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A candid Joel Embiid on his struggles with the new team, maturity, and having fun

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Denver Nuggets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

After a big win against the Denver Nuggets last night, Joel Embiid addressed the media and had more to share than he normally does. Derek Bodner, Senior Writer at The Athletic, provided the transcript after Embiid, post-game, described some of his challenges this season. I’m going to attempt to interpret some of the stream of consciousness we were privy to last night, but my guesses are as good as yours so please share thoughts in the replies or on twitter.

On playing to the crowd and having less fun this year

You can read above what Joel had to say about working to reduce the type of “fun” stuff from his game. Last night the moment referenced came following a no-look continuation he nailed, before beckoning the crowd to cheer and delivering a signature shimmy. Embiid talks about how he “has not been having fun like usually.” He’s tried to do less of this stuff and less trash talk in order to be more mature. He goes on to discuss how people have asked him to do less of that stuff and so he’s tried but it hasn’t felt totally comfortable. He claims he plays better when he does more of this stuff and is more himself, and it helps him dominate.

In my opinion, Joel is mistaking correlation for causation a little bit. When Joel is playing his best, his team likely has a lead, the crowd is roaring, and mixing in some flair, some trash talk, and some showmanship comes naturally to him. It’s extra fun. His airplane run following the windmill dunk in game three vs. Toronto. His euro-step shuffle after he put the freak on Nikola Vucevic. But you can’t really do the theatrical stuff first to trigger better performances. That would be forcing it. Maybe he’d argue he’s holding himself back a little and that impacts his play. That’s fair. Who knows? But these expressions of joy and triumph come more naturally when you’re playing well and winning.

I don’t believe he is playing up to his own standards or the team expectations coming into the year. I think he misses some former teammates (more on that later). I think this stuff has much more to do with how much fun he’s having than the interplay between him and opponents or himself and the crowd.

It reminds me of the announcers who always talk about a player smiling less, or not appearing to have fun, and how when he or she does, the athlete plays their best. More than not, those expressions are reactions to playing well and winning. Not things that cause someone to play well. What loser goes around with a huge smile during blowouts?

Which takes us to the deeper issue alluded to by Embiid when pressed for further questions.

Bodner includes a follow up statement:

On adaptation to a new system

I think the real issue Embiid is dealing with is the difficulty he’s had adjusting to this team’s new-look offense. Expectations for this team were through the roof coming in. And being the first or second best team in the conference was an “at-worst” scenario in the minds of most fans. Many of those same fans and perhaps some members of the team likely did not anticipate the team struggling as much offensively as they have. There have been lots of turnovers, and lots of cold-spells throughout the season, especially in road games.

Embiid is scoring 5.5 less points per game this season than last. His field goal percentage is down. His free throw attempts are down. He’s getting less rebounds and less assists. Most of this is likely because the team is acclimating to new personnel and perhaps some inherent awkwardness within their ultra-jumbo lineups. Embiid is often tasked with attacking defenses that pack in the paint and double team him more than they could last season. Many times he posts up, another teammate or two cut into the paint or post up simultaneously. He’s being offered more of a “closer” role than in the past (when the team had Jimmy Butler to take some of the pressure off of him). But the spacing Embiid has around him when he tries to step into that closing role isn’t as good as it was last year. The loss of JJ Redick may have increased this effect as well; it’s no secret how strong the on- court chemistry between Embiid and Redick was.

Back in June, when the team decided to move on from Butler and Redick, some fans interpreted this tweet by Embiid as frustration:

It was no secret that Butler and Redick appeared to be Embiid’s favorite teammates. Embiid has brought up Butler on his own following multiple games this season. They remain close. He once referred to Redick as the best player he’s ever played with... and that statement came after Ben Simmons won Rookie of the Year and Robert Covington made the NBA All Defensive First Team. They were his guys and they both made life easier on him during games.

If I were trying to read the big fella’s mind, (and I am because I was asked to by my editor) I’d guess that he was disappointed and frustrated the team elected not to “run it back.” I think he misses his former teammates and I think he misses his friends. I think that has caused him to have a lot less fun so far this year. And I think his own slight dip in efficiency has frustrated him further. I think he (fairly) attributes his dip to the new pieces. New pieces that have not (to date) complimented him as well as last year’s playoff team did, at least offensively. Maybe he feels as if the team said to him “you’re our lead soldier now, go lead us into battle, but you’re going to have to do it without your trusty sword or horse, here are some new weapons to master.”

But Joel has matured over his career. He isn’t saying everything he thinks. He has simply given us a number of clues. Hopefully the new-look Sixers can get more games under their belt when they’re all healthy and build up more offensive chemistry. If they continue to improve there is certainly a chance the team can be better than last year’s model. They don’t need 30 points per game from Joel anymore. But they do need him to anchor the defense, generate tons of fouls, attack the hoop, set up teammates, and make good decisions. There are synergies here at play. It’s going to take some improved coaching and some improved shooting and improved health to get Joel the space he needs to operate and buy him more time to read defenses.

Then it’s going to be on Joel to decide how much he trusts his new teammates and how much of his inner-spirit to show us all during games.