As the two men reflected on what went wrong, Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid and Sixers coach Doc Rivers also looked ahead on what could go right.
When the two talked extensively last offseason, they easily could have harped on Ben Simmons’ offensive shortcomings that contributed to the Sixers’ loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals. They easily could have focused on Embiid’s on-court dominance, too. Instead, the two scrutinized Embiid’s own weaknesses. Consider the message Rivers gave Embiid and later relayed to NBA.com.
“You have to do more than just be a basketball player,” Rivers told Embiid. “You have to be a shepherd with the team.”
Embiid agreed. He emerged last season as a Kia MVP candidate before posting promising postseason numbers against the Washington Wizards (24 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game) and the Hawks (30.4 ppg, 12.7 rpg). But Embiid described his playoff outing as just “okay.” After all, Embiid averaged 4.7 turnovers per game against Atlanta, including eight in both a Game 6 win and the decisive Game 7 loss.
“My goal was to come in and be more dominant and not take any plays off offensively and defensively,” Embiid told NBA.com. “I was dominant last year. But I was kind of going through the motions at times. This year, I didn’t have that margin for error.”
Nearly eight months later, it is safe to say that Embiid has stayed dominant.
Embiid: ‘I just wanted to set the foundation’
The Sixers (46-28) host the Milwaukee Bucks (46–28) on Tuesday (7 ET, NBA League Pass) with Embiid ranking second in the NBA in points per game (a career-best 29.9 ppg) and seventh in rebounds (11.4). The Sixers also stayed near the top of the Eastern Conference despite Simmons’ season-long absence before finally dealing him before the NBA trade deadline as part of a center-piece package to the Brooklyn Nets for James Harden.
Although the Sixers concede the adjustment period with integrating Harden, Embiid has actually exceeded his season averages since the trade in terms of scoring (31.0 ppg) and rebounds (12.4).
“I know how dominant he is, but he works,” Harden said. “He works on his game. It transfers to the court.”
That worked started last summer. Back when Embiid and Rivers talked in the offseason, neither knew if Simmons would ever wear a Sixers uniform again. Nor could they anticipate who the Sixers could land in an eventual trade.
Embiid already sensed, however, that Simmons at least would initially miss a significant amount of games to open the 2021-22 season. How did he process that reality?
“Joel paid no attention to it,” Drew Hanlen, Embiid’s trainer, told NBA.com. “Joel was more focused on how he can improve as a player and what he needed to do to make up for the talent that they lost in Ben. Why waste energy on things that don’t deserve energy? There was nothing Joel could do about it.”
Well, Embiid could do at least some things about it. But it involved maximizing his own value to the Sixers instead of worrying if Simmons would ever show his. Instead of complaining about those circumstances, Embiid brainstormed with the Sixers and Hanlen on how he could compensate for suddenly losing a dependable playmaker and defender.
“We’ve always talked about, ‘Can you carry a team. Can you do it, not by yourself, but can you do it without another All-Star?’” Embiid said. “I just wanted to go on and prove that. To win a championship, I can’t win alone. I need great teammates. But I just wanted to set the foundation.”
How did Embiid form his foundation? He leaned on what already made him one of the NBA’s best centers. He also addressed relative weaknesses so he could become an even better version of himself. That resulted in Embiid having both similar and unique off-season workouts.
The similarities? As he had in the past three years, Embiid worked extensively on his ball handling both to account for more double teams and to improve his passing. As he had in the past two years, Embiid focused on improving his posture so that he could play with more balance and flexibility to change speeds and directions.
The differences? Embiid studied footage numerous NBA greats made over their careers, including Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Dirk Nowitzki. Embiid studied those players for reasons beyond their talent. All of those players scored in a variety of ways by either using their athleticism, strength and footwork to dominate at the rim, in the post and along the perimeter.
That further prepared Embiid to complete various post-up drills before and during the season with Sixers assistant coach Sam Cassell and player development coach Jason Love. Kevin Garnett, who won an NBA title while playing for Rivers with the Boston Celtics (2007-13), also gave unspecified feedback for Rivers to relay to Embiid.
“The game has started to slow down for him,” Hanlen said. “The countless hours of film, plus the countless hours of decision making in workouts, has allowed him to really grasp what is coming next and seeing the play before it unfolds.”
New fuel, focus driving Embiid’s Kia MVP push
That hardly matches what Rivers observed about Embiid from afar during his first four NBA seasons. Consider Rivers’ pointed question to Embiid in the 2020 offseason when the two first met shortly after the Sixers hired Rivers to replace Brett Brown.
“Have you ever seen a fat MVP?” Rivers asked.
Embiid laughed. But both Rivers and Embiid realized the seriousness behind the question.
“No,” Embiid answered.
“You got to get in better shape,” Rivers advised.
Embiid listened. For the past two seasons, Embiid has worked with Louise Burke, a sports dietician that has collaborated with Embiid’s full-time chef.
“My role has been to try to find a bridge between his needs as a player in terms of modern sports nutrition and also his cultural and lifestyle needs,” Burke told NBA.com. “You want nutrition to be able to be sustainable, and something you’re able to enjoy.”
Although he pledged seriousness toward changing his diet, Embiid found it appealing that the approach did not involve following rigid rules. Generally, Burke has worked with Embiid on finding ways to increase his protein and vegetable intake while reducing his sugar and body fat. Yet, Embiid has reached those goals while still enjoying American foods and culinary delights from his native Cameroon.
During the offseason, Embiid ate foods that helped him build muscle mass while reducing his body fat. Once the season started, Embiid consumed protein-heavy foods and beverages to accomplish a few goals. That diet ensured that Embiid had enough fuel during workouts and games. He also strengthened his muscle and bone density.
