There is an unmistakably different vibe to Joel Embiid this year.
Sure, there was one last season when he finished second in MVP voting and led the Sixers to the East’s top seed.
But going into this season, it’s different.
Between injuries, front office upheaval, a revolving roster and at times Embiid’s own maturity, it took him a little while to get to this point, but here we are. Not only is Embiid cementing his legacy as one of the greatest Sixers in the franchise’s storied history, but he’s also emerging as a leader.
While the Ben Simmons drama continues, it appears the Sixers won’t give in to the three-time All-Star’s trade demands. If the Sixers are successful while the Simmons situation lingers, Embiid’s leadership will be a big reason why.
The quotes from Embiid Tuesday were certainly the most damning and direct. It makes sense considering they came moments after Simmons was thrown out of practice and subsequently suspended for the season opener Wednesday night in New Orleans.
“I’m trying to win. And to win you got to have that relationship with all my teammates,” Embiid said Tuesday. “But at the end of the day our job is not to babysit somebody. We’re here, we get paid to focus on the court, go out, play hard, win some games — that’s what we get paid for. We don’t get paid to come out here and try and babysit somebody.”
While the bluntness of that quote and the frequent use of the word “babysit” stood out, this has mostly been the message the Sixers have conveyed all along. Embiid has been at the forefront of the cliched lines — We’re focused on the guys that are here. … We’ll welcome Ben back if he wants to be here.
But when you hear players like Embiid, Tobias Harris and Danny Green recite those familiar phrases — and hear the young guys repeat them — it seems genuine. You get the sense that the attitude of the team is that if Simmons decides to be a part of it, great. If he doesn’t, they’ll figure it out.
People have likened Simmons’ behavior Tuesday to what James Harden and Jimmy Butler did in trying to force trades. For a multitude of reasons it’s not the same, but one of the biggest reasons is that Harden and Butler’s former teams didn’t have Embiid — and if they did, they likely wouldn’t have been trying to force a trade away from one of the best players in the league.
From a talent standpoint, the Sixers will feel the sting of not having Simmons, especially defensively. Still, the Sixers have Embiid. A healthy Embiid gives the Sixers a chance to beat anybody on any given night.
It feels like his leadership could have just as big of an impact this season. It was clear from the jump last season that Embiid was different. The birth of his son Arthur changed him. He matured and did everything within his power to stay healthy. He also became one of the most lethal midrange players in the game, regardless of position.
The sense of urgency Embiid has spoken with since media day this year has been apparent. He looks as lean as he’s been since he first got drafted. He’s persistently worked on navigating constant double teams, something you could see in his brief preseason appearances. He’s talked about wanting to be more of a playmaker for his teammates.
Embiid is at a stage of his career where he is supremely talking the talk and walking the walk.
“He’s been great,” Doc Rivers said early in training camp. “Everything — what he’s saying, what he’s doing. What we talked about this summer is you’ve got to do them both. You can’t do one and not the other. And he’s done everything. He’s missed very few reps in practice, if any. ... That’s leadership. So he’s really doing a lot of things that we need him to do.”
That growth has been obvious to Harris, who has been Embiid’s teammate since February of 2019. Harris has taken on a leadership role of his own, especially in the guidance he’s provided the team’s younger players.
While Embiid has always called himself a leader of this team, the vibe is different this year.
“Just a guy that wants to win. That’s always been what he’s about,” Harris said of Embiid. “But he wants to win, he wants our team to win, he wants to put us in the right position for all of us to be successful on the floor. We’ve had numerous conversations about our focus this year and where we want to go. For him, he’s talking a lot more to different guys — pulling guys to the side — so you’re just seeing him evolve as a player, not only on the court but off the court communication-wise. I think that’s a big key for his growth and our team growth, as well.”
This is unquestionably Joel Embiid’s team, even though he’s humbly suggested that doesn’t matter to him.
Which is exactly what you’d expect a leader to say.
“I don’t see it as ‘This is my team.’ I don’t care. I don’t care about any of that,” Embiid said back on media day. “That has nothing to do with me. I’m not trying to live in the spotlight.”
On that day back in late September, Embiid talked a lot about “self-awareness.” The comments weren’t necessarily pointed at Simmons. Embiid mentioned that everyone, himself included, needed to look in the mirror and find ways to get the team to the next level.
Now that opening night is here, it seems to be either get on board and try to help the team win or get the hell out of the way.
Embiid is different, and the Sixers have a chance to block out the noise and win games as long as he’s playing.