated point -- You gotta believe in Joel -- has caused me a massive crisis of faith over the past 48 hours. I love Joel. I respect Joel. I marvel at Joel. I stan Joel, in a way that I never would any other pop culture figure. But do I truly believe in Joel? Should I truly believe in Joel? Has he done enough to merit that level of unconditional faith as an NBA superstar?
I don't know. But that's the question, and for all the micro and macro concerns surrounding the Sixers right now, it's the only one that really matters for this series.
I would love to be as pure in my faith as MOC. But the matter is, for all the incredible things Joel Embiid has accomplished to this point in his Sixers career, this is the thing he's still never done: Putting the team on his back and carrying them to victory in a playoff series that they otherwise might not win. He's dominated first-round series against unworthy opponents and he's played mostly respectably in tough second-round series losses against more even competition, but he's yet to make that jump to simplifying the highest level of NBA playoff competition to we have The Guy and you don't. And in this series, that's what it's going to take.
Because for as much respect as the Raptors have gotten nationally as a serious threat in this series... I still don't really think they're being taken seriously enough. This is a team that absolutely tortures Philly even when they lose to us -- which, btw, they only did once in four tries this year, in a game when they were shorthanded enough to start Malachi Flynn and Yuta Watanabe and we still needed an efficient 36 from Embiid to get us over the finish line. Some pundits are making a big deal about the talent gap between the two teams, but all I see when I look at their roster is players who scare the everloving shit out of me (except Thaddeus Young, hi Thad!) -- and if you really think the Sixers will have the two best players in this series after watching James Harden and Pascal Siakam's respective performances the last time these teams met, you either have a much higher opinion than I do of the magical powers of the Sixers' medical staff, or a much lower opinion of Harden's give-a-fuck level in the regular season. There's no roster-wide talent gap between these two teams. The talent gap is Embiid.
And that's real: Even three years ago, Joel was already talented enough to have posted a positive plus-minus in six out of the seven games of the second-round series against Toronto that the Sixers ultimately lost, because his combined +89 for the seven games was undone by the -108 they posted when he was out. You probably remember that he struggled a little in that series, but that's not really accurate: He struggled A LOT. Look back at the numbers after two years of watching him putting up MVP-caliber stats nearly every night, and I promise you they will be jaw-dropping: Not only did he fail to crack 20 in five out of the seven games in the series -- a mark he missed just once over his last 50 games this season -- but there were two games where he tapped out at seven shot attempts total, despite playing over 30 minutes in each and both going down to the wire. He shot 37% for the series, without a single game over 50%. He had more single-digit rebounding games than double. He had easily more turnovers than assists. It was a level of compromised for Joel Embiid -- due to a combo of poor health, brilliant Raptors defense and relative big-game inexperience -- that is straight-up unthinkable in 2022, when even a bad game for JoJo usually means 25 and 11 at a minimum. And it still should have been good enough for us to beat Toronto if we had friggin' Dewayne Dedmon to back him up.
Look at it like that, and this series seems like it should be easy to call. Though Joel's struggles against Toronto only multiplied through 2020, where he averaged five points.a game against them in the regular season -- not an exaggeration, he literally scored 15 points in three games (one in which he left early for health reasons, though that wasn't even his lowest-scoring of the three) on 18.2% shooting -- and lingered in 2021 (24 PPG on 32% shooting) even after the departure of Marc Gasol, this year, Jo's T-dot stats have finally caught up to his overall dominance: 29 and 11 with as many assists as he has turnovers, and of course a +5.3. But the Sixers still lost two of those three games -- both with Toronto missing two starters in Fred Van Vleet and OG Anunoby, who they'll presumably have back for this series -- and in both games, it just felt like gravity was on the Raptors' side down the stretch, with them always getting the loose balls, rebounds, stops and scores that they needed at crucial moments to keep the Sixers at middle finger’s length.
