It’s difficult not to think back to the years of The Process when discussing Joel Embiid’s ascension into a perennial MVP candidate.
The goal for Sam Hinkie was to get out of NBA mediocrity by acquiring star talent. When it came to drafting a big man out of Kansas third overall in 2014, mission accomplished. Embiid has rewarded the Sixers’ faith in him by making it to six All-Star games, winning two scoring titles and ushering in the best era of Sixers basketball since the early years of Allen Iverson.
Now, he’s the MVP of the NBA.
And much like Iverson, Julius Erving and Wilt Chamberlain before him, the latest Sixers franchise icon is doing it his way.
There was this weird notion surrounding Embiid when it came to the MVP award. Many held it against the Cameroonian big man for wanting to win it and stating that desire. How weird — a person wanting to achieve the highest possible individual honor one can achieve in their field. Who would be interested in something like that?
But Chamberlain dealt with a similar issue. Wilt was plenty brash. We’re talking about a guy that once said, “Nobody roots for Goliath.” There were those that viewed Chamberlain as a villain (mostly Celtics fans, probably), much like Embiid.
The Big Dipper won three of his four MVP awards before he finally won his first championship. He accomplished the feat after coming over from the San Francisco Warriors in a trade. Fitting that Chamberlain overcame his rival Bill Russell and the Celtics and then his former squad to achieve the goal.
Erving never fell into the villain category for most folks. Dr. J was truly the first above-the-rim player, initially producing electrifying moments in the ABA before joining the Sixers. Erving enjoyed great success with the Virginia Squires and New York Nets, earning two MVP awards and two championships.
But despite plenty of individual success upon his arrival to the NBA — including an MVP in 1980-81 — earning a ring proved to be difficult. The Sixers had their opportunities. In his first season in 1976-77 the team went to the Finals and had a 2-0 lead on Trail Blazers. After a nasty brawl between the teams, Portland was emboldened and took the next four games. Then Erving ran into two legendary hurdles: the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers.
It took another MVP in Moses Malone to help Erving get to the mountaintop. The Sixers lost one playoff game in 1983 and wound up sweeping the Lakers. There was much ink spilled on Erving and the Sixers’ inability to win a title. In the end, Erving cemented his legacy.
As for Iverson ... let’s just say nobody embodies doing things your own way better than The Answer. The “hate” Embiid receives on NBA Twitter is nothing compared to what Iverson once faced. The tattoos. The baggy clothes. The chains. The attitude. The high-volume shooting. Iverson’s career was almost like that scene where Marty McFly plays Johnny B. Goode in Back to the Future: “... but your kids are gonna love it.”
And we did. Iverson became a cultural icon and one of the most beloved athletes in Philadelphia sports history — and that’s saying a whole hell of a lot in a place like Philly. Unlike Chamberlain and Erving, Iverson didn’t capture a title, but he did capture the hearts of an entire city thanks to a run to the Finals in 2001. The Step-Over was an iconic moment, despite the Sixers eventually falling to the juggernaut Lakers.
And now Embiid is leaving his mark with a historic franchise.
Not long after being drafted by the Sixers in 2014, Embiid tragically lost his 13-year-old brother Arthur. Joel’s son is named after the younger brother he lost. People doubted whether Embiid would ever play a game while enduring a navicular bone fracture in his foot that caused him to miss his first two NBA seasons. Jokes were made about Embiid having more tweets than games played.
Then, he played. There weren’t as many jokes.
Despite success as a rookie, Embiid was limited to just 31 games after suffering a torn meniscus. The injuries became an unfortunate part of Embiid’s legacy. It even influenced him recently missing out on an MVP award.
Embiid was stellar during the 2020-21 season, setting a career high in points per game while also being his most efficient. He led the Sixers to the East’s top seed, just a season after the failed Al Horford experiment.
But Embiid played only 51 games in a COVID-shortened season. MVP voters gave Nikola Jokic the nod, with many citing Embiid’s games played being the separator. The following season, despite the games played being negligible, Jokic won again — even though his team finished just sixth in the West. There’s no need to rehash some goalpost moving here though.
Embiid has done it. He has fulfilled the prophecy of Sam Hinkie. He’s made The Process, Burnergate, thoracic outlet syndrome, the collaborative front office, the aforementioned Horford debacle, Ben Simmons [insert issue] and all of the playoff heartache worthwhile.
And he did it his own way. He talked a little trash. He was load managed (often to his chagrin). He made plenty of mistakes.
But no player could’ve worn “The Process” nickname better and he put in the work to ascend into a perennial MVP candidate.
And as has been the case in the past, don’t we just love when our athletes rub every other fan base the wrong way?
Now, give him his damn trophy.