Stars Are Aligning for Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 23, 2021

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid reacts after hitting the court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics, Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Joel Embiid is playing like an MVP.

That doesn't necessarily mean he'll win the award. Basketball Reference's MVP probability model has him well behind Nikola Jokic, but he should narrow the gap there.

On Friday, Embiid posted 38 points, 11 boards and three assists in the Philadelphia 76ers' 122-110 win over the Boston Celtics. Just two days ago, he went for 42 points and 10 boards in another win against the division rival.

In only 31.3 minutes per game this season, he's averaging 27.3 points and 11.3 rebounds. Eight players have combined for 15 such seasons in the three-point era. Embiid's 2020-21 average for minutes is the second-lowest of that bunch, which includes five MVP campaigns (and 12 top-five finishes in MVP voting).

For most of his five NBA seasons, it's felt like the Sixers were Embiid's team. But these numbers and a possible (and potentially positive) step back from Ben Simmons offensively makes the 2020-21 squad really feel like Embiid's team.

Under new head coach Doc Rivers, it is abundantly clear that the offense revolves around Embiid's scoring ability. He leads the team in usage percentage, and his 7.4 post-ups per game lead the league.

He isn't dominating possessions at the expense of teammates, though. Instead, the attention he commands in the middle of the floor opens up extra space and increases the efficiency for everyone who shares the floor with him. Philly is plus-10.7 points per 100 possessions when Embiid plays and minus-8.3 when he sits.

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Tobias Harris, reunited with the coach who helped him play some of the best basketball of his career with the Los Angeles Clippers, is posting career highs in true shooting percentage and box plus/minus.

With the overwhelming majority of his minutes coming as a playmaking 4, Harris is more of a matchup problem. And his ability to play outside reserves the interior for Embiid.

Last season, playing Embiid alongside Al Horford was one of the most glaring "square peg in a round hole" lineups in the league. Danny Green and Seth Curry are more natural fits on the wing than Josh Richardson and Harris were, too.

During JJ Redick's two seasons in Philadelphia, the Sixers were plus-14.4 points per 100 possessions when Embiid and Simmons shared the floor with the all-time great shooter. They were plus-3.4 when Simmons and Embiid played without Redick.

Without that type of floor spacer in 2019-20, the star duo's net rating was an uninspiring plus-0.7.

When you look at numbers like those and the early returns with Green and Curry, it's easy to see why one of team president Daryl Morey's first orders of business was adding shooting to the roster.

Now, Philadelphia's starting five has two all-time great three-point shooters. Curry is second in NBA history in career three-point percentage, and Green is 50th. When both are in the game, the Sixers' effective field-goal percentage is a whopping 61.1 (the league average is 53.2).

If you double Embiid in the post, as Boston often did Friday, this lineup has more than enough firepower outside the three-point line to punish you, even with a non-shooter like Simmons on the floor.

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

And that brings us to the 6'10" point guard who may be making the biggest adjustment of anyone on the roster.

It isn't the most vocal minority, but there have been plenty over the years who've wondered if Philadelphia might be better off prioritizing Simmons over Embiid. It wasn't difficult to grasp the argument.

Simmons is more durable. He's a unique player, with the build of Lamar Odom and a game like Jason Kidd's. And as the NBA was trending positionless, Simmons' versatility was enticing.

The calls to trade one or the other always felt premature, though. And in 2020-21, it feels like Simmons himself may be joining the majority.

For the fourth consecutive season, Simmons' usage percentage is down. He's taking only 8.9 shots per game, well below his previous career low of 11.4. And he leads the league in three-point assists.

Simmons was never a selfish player, but he's taken an extra step back in 2020-21. And the Sixers seem to be benefiting.

On the season, Philly is plus-4.6 points per 100 possessions with Simmons on the floor and minus-1.6 with him off. It's his first positive swing since his rookie season in 2017-18.

More importantly, the on-court tension that seemed to exist between he and Embiid last season is gone. The Sixers' net rating is plus-13.4 when both are in the game. And the MVP candidate is praising his point guard.

Simmons can still turn it on when necessary, too. After deferring to his teammates throughout the first three quarters against Boston (he took only three shots before the fourth), Simmons had 11 points and three dimes in the final frame. He had a steal and dunk with just over four minutes left that slammed the door on the Celtics' final push.

With Simmons managing the game and picking his spots, Harris enjoying mismatches as a "big man" and Green and Curry keeping wings outside the paint, Embiid's game has been unleashed in a way it never has been before.

The basic numbers don't look much gaudier than his career averages, but the spread floor has led to extreme efficiency (his 68.1 true shooting percentage is over 10 points better than the league average) and a career-low turnover percentage.

Embiid is now surrounded by the right kinds of players, including Simmons. With them in place, he is a legitimate MVP candidate and a headliner for the renaissance of centers.