Appreciating Joel Embiid has become complicated, and that’s unfortunate
With each passing regular-season game, Joel Embiid does something to inch closer to the pantheon that is the Mount Rushmore of NBA big men.
And with each passing postseason, you're left wondering if that's all he'll ever be - an all-time dynamo of wins over the course of 82, but a super-sized Tracy McGrady over the course of four playoff rounds.
Each and every flameout, shape-shifted in its own way to achieve the same result, poses two questions - can Embiid be the guy on a title team? Is Embiid a winning player?
It wasn't all that long ago that the big man hoisted the MVP trophy - his crowning achievement to date and the only source of validation that loyal Sixers fans have for enduring a three-and-a-half-year rebuild - and then, a week later, regressed to all of the habits of his youth in a do-or-die game against his franchise's all-time biggest rival.
And then, to cap it off, he sat in front of microphones and explained that he and co-star James Harden couldn't win alone. That sentiment expressed, of course, a few sentences after he mocked Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has experienced similar playoff failures to Embiid but has a signature playoff game to put a ring on his resume.
In that moment, perhaps you were ready to discard all the regular-season moments Embiid delivered to take home the Most Valuable Player award.
As talented as he is, as far as he's come, as improbable as his rise was, had he learned anything from the trials and tribulations? Did he actually understand what it means to be the best player on a championship-level team?
Was he mature enough to realize that responsibility comes with recognition, and graduating to a new status amongst the stars meant that shirking his own role in his team's failure in favor of a more diplomatic team-wide assessment was no longer acceptable?
If the way he played in Game 7 against Boston made you re-consider the validity of what he has proven capable of in the regular season, perhaps the demonstration of leadership in his postgame press conference that Sunday might've made you re-consider whether you even liked the guy.
It's those moments, and the history that preceded that day in TD Garden, that make appreciating the greatness of Joel Embiid complicated.
On one hand, you feel for him. Each and every playoff appearance has been altered by an ailment he or a crucial teammate suffered. And that - elements sometimes out of the players' control - leads to its own degree of criticism and doubt.
On the other hand, you rightfully shake your head and sigh as he turns in postseason display after postseason display that is below the standard he sets for himself in the regular season.
The midrange jumpers that have become damn near automatic for 82 games suddenly start to clank or rim out when the pressure rises. The bad decisions that he's demonstrated improvement upon over the fall and winter months suddenly become a default for the opposition to prey upon. The aggression that he invokes in his most dominant regular-season games is suddenly nowhere to be found.
Limited by some physical ailment or not, he becomes a shell of himself when the stakes are the highest.
And yet, you can't help but shake your head in admiration from October to April.
Embiid is an ultra rare breed of athlete; 100th percentile amongst all players in the world at his sport, and yet somehow feels so indebted to one city and franchise that he keeps coming back year after year.
The culture of the NBA is to set a timer as soon as you have a star. Each playoff success puts more time on the clock. But, when the timer hits zero, you're left shattered as that star walks out the door for more fruitful opportunities elsewhere.
Not Embiid, though; at least not yet. He's not trying to apply his star equity on the front office, orchestrating forced move after forced move to mold the team exactly as he wants. As far as he portrays publicly, Embiid views himself as an employee. When asked about roster decisions, he defers to those whose jobs it is to take such actions.
All he wants to do is dominate each night he's available over the course of an 82-game regular season. And if that comes with breaking franchise records, moving in ways that no one else his size is capable of, and displaying an array of skills that no big man in history has ever possessed, so be it. As long as it results in a victory.
You might not like Embiid's antics or his proclivity for getting to the free throw line. You might not like that he prefers an outside-in game. You might think he's soft and selfish, or that he's destined for failure because he won't live on the low block like your favorite big man from an era well before cell phones did.
But, you should appreciate what he's doing every night because it's a privilege afforded to a very select few.
Embiid's legacy and resume will forever be judged by rings.
Until he gets one, that's unfortunate.
Because players like him are one-in-thousands-upon-thousands.
And you blink, and they're gone.
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