To say Joel Embiid has seen his share of ups and downs in a Sixers uniform is the understatement of the millennium.
From the fractured navicular bone that cost him his first two NBA seasons to the continual front office and roster turnover to his own issues with fitness and various injuries, Embiid is still standing. Not only has he won the hearts of Sixers fans, but he’s having a season that’s made him the odds-on favorite to win the MVP.
While his on-court progression has been stellar, it’s his growth as a leader that has shone through this season.
This past week can be fairly described as franchise-altering. Gone is Ben Simmons, the disgruntled three-time All-Star that was supposed to form a championship duo with Embiid. Here is James Harden, Daryl Morey’s white whale (twice over) that is supposed to give Embiid and the Sixers their best shot at a title since Allen Iverson was lacing up the Answer 4.
But there hasn’t been this much hope for a ring in this city since Bubba Chuck stepped over Tyron Lue. Now, Embiid could be the first Sixer to win MVP since Iverson during that magical 2001 season.
And he’s got a former MVP playing alongside him — and he sounds ready to welcome Harden with open arms.
“It was just a lot of excitement,” Embiid said of his first conversation with Harden after the trade. “Just excited. You talk about guys that I’ve played with, he’s probably going to be the best yet based on what he’s accomplished in his career so far. So it’s just about getting everybody on the same page and finding the right way to play. We already have a system in place and we’ve just got to try to bring him along, incorporate a bunch of new stuff that he’s good at, and put it all together.”
There are plenty of reasons to believe Embiid and Harden could be the most formidable duo in the NBA — the league’s most skilled and dominant post player and one of the greatest perimeter playmakers of all time.
But that’s not to say the transition will be smooth or easy. Both players are outstanding with the ball in their hands. Harden is a pick-and-roll magician and has preferred to play with rim-running lob threats. Clearly, that is not Embiid. Embiid has become so accustomed to double and triple teams that he’s learned how to pick apart defenses and has flourished playing with catch-and-shoot threats and cutters. Clearly, that is not Harden.
Both stars — and the players around them — will need to adjust. Embiid appears prepared to do so.
“We’ve all got to give up ourselves if we want to win,” Embiid said. “As you look at the teams that have won in the past — whether you look at the Golden State teams, or even the Lakers and Milwaukee last year — they just move the ball. They play with each other. As I’ve been watching, you put [Harden] in the pick-and-roll and he’s probably up there as far as the best playmakers out of that pick-and-roll. Obviously you’ve got to add that even more to our offense, because that’s what he’s good at.
“Like I said, we’ve all got to give up ourselves. I’ve got to become more of a pick-and-roll player or pick-and-pop, just to help my teammates and help him. ... He’s more of an off-the-dribble three-point shooter. I get doubled a lot, so to be able to go against those double teams, you’ve got to be able to fire up threes off the catch, which is something he’s going to have to do. But it’s a work in progress, even with my teammates. I always push them to just let it fly because I know if we take those and we make them, that’s going to make other teams stop doubling me and it just opens up everything.
“… It’s all about winning a championship. It doesn’t matter if I go out and score 40 and someone (else) scores 10, or someone scores 40 and I score 10, 20 points. It doesn’t matter as long as we get the win. But I think everybody understands that and that’s good. When you’ve got a team on the same page that’s driven by winning a championship, that can go a long way.”
We’ve seen Embiid playfully chide young teammates Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle for not “letting it fly” this season. Not sure that’s something he’d do with Harden, but that could make for a light postgame presser moment after a win.
Embiid will undoubtedly miss the shooting of Seth Curry, who developed an outstanding two-man game with the All-Star big. The team will also miss Andre Drummond, who Embiid even acknowledged as the best backup he’s had during his time here.
With Simmons, the Sixers missed his perimeter defense, rebounding and playmaking (especially in transition) all season long, but there’s definitely a feeling of closure. For eight grueling months, Sixers players were forced to answer question after question about Simmons while fans fired up their trade machine of choice trying find a deal with reported suitors.
Never in Sixers fans’ wildest dreams could they have imagined all those months ago that Harden would end up a Sixer now.
But as big of an addition as Harden will be on the court, ridding themselves of an off-the-court distraction will prove to be mighty useful as well.
“No. I honestly don’t care, honestly,” Embiid said when asked if he spoke to Simmons.
He elaborated further in a response that was equal parts complimentary and deprecatory of Simmons:
“Like I’ve always said, it’s unfortunate how everything happened. You look at the history, obviously we didn’t get it done as far as winning in the playoffs. But you look at the history of being on the court, what we did during the regular season, we were dominant. So it’s unfortunate that winning was not the biggest factor. It’s unfortunate that for him, having his own team and I guess being a star was more of his priorities. But I always thought that everything was great, the fit was great, but unfortunately Ben thought that it wasn’t. But we all move on.”
For all this maturation, you better believe that “Troel” is still alive and well. Take for instance the tweet Embiid sent out after the trade went down.
For the uninitiated, this is the original “RIPBOZO” meme. You can read more about the origin of the meme, but put it’s pretty clear the message Embiid was sending here.
“Honestly, I don’t even know what the tweet was about,” Embiid said sheepishly. “I just tweeted a random person. (Laughs) I just saw the picture on the Internet. I thought he was well dressed. He had a nice suit on it, good looking. He had some swag, so I just thought it was a good picture.”
Never change, Jo.
For Embiid, the trolling will likely be on hold and the focus on continuing his prolific season while adjusting to an all-time great offensive player for a run at a title.
“I’ve got to be myself; I’ve got to dominate,” Embiid said. “I’ve got to keep doing whatever I’ve been doing. But then again, part of me is also making my teammates better and giving up myself for the team, so doing whatever is necessary to accomplish that. When you win a championship, everybody wins. It’s exciting times. I can’t wait to get to work.”
Embiid’s leadership is approaching its apex, and not a moment too soon.