As braggadocious and gregarious as he is, Joel Embiid was humbled when NBA legends Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal expressed disappointment in his performance this season, imploring the Philadelphia 76ers superstar to become more dominant and to play with more passion.
Barkley and O’Neal criticize a lot of players, and many of those players shoot back at the Hall of Fame duo with disdain or accuse them of envy because of the lofty NBA salaries and the extravagant lifestyles compared with their generation.
Embiid took a different approach. He listened and learned. He said he completely understood why the duo criticized him because he is having a down statistical season, not playing with the energy or passion of years past. Both have criticized him for his weight and durability, but Embiid said he understood that greatness is expected of him. He offered a hint of that greatness with his 36-point, 13-rebound performance in the 76ers’ victory over the Celtics on Thursday.
It was a snippet of Embiid’s capability. He is perhaps the most skilled center in the past two generations, a mammoth man who is able to score at will in the post, with a feathery touch from the perimeter and 3-point line.
But this season his points, rebounds, blocked shots, shooting percentage, and assists are all lower than last season.
“I mean, that’s what they do, maybe they’re right,” Embiid said of Barkley and O’Neal before the Celtics game. “I do think they’re right. I need to be more aggressive, just look to impose myself, just look to dominate. I think the whole season I haven’t done that, and you can see the way it’s affected my efficiency and my stats, so I guess I need to go back to having fun and just dominate. I get what they’re saying and I think they’re right. I’ve got to make a change.”
Embiid acknowledges that he’s concerned about his long-term health. He missed his first two NBA seasons after two surgeries on his right foot. Since then he’s had knee issues and even missed a playoff game because of illness last season.
“I’ve said earlier that I want to get to the playoffs healthy; the last two years I have not been healthy,” he said. “Two years ago it was my face and then last year it was my knee and I was sick. This year I told myself I want to get there healthy.
“We’ve got a new group and I’m still trying to get used to it. It’s different. It’s completely different and the way I’m being guarded this year, every time I touch the ball, heavy double-, triple-teaming, so I’m just trying to navigate through it and just be a basketball player. Make the right plays if I get double-teamed — my teammates know that I’m going to pass it so it’s about balancing between trying to make something happen for your team and making the right play.”
Embiid is known as a trash talker, a supremely confident player who is just approaching his potential at age 25. But he is not above showing humility. He called O’Neal this past week to talk about his comments. Embiid is Shaq-like, a behemoth with the mobility of a ballet dancer.
“I actually called Shaq yesterday and he thought I was mad at him, and I was like, nah, I understand what he was saying,” Embiid said. “I’ve had a down year so far. I just wanted to talk to him. I was kind of frustrated because you say you should try to fit in with your new teammates and he was just telling me to be aggressive, you’re the guy, so go out there and just dominate. So he and Charles, whatever they say, I think it was good for me.
“I think I can be more aggressive. There were times where I was still floating on the perimeter and coach is always talking about the amount of post-ups that I get are still the most in the league, but I think it’s still not enough. Our offense is the best in the league when we play that way, so I average about 10 [post-ups], but I’ve got to get about 20, 25. It’s also on me. It’s about finding that balance.”
Embiid wouldn’t want to be in any other position. He realizes O’Neal and Barkley ride him because he’s so immensely talented. Barkley doesn’t pick on backup centers or the 15th man. He challenges great players to be greater.
“That’s the high standard that I guess that I set,” Embiid said. “It just feels like if I don’t score 35 points or 40 points it just feels like it’s a down game, even when I have 30. It’s just the way it is. I signed up for it. I want to be great. I put the work in to be at this level and to be better and I still feel like I have a lot of potential.”
Philadelphia coach Brett Brown has coached Embiid since the beginning of The Process, the now-famous 76ers rebuilding plan devised by since-fired general manager Sam Hinkie. As Embiid’s biggest supporter and fan, Brown appears offended when critics bristle at his production. He said he has instructed his big man to pass out of double teams to Philadelphia’s shooters.
There was a reason why Mike Scott and rookie Matisse Thybulle were open for 3-pointers against the Celtics. Embiid was doubled in the paint, and he made the right play.
“I’ve been with Joel a long time. I still crown him our crown jewel,” Brown said. “I think nobody lives in his shoes with the injuries that he has dealt with, and the fact is when you look at what he does out of the post as an example, his passing out of the post has improved dramatically and it needed to because he had been double-teamed. He’s passing half the time out of the post nowadays. It takes away what others don’t see on point production because he’s that good. He does what the game tells him to do and he passes.
“I respect Joel’s response. Joel owned some things. Well, his points are down because he’s passing more because he’s being double-teamed, so he does what [Tim] Duncan did for like 12 years. He’s improving in many, many ways that don’t show up in a stat sheet.”
Embiid is dealing with the pressure of trying to emerge as the league’s most dominant force — he’s got major competition from Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Anthony Davis, and LeBron James — while incorporating his teammates so that Philadelphia can become a more balanced and explosive team.
Defenses will focus on stopping Embiid, but that should open up opportunities for Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Scott.
“But I can’t pick and choose whenever I want to dominate,” Embiid said. “It has to be a nightly thing. But then again I’ve also got to take care of my body, so I’m still trying to find that balance between kind of putting my body at risk in the regular season when I have the goal to get to the playoffs healthy. Still trying to find that balance and playing with my teammates and I’m still trying to learn. I feel like it’s been a big adjustment for me this year. I’m trying to get the feel of everything and I’m sure by the end of the regular season we are going to be ready for the playoffs.
“I haven’t been the closer that these guys have needed me to be this season. I know I’m going to get it back. They know I’m not a selfish player.”
FINALS OR BUST?
