The dysfunction Joel Embiid has dealt with as a Sixer is almost at a comical level. It’s to a point where you probably can’t even call it dysfunction. It’s pretty much the norm.
So, the reigning MVP barely bats an eye when he’s asked about James Harden’s trade demand. That’s likely because it’s been just two years since he was hit with a barrage of questions about Ben Simmons’ trade demand.
Different, but eerily similar.
The big difference might’ve been the way Embiid handled it during media day Monday at the Sixers practice facility in Camden, New Jersey. There were no viral quotes. No “Tr-oel” moments. Embiid calmly talked about how he feels about Harden holding out and what he’ll do from here.
“I think it’s unfortunate, what’s been going on,” Embiid said, “but the goal is to be together and to try to win a championship. As far as myself, that’s all I’m focused on. I just want to win, whatever it takes and whatever puts us in that position as an organization. Myself, that’s all I care about.”
The idea of “controlling what you can control” had seemingly eluded Embiid in the past. When it came to the Simmons holdout, Embiid did make it clear that he would’ve liked to have the enigmatic point guard back ... but he also said some things.
That’s not to hold it against Embiid, either. There were ugly attacks through various leaks to reporters about Simmons’ unhappiness and how Embiid was at the root of some of those. The guy is only human, so it was hard to hold the “I don’t care about that man” comment against him.
But this year felt different. Sure, it helps that Embiid and Harden still have a close relationship — Harden’s issue seems to solely be with Daryl Morey — but Embiid came across calm, cool and confident. He sounded like a player that had been here before (because he kind of has). He sounded like a leader, ready to do whatever he can to help his team while blocking out any outside noise.
“I think it’s a little different,” Embiid said. “I think the last time this happened, there was a lot of stuff in the media, whether it was blaming me or others on the team. So I think at that time, I was a little defensive. But this time around, it just seems like maybe it was a misunderstanding between both sides.
“I can only control what I can control, and that’s to go out there and try to play with what we have. Try to be a leader and bring these guys along, and compete every night and try to win.”
Embiid did a pretty damn good job of doing just that during Simmons’ absence and before Harden arrived.
The Sixers went 35-23 before Harden’s debut during the 2021-22 season. That’s a winning percentage over .600. There’s a solid argument to be made that the Sixers and Embiid are in a better position now than they were at that point. This team is deeper and more experienced than that team. You’re getting way better versions of Tyrese Maxey and Paul Reed. You also have an upgrade at head coach with the arrival of Nick Nurse.
Make no mistake: the Sixers would be in a much better position with an engaged Harden (which they apparently got Wednesday) or an adequate replacement. Still, Embiid took exception to the idea that teams like the Bucks and Celtics had “surpassed” the Sixers with their blockbuster moves.
“Who said they surpassed us?” Embiid shot back. “We’ve still got to go out there and compete. You can do whatever you want off the court, but you’ve still got to go out there and put the ball in the hoop. I believe that any team that I’m on, we’re always going to have a chance. ...
“I think for us to win, that’s what it’s going to take — me to be dominant and be myself, and everybody just following along.”
Not a viral quote, but a strong one nonetheless.
Embiid’s legacy in Philadelphia should be unquestioned. This season he’s likely to crack the Sixers’ top 10 in win shares, right behind Wilt Chamberlain and Allen Iverson. His No. 21 will one day be in the rafters. He’s easily on a Hall of Fame track.
Still, he’s had a complicated relationship with the fans. A suggestion that’s been passed around: pandering a la Bryce Harper (who showed up for Game 1 of the Wild Card round in an Iverson shirt).
Perhaps Embiid is heeding that advice. He donned a “Red October” beanie throughout media day. He could also be seen rocking a powder blue Phillies jersey as the team was boarding its plane to Colorado for camp.
Embiid is not blameless for the craziness that’s consumed the Sixers. He would likely tell you that himself. But he’ll turn 30 in March. He’s coming off an MVP. He’s becoming more mature and more comfortable in a leadership role.
At some point, it falls on the Sixers to move past the craziness and provide him the stability and consistency he craves.
“We’ve never had consistency,” Embiid said. “Every summer, there’s been changes here and there. So I feel like at some point, if you want to win, you need to have that consistency. I think that’s the next step for us. You see all the other teams … Denver just won a championship and they’ve been together for so many years. Golden State, they’ve been doing it for a long time. You need to be consistent. To me, that’s the only thing that I’m focused on.”