Karthik’s Take: The NBA has a Joel Embiid problem

Sacramento Kings center Hassan Whiteside, left, tries to block the shot of Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, right, during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo.

Earlier this week, one of my Daily Campus colleagues published an article with the subheading “The Celtics have a Joel Embiid problem.” I am here to tell you they are right — but didn’t go far enough. The NBA, at large, has a Joel Embiid problem. 

After years of people clowning the Philadelphia 76ers about the flaws in their rebuilding process — which involved tanking for three putrid seasons — it seems like the end goal of a championship seems legitimately plausible this year. Injuries and a lack of team chemistry have been the Achilles’ heel of the franchise since Embiid and Simmons took over the reins as the city’s two stars. However, this year, 76ers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey seems to have put together a roster capable of making the franchise’s first finals appearance since 2001. The 76ers look more athletic, cohesive and like a real contender with a crew to support an ascending Embiid, who is playing like the prohibitive NBA MVP favorite this year. 

The notable acquisitions of the Philadelphia 76ers for this season include hiring head coach Doc Rivers and signing future Hall of Famer Dwight Howard at the backup center as well as sharpshooters Seth Curry and Danny Green. Rivers is a coach known for his ability to connect with players. He brings his championship pedigree, which will be crucial in galvanizing the 76ers into a deep playoff threat.  

Dwight Howard, who many forget is an eight-time NBA All-Star, five-time All-NBA First Team, three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, four-time NBA All-Defensive First Team,  five-time NBA rebounding leader, and two-time NBA blocks leader, can still play at a high level in stints. He showed this most recently during the Los Angeles Lakers championship run last year. Additionally, the floor spacing the 76ers added is going to be a game-changer. Curry shoots a family staple, but still incredible, 48.5% from the 3-point-line. Green is another champion and career 40% 3-point shooter that will substantially bolster the roster. 

With the rest of the lineup now catering to the requisite floor spacing needed to let the superstar Cameroonian big man go to work, the stage has been set, and the result has been a show for Philadelphia 76ers’ fans. So far, Embiid has gone ballistic, averaging a sensational 28.6 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists on 54.9% shooting from the field and 42.3% from 3-point range. This superstar stat line has yielded him the honor of Eastern Conference player of the month, earning him a spot with the franchise’s all-time elite players. Allen Iverson (four times), Charles Barkley (twice), Moses Malone (twice) and Julius Erving (three times) are the only 76ers players to win the award multiple times. Moreover, if numbers and counting accolades are not your forte, former MVP James Harden himself has stated that Embiid is the toughest player in the NBA to guard.aAnother former MVP Kevin Durant had Embiid in his top five for most difficult matchups in the league.  

Embiid is the ideal combination of a modern, offensively-oriented center and a traditional power post player. His stature allows him to control the pace of the game in ways that teams are not equipped to deal with. The league has changed, and teams have transitioned towards investing in rosters that specialize in spacing and 3-point shooting rather than maintaining a strong interior post presence. Only four of the top 28 earning players are centers, and only one of those players — besides Embiid himself — actively plays in the paint.  

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid receives treatment for a cut on his elbow that left blood on his uniform during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. The 76ers won 119-111. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo.

In the 1970s and 80s, basketball was more of a power game, and the league became an arms race of acquiring the biggest centers and enforcers to protect the team’s stars. Accordingly, the average weight of an NBA player increased from the 70s until the 2010-11 season. Since then, the number of imposing rim-protecting centers has reduced dramatically, and the average weight of players at all positions, except point guard, has fallen. In fact, the average BMI of an NBA player in the 2019-20 season was 24.63, the lowest since the 2004-05 season.  

This means that there are fewer guys of Embiid’s stature that can guard him in the paint. This disparity will only increase as the NBA transitions toward positionless basketball. Embiid in particular, who stands at 7-foot and 280 pounds, is 26 pounds heavier and two inches taller than the average NBA center, making him a true matchup nightmare. This physical dominance combined with his ever-increasing basketball IQ allows him to have a stark advantage in his position, which forces opponents into defensive predicaments.  

These mismatches also catalyze the 76ers transition offense. They excel on the open floor when they can take full advantage of their team’s athleticism and long-range shooting capability. In close games where teams are evenly matched, a few extra possessions can be the difference between winning and losing. Embiid’s ability to dominate the interior, while also being more than a respectable jump-shooting threat, allows his team to play with the sixth-fastest pace in the NBA. This helps the Philadelphia 76ers generate much easier scoring opportunities with guys like Ben Simmons leading the fast break. 

The best superstars stuff the stat sheet without compromising their team’s win shares and facilitate their team’s success by maximizing the potential of their teammates. While Embiid may not have the eye-popping assist numbers of a center like Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, his physical prowess allows him to dictate the tempo of the game and put his team in positions to succeed. This fact is evident by his superb 31.46 player efficiency rating and his leading the Philadelphia 76ers in all-time win shares per 48 minutes this season thus far. This year, Embiid’s generational talent has been on full display and the NBA needs to start taking notice. 

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