Expectations high in Philadelphia
Brett Brown’s overall NBA coaching record following Thursday’s win by the 76ers in Boston was 197-321, and that includes 103 wins the past two seasons. He won just 75 games in his first four seasons, enduring one of the most painful rebuilding plans in sports history.
There were games in which the 76ers looked like a junior varsity team, shuttling players in and out who weren’t NBA-caliber — all for the purpose of accumulating high draft picks and salary cap space.
It finally paid off with the back-to-back drafting of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Brown has remained coach, with the pressure of expectations now heavy because of the immense talent.
Brown said he’s the same coach, despite rumors about his job security and projections that the 76ers must reach the Finals this season or there could be significant changes.
“I can look you in the eye and tell you I haven’t changed my mood or mind-set — what I do, how I try to do my job really hasn’t changed,” he said. “It doesn’t make me numb to what really goes on in relation to that we used to be this and now we’re that.
“I’m very serious when I tell you this; this is why we did it. This is why we went through what we went through — to get to a point where we are now where you’re considered amongst royalty in the NBA in the East and you’re trying to win a championship.
“To navigate what we all have navigated and to speak to you like I’m speaking to you now, it comes with a level of enjoyment and pride. I’m proud of what we’ve built and it doesn’t make me talk to you or my team or the Philadelphia media any differently given the weight of expectations. This is why I took the job.”
Global game gets boost in Mexico
The NBA awarded its 29th G League team to Mexico City this past week, a major move for the league’s international expansion and an endorsement for the Mexican capital with a 9 million population. It will be bigger population-wise than any G League or NBA city.
It’s another achievement for league commissioner Adam Silver, who continues to pursue new revenue streams and attention for the NBA. The league has played games in Mexico City since 1992.
“I would only say I think what I inherited were many decades of work here in Mexico and in Latin America,” Silver said. “I think with my colleagues from the NBA, many of them who are here today, we very much doubled down our efforts over the last five years as we’ve continued to see the opportunity.
“I’d say also in the last several years there’s been dramatic changes in media and technology that’s made our game more accessible, with our partnership with Televisa, ESPN Deportes here in Mexico. It makes it that much easier to transmit the games, make them available on devices other than television. We’ve seen an explosion of interest in Mexico over the last five years or so.”
While the NFL has had moderate success in Mexico City, the NBA has formed a strong relationship and Silver had already hinted at an expansion G League team last summer. The success of the team there could set the groundwork for more professional sports expansion.
“We don’t necessarily see ourselves in competition with the other leagues in that fashion. In fact, of course, we are very aware of their activities here in Mexico, and actually think it’s positive,” Silver said. “It is sort of a rising tide lifts all boats. I think to the extent other leagues are focused on this market is important. Having said that, I can’t take any personal credit, but I’m incredibly proud of my colleagues with Capitanes that came together and made this happen. Doing something first is significant for this league.
“I also think in terms of the focus here on Mexico City, I think the indication is just the fact that you’re seeing all of the leagues focused on this country and this city is indicative of all the positive indicators and tremendous things that are happening with the Mexican economy.”
And honestly, the NBA needed positive international relations news after the hiccup with China in October regarding Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting democracy in Hong Kong.
“I think also just sort of as a separate aside, as an American, I think in terms of our bilateral relations with Mexico, we’ve observed this all over the world — these so-called people-to-people exchanges are critically important, particularly in sports and culture and music,” Silver said. “This is how you create commonality among people, ultimately build relations, understanding and empathy. From that standpoint, we’re particularly proud we’re sort of a pioneer here.”
The National Basketball Players Association has hired a search firm to fill open positions on the executive committee, leading to rumors that Michele Roberts, the first woman to ever lead a major professional sports union, is stepping down. Chris Paul, the president of the NBPA, released a statement refuting that rumor, which read, “Michele Roberts has been and continues to be our fearless leader. The Twitter post that is circulating suggesting Michele is no longer the NBPA Executive Director is untrue. A Search Firm has been hired to advise the union on hiring and succession planning, which has not yet begun. In the meantime, the Executive Committee is proud to report that Michele remains the NBPA Executive Director, is very much ‘in power,’ and continues to enjoy the support of our members!” Roberts has been the executive director for five years and was instrumental in the league’s latest collective bargaining agreement. She has fostered a strong relationship with Silver and the players appear pleased with Roberts’s work after they ousted Billy Hunter . . . Guard Dion Waiters’s tenure with the Miami Heat appears to be over after the team suspended him for six games for continued insubordination. Waiters, who was suspended last month for eating a gummy with THC and suffering a panic attack, has been disgruntled for months after having his playing time reduced because of the emergence of Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson. Waiters will be hard to trade because he’s making $12 million guaranteed in each of the next two seasons. The Heat had made financial commitments to Waiters and James Johnson because of their contributions to the franchise after LeBron James departed, but those deals have been regrettable. Miami has been able to rebuild through the draft — Herro and Bam Adebayo — and through finding Robinson and Kendrick Nunn. Robinson hit 10 3-pointers in the Heat’s victory over Atlanta on Thursday. The former Williams College and Michigan standout was undrafted in 2018 and was signed to a two-way contract. Waiters, meanwhile, hasn’t played all season, while Johnson has played in six games and had been banished from the team during training camp for conditioning issues. He is the third-highest-paid player on the Heat. Waiters, when he’s engaged, can serve as a reliable bench scorer, but he hasn’t served that role in Miami for two years. He has been beset by injuries and now issues with the organization . . . Prayers for former NBA commissioner David Stern, who was hospitalized on Thursday after suffering a brain hemorrhage at a Manhattan restaurant. He underwent surgery.