Since March, Joel Embiid has played a little under 27 minutes of competitive basketball.
He was impressive in that time on the floor, recording 30 points and 11 rebounds vs. the Pistons on March 11 after a five-game absence with a left shoulder sprain.
However, the most notable part of Embiid’s conversation with reporters Tuesday did not have to do with on-court matters. He said that he “hated” the NBA’s plan to resume the season in Orlando and does not believe it is safe enough. As Embiid said, he is more than just a basketball player. It is certainly valid to be critical of the idea of playing in Orange County, where ICU beds are at full capacity in several hospitals because of a spike in coronavirus cases.
Still, we’re obligated to discuss Embiid the player, a three-time All-Star starter.
Embiid didn’t volunteer many specifics about his fitness but said on multiple occasions he “feels good.” Over the last week, Brett Brown and Josh Richardson have praised his conditioning.
“I don’t think my weight is an issue,” he said. “The only thing to always watch is my body fat, and I feel good. Like I said, I’ve been chilling. Just doing what I have to do.”
He acknowledged Tuesday he did not always play at full intensity this season.
“During this year, there were a lot of times when I was not into the offense and I was just basically going through the same motions and all that,” he said. “But with the playoffs coming, I’ve just gotta be more assertive and just be that guy — just demand the ball and do what I do.”
Though no major statistic that might signify aggression — usage rate, free throw rate, post-ups, three-point attempts per 36 minutes — dropped significantly this year for Embiid, he feels he’s capable of more. In 44 games, he’s averaged 23.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists, playing 30.2 minutes per game. Brown said last Wednesday he’d ideally like to have Embiid play 38 minutes a game in the postseason.
I know what I’m capable of, and I know what my teammates think of me. I know I’m capable of carrying the team,” Embiid said. “It’s all about me being assertive. If I feel like I'm not getting the ball, I've just got to talk to them and do what I have to do, but at the end of the day, I should never be in a position to complain about not getting the ball, just because of who I am.
“I believe I can carry the team. I believe that by being able to do that, I’ve just got to take matters into my own hands. … Obviously I need to be in positions where I feel comfortable, and I'm sure my teammates are going to help me.
Embiid’s partnership with Al Horford was a prominent storyline for the Sixers before the hiatus, mostly because it hasn’t worked as the Sixers hoped offensively. Among regular Sixers duos, the team has the worst offensive rating when that pair is on the floor together, and by a three-point margin.
In Embiid’s mind, the pairing isn’t doomed to fail, though he thinks the players surrounding himself and Horford are an important factor.
I don’t believe there is a problem,” he said. “It’s just a matter of everybody buying in and being able to play their role. The pairing with Al, I feel like it has been fine. At times it could be better but then again, everyone on the court has a job and with that type of pairing you need to have shooters around or you need to have people or guys ... wanting to take that shot, especially, when you’ve got two inside presences like me and Al.
“He can post up, I can post up and then around, you’ve got to be able to have guys that are willing to shoot and that are going to shoot the ball. I think that's what needs to happen, but I don’t think there’s a problem. I think we're fine. I like him, great guy. We've got to keep on working together. … We are better suited for the playoffs. We’ve got about eight games to get back into it ... so I’m excited.
Horford and Embiid have not played together with a cast of willing and able shooters very often this season. The Sixers as a team are 22nd in three-pointers attempted (31.6) and 14th in three-point percentage (36.2 percent). The duo has shared the floor most often with Tobias Harris, who’s taken the most threes on the team, but the Sixers only have a 101.0 offensive rating when those three play together.
Embiid seems to think an intuitive understanding of how to play the game — when to take open shots, how to accommodate each other, when to feed the dominant big man in the post — can override what we saw in the first 65 games.
More than anything, he trusts his own abilities when he’s determined to attack.
“We didn’t get the chance to see it as much this year,” he said, “but you can go back and look at last year’s regular season and what I did, and that’s the mindset I need to have — and even better — if I really want to achieve that goal, which is to win the championship.”
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