PHILADELPHIA — There was Joel Embiid and P.J. Tucker, bumping and bruising against one another at the nearest basket along the 76ers’ practice floor. It was at once a marvel of Tucker’s strength, all at 6-foot-5 and 37 years old, and a sheer example of Embiid’s brute force. Tucker puffed his chest to absorb the contact of a mountain, often screaming at himself in the third person, beckoning “Tuck” to keep the back-to-back MVP runner-up in front of him. But then the 7-footer lowered his shoulder one more time and meandered to the basket with ease.
“You can’t guard me!” Embiid hollered Thursday. “Just like Miami! You couldn’t guard me with Miami, and you can’t guard me now.”
You never know what you’ll find on a rare practice day in early December. A motley crew was rotating into this mix of King of the Hill: fellow frontcourt member Paul Reed; then Jaden Springer, Philadelphia’s little-used first-round pick in the 2021 NBA draft; and finally Spencer Rivers, a Sixers staffer and the youngest son of head coach Doc Rivers. One-on-one, a single possession, and then a new matchup in rapid succession.
Embiid used a fifth dribble one battle en route to the basket. One more than allowed by Philly assistant Jamie Young. Tucker squealed with glee at the violation, and Embiid had to forfeit his turn on offense — even though he swore he hadn’t been briefed on this competition’s rules. Young didn’t budge, dismissing the Sixers’ centerpiece back to the sideline.
"That’s what happens when you f*** up!” Tucker yelled. “You get a whooping and you learn from your mistakes!”
Embiid hasn’t made too many errors this season. The following night, he hung 38 points in the Sixers’ overtime victory against the Lakers. Two days later, Embiid poured in 53 points versus Charlotte to cement Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors — his second time hanging 50 this season. He is pacing the entire NBA at 33.4 points per game as Philadelphia has quietly climbed back into fifth in the East’s postseason positioning, despite Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey missing significant time due to injury.
He appears confident these Sixers will hold onto their standing in the conference. For all the doubt surrounding his and Harden’s stylistic pairing, Embiid and other Philadelphia figures are quick to point out the Sixers’ tandem ranked first league-wide among pick-and-roll partners in efficiency last season. That combination, Embiid bulldozing a path for Harden’s jerky drives, created 1.15 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports, which would rank sixth among team offenses amid this 2022-23 campaign full of historic production.
“Last year, we really dominated at a high rate when it came to that type of action,” Embiid told Yahoo Sports. “Obviously this year, with all the injuries, we haven’t started the right way. But I think we’re going to get back to that. We’re waiting for this guy to come back …” Here, Maxey strolled past Embiid’s seat, just before the exit to the players’ parking lot. They reached for an elaborate handshake, completed the choreography to perfection, and then Embiid continued his monologue without pausing for thought. “... So we can be better as a team. I think we are really good, and we still got a long way to go. But I love where we’re at. It’s all about everybody giving up themselves and coming together as a team so we can accomplish what we want to do.”
He was then asked to deliver a message, to the segment of Philadelphia’s fan base that has found cause for panic, that is pounding their timeline to remove Rivers and wants to declare that the trade that landed Harden is already a failure.
“I don’t know,” Embiid said, shrugging. “Sixers fans, they want to trade me.” The 28-year-old grinned wide, his breathy laugh filling the space. There’s that twinkle in Embiid’s eye when he’s ready to unwind and talk.
So here is where our brief conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, truly begins.
You don’t believe that.
Embiid: I do believe that. They want to trade me.
They don’t all want to trade you. They want certain people to, uh, be relieved of their duties and, uh, certain people to depart the franchise.
Embiid: Look, all I can do is try to do my best every game. I’m grateful to be in this position, because it’s not an easy job. If it was easy, everybody would do it.
You mean being a franchise player?
Embiid: Yeah, when you’re actually the best offensive player, the best defensive player, you gotta make plays. It’s not easy every single night. We all ... we can’t be perfect. We all make mistakes sometimes. You can’t be perfect. Like the Utah game [when Embiid scored 59 points in November]. You can turn the ball over in the fourth quarter. It happens. But I don’t know. I’m just trying to do the best job possible to put my team in the best position to try to win something.
How hard has it been to find a rhythm with everybody being in and out of the lineup?
Embiid: Winning a championship, or winning anything at all, takes a lot of luck. You look at all the teams that have been able to win, they’re all healthy. You gotta be healthy. To be able to win, that’s where it starts. You gotta take care of yourself, you gotta take care of your body. Make sure you’re locked in. And then as a team, make sure you come together. Still try to accomplish whatever we can with what we have. But then once everybody gets healthy, get everybody on the same page.
It’s not easy. But then again, I love it. I love the challenge. I’m always telling myself, if I make it happen, good. If I don’t make it happen, I know I tried. The ultimate goal is to get to the Finals and win a championship. It doesn’t matter if I lose in the first round, second round, conference finals, that doesn’t mean anything to me. There’s nothing to be happy about, about just getting to the conference finals or the Finals. You gotta win the whole thing. That’s the goal. And every single day it’s just trying to find ways I can make that happen.
Guys [across the league] have said they’re bored by the regular season. So every single day, are you looking at ways to fine-tune things? Different lineup combinations that work?
Embiid: I understand that when you make the playoffs every year, it could be easy to say. But the way I look at it, I push every game like it’s the playoffs. Especially with what we have. For us to be able to win, we need to try to be perfect. I need to be able to play at the highest level possible. James needs to be great. Tyrese needs to be great. Our shooters and defenders have to do their job.
You look at the best teams in the NBA. Whether it’s Boston, they’re extremely deep, they’re extremely talented. They got everything. You look at Milwaukee, they’ve got everything. Phoenix, when they’re healthy, they got everything. Pelicans, when they’re healthy, obviously they’re winning games. Golden State. And the East is tough, too. Cleveland is coming along. It’s tough. But it’s fun. Like I said, I love the challenge, but we all need to try to be perfect with what we have.
How far away is that? Do you feel close to perfect?
Embiid: I think I’m there. I think I feel like I’m close. For me, it’s all about, how do I bring everybody along? I feel like I’ve seen everything as far as the playoffs. I’ve been guarded so many different ways. You know, whether it’s doubling. You play Toronto, they’re doubling at halfcourt. They’re trying to get the ball out of my hands. You play other teams, they double me. So I feel like I’ve seen everything. I feel like I know how to attack everything. For me, it’s about, how do I bring everybody along with me? How do I make sure everybody’s on the same page so we can succeed? It doesn’t matter if I go out there and average 30 or 40 or whatever, 10 rebounds, even if I get 10 assists, it doesn’t matter if I’m the only one playing well. You can’t win alone. You need the other four guys and the guys coming off the bench. It’s about, how do I make sure that everybody else on my team can play at that level?
Last thing, then: Do you have an answer to that ‘how’? Is it one blanket thing with each guy, or with each teammate it’s different?
Embiid: It’s just about playing together, involving everybody. Because you never know when you’re gonna need somebody. You never know when somebody is struggling and they need a quick minute to come out and someone like Shake [Milton] comes in and can get a couple baskets that change everything, the whole dynamic of the game. It’s not easy being a leader either. But one of the ways I’ve always tried to do it, I’m not an off-the-court guy. I’m more reserved. But on the court, I show up. I lead by example on the court. That’s the way I like to lead, dominating on the court. Offensively, defensively. And try to bring everybody along with me.