Is Joel Embiid’s sluggish start a reason for concern in Philly?

“The boos are gone and the vibes are flowing,” The Washington Post proclaimed in a Friday column about this charmed moment in the Philadelphia sports scene. But while the Phillies’ trip to the NLCS and the Eagles’ standing as the NFL’s lone remaining unbeaten team have combined to prompt a sunny shift in the emotional tenor of the famously cantankerous City of Brotherly Love, we learned on Thursday night that the boos aren’t gone, exactly. They’ve just taken up residence in the Wells Fargo Center.

It took fewer than seven quarters of the 2022-23 NBA season, and just under three in the first home game of the season, for Joel Embiid to hear jeers from the Philly faithful. On one hand, you might argue that’s a pretty quick trigger for the league’s reigning scoring champion, the runner-up in Most Valuable Player voting in each of the last two seasons and the pick in some quarters (cough, cough) to take home this year’s MVP trophy.

On the other, though … I mean, you watched these first two games, right? The criticism doesn’t exactly feel unwarranted. It’s hard to blame Sixers fans for coming away from the first two games of the new campaign — losses to the Celtics (without Robert Williams III) and Bucks (without Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton), two fellow title contenders with whom Philadelphia expects to jockey for position atop the Eastern Conference all season long — wondering what’s up with the big fella.

To wit: The Sixers have outscored opponents by 12 points in 23 minutes with Embiid off the floor and have been outscored by 23 points in his 73 minutes of work. This is so far out of the norm of what Embiid’s on/off splits have been throughout his tenure in Philadelphia as to feel like a work of science fiction.

Embiid has opened his 2022-23 account shooting 15-of-39 from the field (38.5%), with more turnovers (a league-high 10) than assists (eight). He’s looked at least a step slow on defense, pairing his familiar tendency to lag back in transition while arguing with officials about calls he feels he should’ve gotten with sluggishness when stepping out to guard in space and a somewhat laissez-faire attitude toward rim protection; Boston and Milwaukee combined to shoot 8-of-11 at the cup with the three-time All-Defensive Team selection as the closest defender, according to Second Spectrum tracking data.

I tend to dismiss the standard studio-show canard that big men who shoot jumpers can’t be dominant; after all, Embiid’s taken about half of his shots from midrange for three straight seasons, and he’s looked pretty friggin’ dominant to me. In the early going this season, though, that critique feels well-founded. Embiid has just five makes inside the restricted area in two games, got packed at the summit by both Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and, especially in a woeful 6-of-21 shooting performance against the Bucks on Thursday, seemed like he was deploying his jab-step jumper less as a weapon of choice than as a shrug-and-settle bailout:

The turnovers have been particularly maddening. Embiid saw double teams on isolations more often than any other player last season and ranked second on doubles drawn in the post to Nikola Jokic, according to Second Spectrum; at this stage in his development, he knows both that opponents will bring extra help when he makes his move and how to read the floor to find his pressure releases when they do. Yet he struggled with handling the heat against Boston, struggled to catch passes cleanly and hold onto the ball in traffic against Milwaukee, and compounded those cough-ups with some real brain-cramp giveaways:

Those are the kind of plays that’ll make any fan base not only register its discontent, but wonder — loudly — what might be going on.

Is Embiid still struggling from the lingering effects of offseason surgeries to repair a torn ligament on the thumb of his right (shooting hand) and his left index finger, or a summertime bout with plantar fasciitis that may have sapped his conditioning? Could a shift in his substitution pattern — after playing the first seven minutes against Boston before checking out to anchor the reserve corps at the start of the second, he played the entire first against Milwaukee — have made it more difficult to find his flow? After a lighter preseason slate — just two games, 20.7 minutes per — has the quick shift to a heavier regular-season workload of 73 minutes in consecutive games against championship-level opposition sapped Embiid’s legs, leaving him without much juice in a scoreless and ineffectual second-half performance against the Bucks?

Or maybe the issue is structural. Is James Harden’s torrid start — 33 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists per game on 58/38/100 shooting splits — making it more difficult for Embiid to re-establish the two-man rhythm that head coach Doc Rivers made such a point of emphasizing during training camp? It seems noteworthy that Harden’s touches and time of possession have increased significantly over his stint in Philly last season, while Embiid’s have gone in the other direction; is Embiid scuffling because Harden’s dominating the ball more, or is Harden dominating the ball more because Embiid’s scuffling?

The possibilities are endless, but the answer remains evasive … or, at least, Embiid doesn’t seem ready to share them. He declined to speak with reporters after Thursday’s loss — an eyebrow-arching choice just two games into the season, and one that’s only going to raise more questions about the state of affairs in Philadelphia.

Now that we’ve drawn a dark gray cloud on the previously blank canvas of the Sixers’ season, let’s put a silver lining around it. If not for Tobias Harris overhelping on a Grayson Allen drive to leave Wesley Matthews open for 3, the Sixers may well be 1-1; the process behind Embiid’s start (sorry) would still be frustrating, but that result would alleviate a lot of Friday morning’s stress. Also: Remember how Embiid led the league in scoring and finished second in MVP voting last season? Well, he started it by shooting 41% from the field over his first eight games.

And, for what it’s worth, Embiid’s not only intimately familiar with Philadelphia fans’ proclivity to boo; he has often fed off, and, at times, actively encouraged them to boo him.

"Playing here is tough, but that's what I love about them," Embiid once told former teammate J.J. Redick and Tommy Alter during an episode of their “The Old Man and the Three” podcast. "... In Philly, they're just so in tune with everything that's going on with the team, and that's what I love about them. They're so intense, and like you said, I got booed a few times. But my response has always been I kind of took it as a positive, because I felt like if I was in that situation, that must mean I'm not playing well or I'm not playing hard. So I always took it as, 'OK, I’ve got to change it. I’ve got to play better. I’ve got to play harder. I’ve got to make sure I do whatever is necessary for us to win games.’”

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 18: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers walks off of the court during a timeout during the second half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on October 18, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers walks off the court during a timeout during the second half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on Oct. 18, 2022, in Boston. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The track record — five All-Star berths, four All-NBA selections, a 50-plus-win pace in four of the last five seasons — suggests that Embiid will make whatever changes are necessary to get off the schneid. The calendar suggests that he might do so pretty quickly: After opening with Boston and Milwaukee, the Sixers’ next two games come against the Spurs and Pacers, two teams widely expected to find themselves near the top of the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes come season’s end. A .500 start with Harden looking healthier than he has since he first arrived in Brooklyn while Embiid rounds into form wouldn’t exactly be the end of the world; the sky isn’t necessarily falling.

Even so: The Sixers do need Embiid to show up, serve as the sun around which everything they do orbits, and start shining brightly, and they need it sooner rather than later. This is the year it’s all supposed to come together — a healthy Harden, better depth thanks to the additions of P.J. Tucker and De’Anthony Melton, more shooting and perimeter defense, a roster built to optimize the skills of the Sixers’ past and hoped-for future MVPs. None of it works, though, if Joel Embiid isn’t Joel Embiid. And so far, he hasn’t been. Not even close.

Giannis, Jayson Tatum, and the rest of the East’s superstars don’t seem to be planning to stumble out of the starting blocks. If Embiid doesn’t find his form quickly, the Sixers could find themselves lagging behind in the race for one of the top spots in the conference. One imagines Philly fans, however blissed out they’re feeling right now, wouldn’t take especially kindly to that.

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