Some of that is of course the Sixers' continual quest for an acceptable backup big, with both DeAndre Jordan and Paul Reed having +/-s in the negative double digits despite barely even playing 10 minutes, and part of it is the Sixers' larger failure to develop any real kind of acceptable offensive structure or gameplan in those minutes with Embiid sitting. But some of it is also still Embiid: No matter how the lineups falter without him, the Sixers have been in the game -- as they've been in the game during several bad regular-season losses in 2021 and 2020, and in the seven-game series in 2019 -- in the final minutes. The game's greatest players create that gravitational advantage late; there's a reason why "LeBronto" trended on Twitter nearly every postseason during LBJ's second Cleveland tenure. And Joel has just not made the plays the Sixers need him to make to get science back on their side and steal those victories.
That's the thing that's still missing from Embiid's overall supremacy, and the reason why You gotta believe in Joel freaks me out the way it does. We saw it time and again down the closing wind of this regular season -- not just in the two games against Toronto, but against Milwaukee, against Denver, against Phoenix, in close to any tight game that we desperately wanted him to go out and win for us this season. We saw it against the Hawks last playoffs too, particularly in that still-confounding 0-12 second half in a Game Four that should have been the end of the series. He's certainly not incapable of making plays or shots in the final minutes, but he's never really been a game-icer or a game-stealer in that indomitable fourth-quarter sense; we’ve never been able to feel like “It’s OK, Joel’s got this.” And as John Schumann tweeted in February, he's straight up never hit a game-winning shot for the Sixers: 0-14 in attempts at the time, most tries without a make in the 26 years of available data, and a number that likely has only gotten worse in the month and a half since.
It feels unfair to hold any of this against Joel, exactly: He's still always our best player by a considerable distance, the reason we're in these games in the first place more often than not, and such an all-consuming force on both sides of the ball that he's doing a ton for us even when he isn't making shots. Versus most first-round opponents, that would almost certainly be enough regardless of whether or not he was capable of more. But these Raptors have too many advantages over the Sixers, both practical (length, athleticism, depth, coaching) and metaphysical (history, trauma, magnets?), for us to get by with Joel Embiid at 70% of his usual dominance. If we beat Toronto, it's gonna be because by the end of it, he's making Nick Nurse and Pascal Siakam look at each other with a "eh, whaddya gonna do?" shrug.
I don't know whether or not he can do that in this series. He should be capable of it, but it's always tough to feel confident in predicting someone to do something that they've just never done before. But, well... it's something he has to do eventually. Joel Embiid has long set his sights on being one of the greatest players in the history of the game, and those players all have series wins like this on their resume, going against big and tough teams of exhausting scrappers who hang bullshit HARD WORK BEATS TALENT WHEN TALENT DOESN'T WORK HARD signs in their locker room. At some point, to join that company, he's gotta take on a team like this and just plow right through their muddy asses. James Harden can't do it for him at this point in his career -- and even the prime version of Harden had his own still-unanswered questions in this respect -- but perhaps his passing and secondary offense help unlock the version of Embiid that finally gets there. Tyrese Maxey can't do it yet either -- though it's unreal how soon he might be able -- but he can score a clutch bucket here or there so Joel doesn't have to do it entirely himself. It's just gotta be Jo dragging them over the finish line. It's gotta be Jo as the unquestionable, no-qualifiers-or-context-needed MVP. For the Sixers, and for his legacy.
And in this respect, I also agree with MOC that Toronto was the best first-round draw possible for the Sixers. A shellacking of the injured and unworthy Bulls would've been a much-savored dessert following this grueling regular season, but it likely would've left us bloated and gassy for our second-round matchup -- and we're well past the point of easy first-round victories against nothing opponents rating as much of a meaningful achievement. Embiid and the Sixers may as well start off with a limit-testing adversary who proves they have the mettle to do real things in these playoffs, or knocks them out before we even have time to pretend otherwise. By the end of this series, either the Toronto Raptors will have sent us to our watery grave (and a longer-in-all-respects offseason than any of us is prepared for), or Joel Embiid will be everything we always wanted him to be. I hope it's the latter. I hope I can find the faith in time to believe it will be.