Joel Embiid has been the constant. Through it all. It’s been Embiid. Maybe it means a bit more because of where he’s been. Not one, but two full seasons away from the game because of foot surgeries. Where seemingly every other headline spelled out disbelief. Oft-injured big men typically don’t last long. It’s why Philadelphia fans still hold their collective breath whenever our big guy tumbles to the hardwood.
An aching back. A slight meniscus tear. A Markelle Fultz shoulder to the face.
The many failures. A shocking zero-point regular season performance in Toronto. The 0-11 in the second half of Game 4 against Atlanta last postseason. The eight turnovers in Game 7 days after. The missed game-winner in Game 5 against Boston in 2018. The overflowing tears in the hallway minutes after the most improbable game-winning shot in NBA history.
He kept going. No matter what. Embiid has kept going.
When things became difficult, he improved. He’s at his peak now as he’s truly embraced his role as the franchise guy. Tough enough to fully understand and relish in it. He welcomes everything that comes with it.
A snippet of Embiid’s press conference following Game 7 almost a year ago circulated like wildfire. In that clip, Embiid seems to blame Ben Simmons’ refusal to shoot as the reason why they lost. Many claiming Embiid threw his teammate under the bus. The full version of the answer paints a different story. Embiid says Matisse Thybulle made a mistake by fouling Trae Young on a three. He takes responsibility as the one who turns the ball over while being defended by Danilo Gallinari in the closing minute with the game still in reach.
Before the pandemic began. During the most frustrating 76ers season to date. He heard them. The boos. Think about that… right before he’d start in a third consecutive All-Star game. Our guy. The Process. Booed. By his fans.
That team didn’t fit, and while Daryl Morey made the trades to give Simmons and Embiid the necessary space, Embiid answered those boos by working on his game. The skill he developed in the months after the most disappointing season in franchise history which resulted in a first-round sweep in the bubble may have altered his career forever.
It’s always been personal with Embiid. As fans, we’ve lived with it. From the moment Sam Hinkie selected him third overall in 2014, waiting nearly two and half years for his first fadeaway basket. Embiid couldn’t play more than 25 minutes a night as a third-year rookie. Back-to-backs? Forgot about it. Against Memphis the day before Thanksgiving in 2016 Embiid watched from the bench as his team battled in a second overtime. Not because he fouled out. He maxed out his minutes. It will forever be personal with Embiid. He wanted to be here. He’s proven himself time and time again, despite the many failures.
The MVP discourse has been nauseating, to the surprise of no one. Cherry-picked stats. The attempt to discredit a player’s game. Any of the top three players deserves the MVP. So, pick your guy and that’s that.
Watching Embiid has been an absolute joy this year. Maybe if the 76ers win a couple more games. Maybe if Denver is in the play-in tournament. Maybe if Embiid doesn’t get COVID in November, forcing him to miss nine games (Philly went 2-7 during that stretch). Maybe he’d be the favorite, but it doesn’t matter. Embiid might not win the award, but this year he played 68 games. He played multiple back-to-backs. He’s healthy for the postseason and my goodness does that feel good.
Toronto awaits. You can’t really script it any better. The same Raptors who have been Embiid’s kryptonite since way back when, imploring a strategy that has given him fits. Double and triple teams. Mix in some zone. Long, outstretched arms. It’s a recipe for disaster, but isn’t that the point of competition? We love sports for the perseverance, for the adjustments, and for opportunities like the 76ers have in front of them. Embiid has had some of his lowest moments while playing Toronto. He’s conversely had his highest of highs with his windmill jam in a 21-pont Game 3 win three years ago.
The pressure exists in major ways. You lose, and everything, outside of trading Embiid, is on the table. You win and keep going, leaving those painful memories of yesterday in the past.
Despite the many shortcomings. Despite the mishaps. I’ll take my chances with Embiid. Through it all.