To replace the sugary sports beverages that Embiid disliked, he currently drinks a custom-made Shirley Temple when he’s on the bench during games. What exactly is in the Shirley Temple? “I can’t tell you, or I’d have to kill you,” Burke quipped.
That’s okay. Embiid claimed ignorance on his dietary intake as well.
“I don’t exactly know what they put in it and how they prepare it,” Embiid said. “But I know that there’s a lot of stuff that they eliminated, and there’s a bunch of stuff that they added to make sure I eat healthy.”
Either way, the Sixers noticed how different Embiid has looked and played with his 7-foot, 280-pound frame. In offseason workouts that lasted for about two hours, Embiid mastered conditioning-heavy drills that required him to translate his film study of the past NBA greats into his own game.
After perfecting the various moves in the halfcourt, Embiid then repeated those moves in a full-court setting. In between shots, Embiid completed full-court sprints. He then played in full-court scrimmages in games of one-on-one, four-on-four and five-on-five. No wonder Embiid has averaged more minutes this season (33.4) than in 2019-20 (29.5) and 2020-21 (31.1). Rarely have the Sixers seen Embiid show fatigue.
“Last year, he came in great shape. This year, he doubled down. He’s in way better shape than last year,” Rivers said. “He can move. He can run. He’s been dominant.”
Embiid speaks up … and Sixers show out
In other seasons, Embiid believed he could just let that dominant play and preparation speak for itself. Rivers argued otherwise during their offseason chat. Not with the uncertainty on when either Simmons would wear a Sixers uniform again or if Philadelphia would deal him quickly.
“In the past, I’ve never been vocal. I was always laid back,” Embiid said. “I always liked to be myself. But this year, there was really a need for my leadership as well with everything that was going on.”
Embiid remained honest with reporters about his hope for Simmons to return, his annoyance over Simmons’ behavior and his need to move on without him. It seemed inevitable Embiid would have to address those questions because of his stature and the media’s need to follow-up on a significantly developing and unpredictable story.
What mattered more to the Sixers entailed how Embiid addressed that dynamic internally. After all, the Sixers had to figure out how to mitigate Simmons’ absence. Plenty of Embiid’s teammates would experience uncertainty on whether they ultimately would become part of Simmons’ trade package.
“No one has had more distractions than us this year. So for us to be in the position that we are, a lot of that came from Joel in training camp,” Rivers said. “He stayed in the locker room, made sure to be on guys and talked about how we’re still going to win.”
Embiid’s teammates listened attentively. As Sixers teammate Tyrese Maxey observed, “there’s a different vibe around him; he’s been very vocal.” Embiid stayed that way even when the Sixers struggled. Following an 8-2 start, the Sixers suffered a five-game losing streak while nursing absences to Embiid (nine games) and Tobias Harris (six) after both tested positive for COVID-19.
During that stretch, Embiid offered two messages. He expressed confidence the Sixers could play well without him. He also vowed to dominate again once he returned.
“We needed that voice. He did that. Then he went out and did it on the floor,” Rivers said. “It was easy for him to lead because he showed with his actions that he will do the right stuff.”
Why Embiid thinks the MVP is within his grasp
Because of these qualities, the Sixers — and Hanlen as well — advocated strongly that Embiid deserves this season’s MVP.
“There is nobody that gets double or triple-teamed more than Joel. There’s nobody that impacts the game on the offensive and defensive end like Joel,” Hanlen said. “If you ask NBA players, ‘Who would you rather try to guard one-on-one: Joel Embiid or any of the other NBA MVP candidates?’ They would all say, ‘Not Joel Embiid.’”
As for Embiid, he has politely declined to state his case for two reasons. He does not want to appear to be politicking for an individual award. Embiid also expressed respect for the other MVP candidates, most notably Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic.
“I’m a big fan,” Embiid said of Jokic. “I have a lot of respect for him. I love his game. He has his case. I have my case, too. It’s not really up to me. It’s up to you guys to figure it out.”
Embiid ranks ahead of Jokic in scoring (29.8 ppg to 26.2) and defensive rating (107.5 to 108.9). Jokic fares ahead of Embiid in rebounding (13.5 rpg to 11.3) and assists (7.9 apg to 4.3). Jokic leads the NBA in triple-doubles (18), while Embiid has a 50-point effort as well as six 40-point games (compared to Jokic’s two games with at least 40 points).
Embiid helped the Sixers remain at the top of the Eastern Conference — all done without Simmons — while Jokic has helped the Nuggets to sixth in the Western Conference amid long-term injuries to Jamal Murray (left knee) and Michael Porter Jr. (spinal surgery).
Last season, Jokic became the first center in 21 years to win the NBA regular-season MVP award after posting career-highs in points (26.4), field-goal percentage (56.6%) and assists (8.3) and matching his career-high in rebounds (10.8) while appearing in every game.
Embiid finished second after posting 28.5 ppg on a career-high 51.3% clip and 10.6 rpg. But he missed a combined 21 games because of various injuries. As Embiid argued, “If I would’ve played more games, I think I could’ve won it.” This season? Beyond his nine-game absence because of COVID-19, Embiid has only missed four other games for rest purposes (two), a sore back (one) and sore rib (one).
“Last year, I got hurt. That was the knock on me with not being healthy,” Embiid said. “This year, I’ve gone to a different level. I’m healthy. I don’t know what else I have to do to be able to [win MVP]. I feel like it is my time. But I have a lot of respect for the other guys, and I think they’re great players.”
As he reflected on his past year with elevating his offseason training, handling Simmons’ absence and integrating Harden, Embiid was confident he could collect a different trophy to validate his season-long accomplishments.
“It’s nice to be recognized as the MVP,” Embiid said. “That’s the biggest thing you can win. I would love that. But then again, I want to win a championship. The championship trumps everything.”
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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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