Ahead of tonight’s big showdown with Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets, Joel Embiid spoke at length in an interview with Shams Charania of The Athletic:, discussing the MVP award, the Sixers rounding into form, and postseason expectations. Check out the full interview, but here are a few of the highlights.
On a pursuit of the MVP award:
“The last two years I feel like I wasn’t chasing MVP … but my mind was only thinking about it. That’s why even at the beginning of this season, when JT was going off and Boston was on this run, I told JT: If I got any advice for you, don’t focus on MVP. Just focus on the right things, which is winning games and dominating. Whatever helps your team win, that’s what you should do, and then everything will take care of itself.”
We’ve been hearing all year from Embiid how MVP is no longer in his mind calculus and winning, and by extension, winning a title, is his clear focus. He strikes a common refrain in this interview.
On how he’s currently feeling, health-wise:
“You seem to be moving as good as I’ve seen you so late in a season — how are you feeling?I feel great. This is the best I’ve felt my whole career, especially this late into the season and going into the playoffs. That’s my focus. I’m ready for a big run. I think (we) got the right guys, so it’s all about us coming together and showing up and everybody doing their job.”
For someone purportedly dealing with foot, shoulder, and calf issues to some degree, this answer is incredibly encouraging to hear from Joel.
On managing his plantar fasciitis:
“It’s way better than it was starting the season. That’s kind of why I had a slow start those first few games dealing with it. It’s tough, but I think when it happened, the key was we got on top of it. We caught it at the beginning, so we did a bunch of stuff to make sure that we got on top of it, and by the time the season started, I was ramping up a little slower than usual. Just taking care of my body. I’ve come a long way when it comes to my body.”
Again, this is good to hear for Joel’s prospects of entering the postseason relatively healthy.
On whether his MVP campaign is happening more organically this season:
“It is coming naturally. Even against the Bulls (on March 22), I could have easily stat-padded if I wanted to, but I don’t care. I could have easily come back in and got a triple-double and make sure that I keep going after the scoring title. Or keep the 30-point streaks going or whatever. But I don’t care. I think mentally I’ve gotten to a different level where it’s all about winning. What matters — it’s just about winning, winning, winning. I’ve been focused on that. We’ve been doing that. Whatever happens, happens. If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.”
Is the stat-padding turn of phrase the first in a series of subtle jabs against Jokic? Stay tuned. Also, it seems like the calf was really fine if Joel is talking about how he easily he could have stayed in that Chicago game.
On whether he thinks MVP criteria changes:
“The criteria does change. If we want to talk about the last three years since I’ve been in the running for it, the first year it was that I didn’t play enough games. Last year, I came back, I played enough games, I led the league in scoring, and obviously, Nikola deserved it and he won it. But then again, he won as a sixth seed in the West. And then this year, I’m leading the league in scoring, I’m doing all of these things defensively … I should be making an All-Defensive team too. I don’t care, but every year it’s something. And when you add analytics into it, which don’t make sense. You can talk about analytics all you want. When you got some guys in the league, the eye test tells you that they’re not good defensively, but analytics tell you they’re the best defenders. That’s when analytics don’t make sense at all. I don’t make the rules, I don’t choose whatever criteria that they use, so it’s really about whatever people’s preferences are.”
While Embiid makes a point to mention Jokic deserved the award last year, bringing up defense and analytics right afterwards would seem to be another shot at the big man in Denver.
On developing chemistry with James Harden:
“I don’t think we’ve ever had to have a conversation. I think from the beginning, it was natural. I’d like to believe that I’m a f—ing monster. I got a high basketball IQ, and he does too. So when you have two guys that have high basketball IQs, it’s easier to figure things out. From the beginning when James came here, one thing about me is I’ve gone away from posting up a lot. I allow James to have the ball in his hands a lot because I believe he’s the best playmaker in the league, and he’s going to make my job easier. He’s going to make my teammates’ jobs easy. From the beginning, James has given up a lot. I’ve given up a lot. And it’s worked out great for both of us and the whole team too. We understood we have two guys where you take advantage of what they’re good at. When we put it together, we have a flow. Another thing about it is: When you have two guys that like to play with each other, it makes everything easy.”
It has been fun this season to see Joel toggle between different roles when playing with Harden or leading lineups when James is sitting or missing a particular game.
On whether he has a title-or-bust mentality:
“Not necessarily. I don’t care about the pressure that everybody puts on me. All I care about is the pressure that I put on myself to win. People have been talking about who has the most pressure to win. People want to mention me. I’m not at the top of that list. I’m not a two-time MVP, I’ve never made first team All-NBA, I’ve never won anything. So why is there pressure on me to do something when there are guys that have won two MVPs, a bunch of MVPs and haven’t done anything either?
The line about guys that have won two MVPs reads to me as yet another small shot fired at Jokic. While Embiid certainly makes efforts to be diplomatic throughout the interview, you can kind of see where his true thoughts on the matter break through for some mildly spicy content. Luckily, we get to see things play out on the court, rather than the page, tonight in Denver.