After it was over, Joel Embiid was his usual self, his shoulders hunched, his voice deep, a mischievous perma-grin spread across his face.
“It was fun," the Sixers' big man said after a surprisingly easy, 121-93 win Monday night over James Harden and the Rockets. “I mean, we beat them by 30, so, it was really fun for us.”
Since arriving in the NBA five years ago, Embiid has established himself as the hardwood’s foremost personality, propositioning celebrities and dunking on civilians and doling out endless servings of his unique brand of shade. He might not go down as professional sports' first crossover social-media star, but he should get some credit as the original master of the genre.
With an unshakable confidence and an amused indifference toward institutional convention, he is the 7-foot-2 embodiment of the cord-cutting generation. The entire world is his stage.
It’s one of the peculiarities of this post-postmodern world, the way fame precedes achievement, although, really, maybe it isn’t all that peculiar. Look back through the course of human history and you’ll find that talent doesn’t always win, but personality always sells.
In that sense, it should not come as a surprise if the world seems a bit slow to recognize Embiid’s prodigious talent. As of a week ago, there were six players favored ahead of him in the NBA MVP odds on the betting site Bovada, with Harden, the Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo and the eternal LeBron James all considered more than twice as likely as Embiid to take home the sport’s preeminent individual award.
Granted, that’s not the sort of company that qualifies as disrespect. James is unquestionably one of the two or three greatest players of all time. Antetokounmpo has been the league’s most efficient scorer this season, with a .591 effective field-goal percentage on 16-plus attempts per game. And Harden is in the midst of one of the greatest single-season scoring performances in NBA history, with only five players in the modern era having scored more points through 43 games.
Yet if you aren’t counting Embiid among them, you are not giving him his due. While the MVP debate depends heavily on your definition of the term, there is an argument to be made that no player in the NBA has had a bigger impact on his team’s games.
To illustrate this, consider the Sixers' performance when Embiid is on the court vs. off it. With him, they are scoring an average of 118.8 points per 100 possessions. Without him, that number drops to 113.0. Defensively, they are holding opponents to an average of 109.6 points per 100 possessions when Embiid is at center. When he is on the bench, they are allowing 115.6 points per 100 possessions.
Combined, the Sixers have been 11.8 points better per 100 possessions with Embiid on the court. As you can see in the table below, only two players in the current group of MVP front-runners can match that, and they happen to play together for the Warriors.
“All you really have to do, in my eyes, is look what happens when we don’t have him,” coach Brett Brown said Monday night. “And look at some of the first halves that he has produced that has forced our position, coaches, to make incredible adjustments in the second half. And I think that in my eyes it’s not even close, he should be in these types of conversations.”
You saw it Monday night against the Rockets, when Embiid spent three quarters doing as he pleased against an overmatched frontcourt that could do little except foul him. Playing just 26 minutes, he scored 32 points on 9-for-16 shooting, all of it in the low or high post. On the opposite side, Harden finished with 37 points, and was his usual electric self. But Embiid’s team won by 28 points, in large part because of his hard-to-quantify impact on the defensive end of the court.
“I do whatever my team needs me to do, and that’s score the ball, be the best defensive player in the league, and be a playmaker," Embiid said. "All I care about is winning, and if MVP comes with it, great, but right now, we are looking to win a lot of games, and we are doing that.”
Even with the team’s success, Embiid is redefining himself as an individual. In his last 10 games, he is averaging 29.2 points and 12.9 rebounds and shooting 51.6 percent from the field and 37.8 from three-point range. Every game he plays, he looks calmer and more under control, particularly in the paint. His progress has been very much a straight line that has yet to level off.