The Philadelphia 76ers might just be the most talented roster in all of basketball. Barring Boston, there isn’t a team which can hold a candle to the depth of the remnants of “The Process”.
Top-to-Bottom Philly is made up of perennial All-Stars Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons (currently in contention for his 3rd consecutive rookie of the year award), two excellent scorers in Tobias Harris (former Piston) and JJ Redick, a hulking 7’3” rebound machine and GQ cover model in Boban Marjanovic (former Piston), double-double machines in Amir Johnson and Greg Monroe (both former Pistons), and good role players in James Ennis III (former Piston) and TJ McConnell. This culmination of raw basketball talent and youthful exuberance could lead one to believe that we may be watching the next NBA Dynasty unfold in real time. Instead, while we've seen flashes of brilliance, Philly isn’t a contender this year. In fact, what we’re watching may be closer to Lob City than Golden State, and Joel Embiid is the reason why.
Embiid is the unanimous best player on the sixers, averaging an MVP-caliber 27 points, 4 assists, and 14 rebounds during his 3-year career, en-route to 2 all-star appearances, a 2nd tea All-NBA selection, a 1st-team All-Rookie selection, and a 2nd-team All-defensive team selection. ESPN’s Mark Jackson even heralded Embiid as “Potentially one of the greatest centers of all time”. Why then, am I so skeptical of the 25-year-old’s career outlook?
Embiid’s health is nothing if not questionable. Injuries are always a concern for supersized big men (just look at Yao Ming), and Embiid has never been able to stay on the court consistently. His only season of college was cut short by a back injury. He missed his first two seasons in the NBA with a variety of ailments, and he has never played more than 64 games in the regular season. He missed Game 3 of the first round of this year’s playoffs with a mysterious knee injury that has slowed him down at times, and overall Embiid just hasn’t looked right—there have been moments when he has been shuffling up and down the floor as though he were Mark Gasol’s age. He was clearly not himself in Game 4, a Sunday afternoon game. Sixers’ coach Brett Brown revealed afterward that Embiid texted him at 6:20 in the morning to say that he had not gotten any sleep due to “illness”. While knee injuries come with the territory, it doesn’t appear that Embiid has taken the necessary precautions to preserve himself for an entire 82 game season (his career high came this past season with 64 games). Embiid’s diet has become infamous after former 76ers rookie Landry Shamet revealed Embiid’s Chick-Fil-A order of four spicy chicken sandwiches, four orders of fries, and four cookies and cream milkshakes during the team’s road trips. The sandwiches alone are 1,800 calories. The fries ranging anywhere from 1,120 to 1,840 depending on the size. Topping it off are the milkshakes, coming in at 2,440 calories for the smalls or 3,120 calories for the large. Embiid is a full-blown celebrity at this point, and it’s clear he doesn’t have the time to focus on his diet with all the endorsement deals and twitter hijinks. Embiid isn’t the high-flyer he was in college, and as his style of play increasingly boils down to that of a traditional NBA center, I can’t help but wonder how long this can continue.
Let’s muse that Mark Jackson is correct, and Embiid becomes one of the NBA’s premier centers. It’s only fair to compare him, then, to one of the most dominating big-men the NBA has ever seen, Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq came into the league with a build remarkably similar to Embiid’s; a towering 7’1” (compared to Embiid’s 7’), a weight of a measly 260 (Embiid is listed as 250), and a 7’7” wingspan (Embiid’s is 7’6”). Although Shaq was largely able to limit injury and extend his career to an impressive 20 years, one of his pervading criticisms was his inability to control his weight. Shaq’s initial bulking phase started with the intention of shaking pesky defenders like Luc Longly and Arvydas Sabonis, but soon spiraled out of control. Like Embiid, O’Neal loved the spotlight, and courtesy of countless forays into media and advertisement, honing his craft during the offseason was sidelined. This led to Shaq trying to get into shape over the course of the season, but at an incredible 370lbs following the turn of the century, he had to settle for what he was, a shell of his former self. I’m afraid that Embiid will suffer the same fate, a fast-food fueled downward spiral cutting the career short of the one of the most skilled 7 footers the league has ever seen. Imagine if Embiid had adopted the self-care regimen of Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, or Herschel Walker (who started a UFC career at 55). Embiid's amount of raw basketball talent combined with that level of training could be devastating to opponents both down low and on the wing, launching a 76ers dynasty maintainable well into the next decade.
Rather, the Philadelphia 76ers feel like a Beer-League intramural team of Fraternity brothers who couldn’t be bothered with basketball half the time (let’s not forget Simmons’ 1-point performance in the 2018 playoffs, or Embiid not performing against the Raptors because his “shtummy hurt”). Embiid and fellow young star Ben Simmons seem to be more interested in tabloid headlines and Fortnite than competing for an NBA championship. As Philly’s rookie contracts expire, Jimmy Butler’s frustrations mount, and veterans like JJ Redick retire, fans are left wondering how much longer Embiid has to prove himself as a leader. For now, it seems that I’ll be using the Sixers 2k roster for years before they’ll make a legitimate Finals run, so at least they’ll be winning at something.