Can the Philadelphia 76ers really make the playoffs behind Joel Embiid?
In the moments following a 105-95 win on Sunday over the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center, hundreds, if not thousands, of Philadelphia 76ers fans lingered to chant “Trust the process” and “MVP” to rookie wunderkind center Joel Embiid, a 22-year-old who’s helping this franchise finally turn the corner in its long-term rebuild.
It was Philadelphia’s third win in its last four games, matching the team’s 10-win total from all of last season. After exiting the court and heading inside the visitors’ locker room, Embiid was serious about a potential postseason berth for these Sixers.
“We’re only seven or eight games out of the playoffs,” Embiid said multiple times to reporters after the game, highlighting not just his unique personality but his intense desire to win. “So we have a chance.”
It appears that Philadelphia’s downward spiral and its era of stagnation has finally come to an end. The Sixers have won three of its last four games and when Embiid scores at least 20 points in a game, they’re a very respectable 7-7.
“He’s a program builder,” Sixers point guard T.J. McConnell told The Comeback. “When you have a player like him, you try to build everything around him. That’s how good of a player he is. Last year it wasn’t tanking, but with him this year, it gives us something to build off of.”
Despite being on a minutes restriction as he slowly comes back from a foot injury that cost him his first two professional seasons, Embiid has scored 20 or more points in six straight games while logging under 30 minutes in each of those games, the first time that’s happened since at least the 1951-1952 season, per Elias.
“Even though he’s on a minute restriction, when he’s out there he’s as effective as any big in the NBA,” Sixers shooting guard Nik Stauskas told The Comeback. “So we’re privileged to have him on our team, and the scary thing is that he’s only going to keep getting better.”
The Philadelphia offense, like last year, is dead last in points per 100 possession, but its defensive efficiency is up to 16th in the league. And after all they’ve been through the last few years, the Sixers will sure as hell take average on that end.
— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) January 7, 2017
“There’s growing pains, but we’re learning and we’re getting better,” Embiid said.
Embiid has a lot to do with the team’s slow improvement both on and off the court. Sixers players say they’re pretty close on the team — in part a byproduct of having nine of the 15 guys on the team’s roster being under the age of 25— and Embiid is a big part of that.
“He’s just fun to be around,” Stauskas said. “He always has a smile on his face, always kind of has a way to make people feel good about themselves and laugh. I think with any team, you need those guys around to just make the mood lighter sometimes, especially if you’re not winning games.”
Stauskas, like the rest of America, said he’s pretty obsessed with Embiid’s antics on social media. From voting for himself for this year’s All-Star Game — he was fourth among Eastern Conference frontcourt players as of last Thursday’s initial returns — to formulating a manual re-tweet to make it appear like Donald Trump was giving Embiid his #NBAVote, the Kansas University product has gained a huge following on both Twitter and Instagram.
— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) January 5, 2017
— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) January 9, 2017
“I think he’s a social media genius,” Stauskas said.
Embiid has obviously displayed a great deal of genius on the court this year, but he still has a lot to learn offensively, like being a better and more willing passer, especially in the fourth quarter.
“There’s people coming at him all the time. He needs to respond in those situations at times better than we all have,” said Sixers head coach Brett Brown. “It’s no mystery that they’re coming to double team you.”
Asked to respond to what Brown said, Embiid acknowledged that double teams tend to find him in the fourth quarter, so he needs to be more of a passer and playmaker. And those double teams have found him because opposing players and coaches are noticing the kind of devastating force Embiid already is offensively.
“He’s so versatile,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson told The Comeback. “He’s unique because he’s obviously a big guy, but he’s really fast and really agile, so he’s almost like a perimeter player who’s a five man. So it poses challenges from that respect. I think that’s where the league’s trending a little.”
Just 25 games into his NBA career, Embiid has a 23.3 Player Efficiency Rating, which would rank 20th in the league if he played in enough possessions to be eligible among the league leaders, per Basketball-Reference.
“He’s going to be one of the great big guys in the league,” veteran Sixers forward Ersan Ilyasova told The Comeback. “Obviously, the challenge is going to be staying healthy.”
If Embiid can stay healthy, and that’s far from a guarantee, Philadelphia will continue to finally trend upward in the league.
“We are winning basketball games more frequently than we have been,” Brown said. “But for us, it’s still like how are we doing what we do? Are we doing our job? Are we not skipping steps? Are we putting in good days? And we believe as simple as that might sound, that they will add up. That they do count for something.”
What Brown just described is what we all know as the process, not to be confused with Embiid, who’s The Process, in capital letters. With Embiid leading the way, and with 2016 first overall pick Ben Simmons slowly rehabbing his ankle and foot injuries, the Sixers have hope for the first time in at least half a decade.
“At some point we will turn that corner,” McConnell said. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”