Embiid Got Better Yet Again -- But Does It Even Matter Now?
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At this point, you can really just pencil it in on your calendar for sometime in December. Two years ago, I wrote on Dec. 29 that he was playing his best basketball yet, last year I wrote on Dec. 13th that he'd gotten better again, now it's Dec. 11 as I write once more that this version of Joel Embiid -- three-time top-two MVP finisher and now-reigning MVP winner -- is superior to all others we've seen so far. Next year I might just get it out of the way before Thanksgiving. Joel Embiid has been the best two-way Sixer of my lifetime for at least three years now, and in 2023, in his eighth season, three months removed from his 30th birthday, he's continuing to improve in countless ways both measurable and intangible. It's incredible. He's incredible.
And that's what makes it so frustrating that, for a lot of us, it might not ever really matter again how good Joel is in the regular season.
First, though, it is worth taking a second to properly take stock of just how good Embiid has been through 18 games this year. He's averaging 33.3 points a game -- his best number yet, and good for a third-straight year of leading the league -- and after the worst rebounding season of his career, he's bounced back to nearly 12 a game, thanks to a newfound commitment to crashing the offensive glass that's led to a career-best 3.4 o-boards a game. His 1.9 blocks a game are his best since 2019. His FG% (51%) is down a few ticks from last season, but he's getting to the line more than ever (12 attempts a game) and shooting his best percentage (88%) once there. And of course, in the absence of James Harden, he's bumped his assists from 4.2 to 6.4 a game, an easy career high, while his turnover rate has only gone up a marginal amount (3.4 to 3.7 a game). His last seven games, each of which he's scored 30+ in, have been particularly electric: 36/12/7 on 52% shooting and 14 FTAs a night, with over two blocks and an average plus-minus in the double-digits.
And all that's just the box score stuff. He's been a monster all season on defense -- not always for 48 minutes a night, of course, particularly when he sizes up an opponent as being beneath him as he did recently against the Hawks and Wizards. But he's there when it matters, and when he ratchets it up late in the game, the entire team seems to follow his lead; when he put his thumb down against the Hawks with his rim protection on Friday, the rest of the lineup started holding their position and forcing turnovers in kind. And Tyrese Maxey talked on his podcast recently about Embiid becoming a more vocal leader and really pushing the rest of the squad on and off the court; without Harden or another veteran presence as a co-anchor he seems to be embracing that those responsibilities fall to him first and foremost. His team is 14-4 when he plays, 0-3 when he doesn't. He's been dominant in ways we can't even properly appreciate at this point, because they've become so commonplace to us.
If it feels like no one's really talking about Embiid's greatness this season, though, there's certainly good reason for that. Part of it has been Embiid being overshadowed somewhat by Tyrese Maxey's much more dramatic ascendance, and by the drama around the James Harden trade, and even by more small-scale concerns about Nick Nurse's rotations and Tobias Harris' miserable play the past few weeks. But largely it's because this has been the October-to-early-May story with Joel for so long now -- his being awesome and still always getting a little moreso -- but the ending to that tale in late May and early June has also remained unchanging. Really, the most frustrating thing about the Sixers' postseason futility might be the contrast between Embiid's constantly crescendoing regular-season skills and his permanently plateaued postseason performance; it's an almost Wooderson-like disparity in trajectories.
This was true last season as well, but during that campaign, Embiid still had one important career goal left to unlock: the MVP, which he'd come so close to for two seasons already, and which neither he nor we would ever be satisfied with him not winning. But then he did win it, and still lost in the second round of the playoffs, somehow in the most dispiriting fashion yet. I don't think that takes away from the importance of him winning the MVP, but I think we're just kinda done with the MVP being a major consideration for Embiid.
Spike and Mike debated a few pods ago about whether they even want Joel to win MVP again -- Spike was more pro and Mike was more con -- and I'm somewhere in the middle. Part of me is rooting against it, because it just doesn't seem like it should be a priority for him anymore and I'd rather him just mentally check out of the race altogether, and part of me knows that if it comes down to the final weeks and it's close between him and Luka or Shai or (of course) Jokic, I'll get a weird amount of invested in it all over again (and probably so will he). But the larger point is that it doesn't really matter, it's off the checklist for Jo now, and both we and he know that all the MVPs in the world won't improve his legacy -- might hurt it, if anything -- if he keeps coming up short in the playoffs.
And as great as he's been so far this regular season, he did kinda fail the biggest test he's had so far: In Boston, with the Celtics down Kristaps Porzingis and Jaylen Brown, he had yet another frustrating game trying to get the better of old friend Al Horford, being held to a season-low 20 points and ending the game a stunning -25 for his 34 minutes on the court as the Sixers lost 117-107. Now, there's all kinds of "yeah, but" addendums to affix onto that: Embiid was on the second night of a back-to-back and had just played an exhausting home-and-home against Indiana, he ended with a not-totally-terrible 20-9-7 stat line and had the Sixers still in the game until the final minutes, we were down a couple guys too, he won the first matchup with Boston earlier in the season. But the fact that that game stands out in my memory as much as all his collective accomplishments and excellence so far this season shows how little the latter stuff matters for Jo grand-scheme until he actually gets past Boston in the playoffs -- or at the very least, waits till the conference finals to lose to them.
Is he any closer to that being a reality? Maybe, maybe not. I'm still holding firm on my promise to not actually believe anything we've seen so far in this part of the basketball calendar really matters for what happens in the next part, and that Boston loss was a good reminder of that to keep me solid in my commitment. And while these improvements in Joel's game are all necessary to keep the Sixers humming as a vital regular-season team and plausible postseason contender, they don't really address the two things we most need to see from Jo in the playoffs: good health and fully locked-in performance. And in truth, there's really no way to better gauge whether he'll be able to deliver that this postseason until he gets there and either does or doesn't. (They might matter in getting the Sixers a top-two seed in the East, thus potentially allowing him to avoid Boston until the third round, but I'm not super-pumped about playing the standings/bracket game this season -- particularly not after what happened in 2021.)
But while I promised to not get ahead of myself about the Sixers' playoff chances this season, I also promised to just enjoy the regular season in its own right. And of course, as great as Maxey has been, as much fun as we've had with Kelly Oubre, Nicolas Batum and Robert Covington (when he actually plays glare glare glare), and as much as Tobias Harris has... yeah.... the most gratifying part is still watching Embiid crotch-chopping the rest of the Association on a weekly basis. Perhaps the biggest compliment we can pay his performance so far this year is that last year's Boston series isn't top of mind anymore when we watch him putting up 50 on the Wizards or finishing off OKC at home or handing LeBron the worst loss of his career -- we don't see him through the lens of his playoff failures, because the haze of his regular-season supremacy is still so golden.
That may not last forever, and there'll certainly be a hole in our soul for as long as Embiid continues to falter in late May and June. But even with that hole, our spirits are fuller for having him in our regular-season lives than they pretty much ever were before him -- especially because every year, he pours it in a little more.