PHILADELPHIA – Joel Embiid is 28 years old and is about to be a ninth-year pro with unreliable knees, a couple of compromised orbital bones, a back that has bothered him since college and plenty to say.
He was the center who embraced the sales pitch that he was about to be the next Hakeem Olajuwon when he was just 20 years old.
He was the early-career bully who enjoyed tormenting opposing centers, and in particular Andre Drummond, saying he owns substantial real estate in his head.
He is the player who cannot bring his team out of the second round of the playoffs, yet who casually and confidently makes public plans to dominate – his word – pro basketball.
He has never been elected as the best player in the NBA, yet has an obnoxious, unprofessional game-day staff encouraging MVP chants.
When he has been healthy, he has been the most talented player, skill for skill, ever to earn money from the Sixers. He should have been the MVP this season, but lost to Nikola Jokic in a race too close to declare crooked.
But he is rarely healthy when it matters, often sags in the postseason and is closer to being caught from behind by younger centers than he is of overtaking some older players on the list of the NBA’s best. The Sixers just lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Miami Heat, failing to reach their first conference final since 2001. Embiid was of some help, but not enough. With that, the hired screamers had two choices. They could acknowledge that. Or they could crinkle a yellowed script and recite the lines.
Doc Rivers, if you please…
“I love coaching him,” the Sixers ’coach said. “I love what he’s about. I love watching him grow up. He’s still young and I don’t think we understand how young Joel is. We focus on how good he is and we forget about his age. ”
Young? Miami’s Bam Adebayo, 24 and in his fifth NBA season, is young. And through the series, he outplayed Embiid, sending the message that by this time next year he will be the best center in the East.
If Embiid has a 16-year career – and try to find the odds on that longshot stab – his NBA days are already half over. This is his time to be great. Didn’t the Sixers just spend years defining when a player was supposed to peak? Didn’t they keep apologizing for the unprofessional play and behavior of Ben Simmons, begging critics to judge him when he was 26? Isn’t that age Brett Brown used for that tired exercise?
The operation can holler that the only reason Embiid was outperformed by Adebayo is because of a broken orbital bone and a dangling, damaged thumb. In a vacuum, that’s reasonable. But once the Sixers drafted Embiid out of Kansas, where he was too sore to play in the NCAA Tournament, they had sacrificed that injury card. Not only did they know he was a physical risk, but they allowed Embiid to redshirt for two years, the promise being that they had all the answers to eventually keep him in premium condition.
By Game 6 of the Miami series, Embiid was gassed, unable to sprint baseline to baseline. And it shouldn’t take a master’s in kinesiology to understand that a fractured eye thumb and a shredded thumb ligament should have nothing to do with an ability to run 94 feet.
“I mean, I was tired to be on the floor, really, the whole game,” Embiid said. “And I didn’t want to take any breaks. The season was on the line, so I just wanted to do whatever I could and not regret anything. ”
He’s a great player, that Embiid, perhaps another five special years and one championship away from Josh Harris springing for a statue, like one of the Rockets commissioned for Olajuwon in Houston.
The Sixers would not have been in the Eastern Conference semifinals without Embiid and his lead-leading 30.6 scoring average. And maybe they could have been in the third round had he not missed the first two games of the second. But the sample space is wide enough to recognize that he is brittle, flawed and not always at his best late in a game or a playoff series, and that he is not likely to carry a team to a championship without a deeper support group than the Sixers are likely to build.
Embiid will be 29 next season, and his play to this point has said plenty. But it’s time to stop with the fib that he is young, the MVP scoreboard prompts or the goofy screams into the scorer’s-table microphone that he is the personification of The Process.
After eight years, anything more said about him at this point is just added noise.
Contact Jack McCaffery at [email protected]