MIAMI — Joel Embiid is back and he has no time to waste.
The playoffs are in full swing, the Sixers hold a 2-1 series lead over Miami, and Embiid wants people to know his team is not to be messed with.
“I’m the best defensive player of the year,” he said before the team’s practice on Friday at AmericanAirlines arena. The Sixers take on the Heat in Game 4 at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Miami.
Embiid didn’t stop there. Though most defensive player of the year conversations do include Embiid (along with Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, and Al Horford), Embiid says his teammates, especially Robert Covington and Ben Simmons, deserve more respect than they are getting.
“Cov is in there, too, and Ben deserves a lot of credit,” he said. “It’s our whole team, and that’s the thing that makes us different. Our team was one of the best on defense all season, and it wasn’t just one person that was doing it.”
He’s not lying. Covington, who finished fourth in defensive player of the year voting last season, had another spectacular year — though streaky shooting sometimes overshadowed his prowess on the defensive end. He guards multiple positions, leads the NBA in deflections and is always tasked with taking down the opponent’s most lethal offensive threat.
Simmons also rates high defensively, guarding positions one through four and using his length and size to create problems for smaller opponents on the perimeter.
So, if Embiid deserves the defensive player of the year award, then where does that leave the other two?
“Ben is the rookie of the year, and they’re both first team all-NBA, all-defense, all-everything. It’s all probably decided already,” Embiid said. “They don’t have enough people talking about what they’ve done all season.”
He’s right: the ballots are already in; the voting is done. But for Embiid, it’s about more than end-of-year awards.
In Embiid’s opinion, the culture created under coach Brett Brown is unmatched. Embiid says there’s a strength and bond within the locker room that permeates onto the court. The strong defensive principles and defend-by-committee approach is intertwined in the culture of the team.
Is there any other team in the league that has that kind of culture and can still produce three players deserving of such defensive praise?
“I don’t think so,” Embiid said. “Boston is a defensive team. Al Horford does a pretty good job. I still don’t understand how he’s so good, but he doesn’t push it to that next level, and that’s what we do.”
The Sixers’ 7-foot-2 center is big not only in size, but also in what he says. He promised Philadelphia the playoffs, and helped to deliver on that promise. Now, he says he thinks the Sixers can make it to the NBA Finals, and he’s masked and ready to take on anything.