The Philadelphia Eagles recently gave franchise quarterback Jalen Hurts a five-year, $255 million contract, making him the highest-paid player in NFL history.
The entire sports world took notice, including Sixers head coach Doc Rivers, who talked about the 24-year-old star being the Eagles’ “CEO” ahead of Game 2. Rivers lauded the way Hurts carries himself on and off the field and his ability to deal with adversity.
Throughout his time with the Sixers, Joel Embiid has often referred to himself as the team’s leader, but you never got the sense he was super comfortable with that title. Embiid was more the lead-by-example type. Being a vocal leader wasn’t natural.
Now, at age 29 and in his seventh (and likely MVP-winning) season, those around the team have noticed a different side of Embiid.
“I’ve been saying it all year,” Tyrese Maxey said after practice Wednesday, “I feel like the leadership coming from Joel has been on another level this year — his talk and the way he’s been able to push us as a team. He’s raised his level of play, so we have to raise ours, because that’s our best player. But the way he’s been vocal about it, telling guys that he needs them to step up.”
While the parallels aren’t perfect — and while he’s maybe not been as eager to step into the role — Joel Embiid has become the Sixers’ CEO.
Embiid has been the Sixers’ best player basically since the first time he stepped on the floor in 2016. That’s a lot of weight for a 22-year-old that had missed two full seasons because of injury and had also gone through personal tragedy. Sure, the Sixers sprinkled in a veteran here and there, but there was no clear leader to take up that mantle during most of Embiid’s tenure.
You saw the leadership growth begin with Embiid during the Ben Simmons saga. Perhaps Embiid could’ve been a bit more diplomatic with the media regarding Simmons’ trade demand, but it’s clear the situation galvanized the team with their star center leading the charge.
Doc Rivers said he’d been pushing for Embiid to become more of a vocal leader, but the six-time All-Star needed time to grow into the role.
“That happened (organically and because we pushed him),” Rivers said. “It’s all around. It’s something I’ve pushed since I’ve been here because the more the best player becomes that, the better the team becomes.”
It doesn’t feel like a coincidence Embiid has reached this level of leadership in a season where he is the favorite to win his first MVP award.
He’s had a dominant individual season. From December on, the Sixers had the best record in the NBA — despite having the toughest schedule in the league coming out of the All-Star break. The MVP case is an easy one to make.
But as we all know, Embiid will be judged on how far he’s able to take the 2022-23 Sixers. After two games in which the Brooklyn Nets have brazenly double teamed him on every touch, the growth on the floor has been obvious. His teammates always trust their star to deliver.
Now, it’s Embiid who’s trusting his teammates to produce and make the Nets pay.
“And because he’s trusting us as far as when he gets doubled and tripled, he’s passing out of doubles quick, he’s getting us open shots,” Maxey said. “He wants us to be successful and he continues to do it even when we’re missing shots. So I think that’s just showing his leadership and his growth as a player. ... So we’ve all just kind of rallied behind him.”
As Rivers alluded to after Game 2, having better teammates helps.
Embiid has Maxey, who might be his favorite teammate since Jimmy Butler. There’s a clear trust and bond between Embiid and James Harden, who he frequently calls “the best playmaker in the league.” He essentially publicly begged for Daryl Morey to sign P.J. Tucker. Outside of Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton, Tobias Harris has been his teammate the longest. He also appears to have his most trustworthy bench and backup center.
The balance of knowing when he has to take over and when he has to rely on his teammates is something he’s mastering right now.
“Sometimes, when Joel’s more demanding, I think it’s a good thing,” Rivers said. “Sometimes even that, if it doesn’t work, he has to handle that well, too. And I think that’s where he’s gotten so much better. He doesn’t get frustrated. He doesn’t get frustrated at his teammates.
“Even at halftime, when I was talking about what we had to do … he kept (motioning) during the talk, like, ‘I’ve got to do that. I’ve got to do that.’ So listen, the best part of being a leader — or a coach at times … is listening, too. I think it all comes into play. It’s all good for your team.”
When Hurts was drafted, many wondered if he’d ever play a down here (boy, does that sound familiar). Hurts missed out on winning an MVP mostly because he missed time with an injury (where have we heard that before?). Despite playing a masterful game in Super Bowl LVII, the Eagles still lost to the Chiefs (yeah, also pretty familiar).
Maybe the parallels are there.
“I used it the other day with Jalen Hurts being the CEO of his team, and that’s what Joel has to be at times,” Rivers said. “That was actually said in one of my timeouts the other night: ‘You have to say it. You have to do it.’ And he’s urged to do it. It’s not a natural thing, but he’s doing it and it’s been great for us.”
The city of Philadelphia has felt plenty of joy and agony with the Eagles and Phillies both making their respective championships but coming up short.
Can Embiid do what Hurts and Bryce Harper did and carry his team to a chance at a title?
Can Embiid do what Hurts and Harper were unable to do?
We’re about to find out.