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Joel Embiid’s on- and off-court campaign to become the first rookie to play in the NBA All-Star Game since Blake Griffin in 2011 was invigorating, endlessly entertaining and — for some of us, at least — convincing. As we learned Thursday, though, the gregarious Philadelphia 76ers freshman’s efforts were unsuccessful.
A new voting system that took sole power for selecting starters out of the hands of fans (who cast more ballots for Embiid than any Eastern Conference frontcourt player not named LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo) by introducing ballots for NBA players (who had Embiid eighth) and media members (who slotted him fifth) cost the Cameroonian center a starting spot. And when the reserves selected by NBA coaches were announced Thursday night on TNT, Embiid’s name wasn’t among them. Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Paul George of the Indiana Pacers and Paul Millsap of the Atlanta Hawks made up the coaches’ frontcourt selections, while four of the conference’s top-flight point guards — John Wall of the Washington Wizards, Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics, Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors and Kemba Walker of the Charlotte Hornets — rounded out the reserve corps.
Unsurprisingly, that result unsurprisingly angered many Philly fans and basketball Internet denizens who believed Embiid deserved a trip to New Orleans.
After missing more than two seasons with foot injuries, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft finally got healthy enough this summer to return to the court this fall, and he has been a one-man wrecking crew ever since. Through 30 games, the 22-year-old is averaging 19.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 2.1 assists in just 25.3 minutes per game. Extrapolate those numbers over 36 minutes of floor time, and you’re talking about a level of per-minute production only matched in years past by guys like Kareem, Shaq, Ewing, Yao, the Admiral and Anthony Davis. Focus on just the scoring and rebounding in players’ rookie seasons, and the list of comparables turns up just two players: Wilt Chamberlain and Walt Bellamy, both Hall of Famers, both of whom entered the league more than 55 years ago.
Through the first half of his first season, Embiid has looked every ounce a generational talent. He marries balletic footwork with brute force on the block, featuring an array of pivots, counters and spins that have evoked comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon, and that have tortured opponents into sending him to the free-throw line once every 3.2 minutes of floor time, a monster rate). He’s also got a deft enough touch from the perimeter — a 34.8 percent mark from 3-point range on 3.1 attempts per game — to force defenses to respect him 25 feet away from the rim, giving his Sixers teammates more space to operate in the half-court than they’ve seen in years.
The 7-foot-2, 275-pound Embiid pairs that offensive game with defensive skills that already have him profiling as arguably the most effective rim protector in the league this season. The Sixers have allowed a microscopic 98.5 points per 100 possessions when Embiid’s been on the floor — a mark that would make Philly the No. 1 defense in the league over the course of the full season — compared to 107.8 points-per-100, a bottom-10 defensive rating, when Embiid sits.
In terms of on-court impact, Embiid hasn’t just been an All-Star-caliber performer; he’s been one of the most influential players in the sport, damn near an MVP candidate. He is also fun. Exceptionally fun. “Insist that the Sixers public address announcer call me ‘The Process’ before every game” fun. “Proclaim America to be tanking after the election of Donald Trump” fun, and “fake a Trump endorsement to get All-Star votes” fun. “Walk to the court like Triple H” fun.
Keeping someone this good and this fun out of the All-Star Game — a fan-focused midseason exhibition intended to reward the folks who stick with the NBA through the dog days of winter with a little bit of pomp, circumstance and goofiness — seems flat-out wrong. Right?
Evidently not to the NBA’s coaches, who seem to have decided that, as great an impact as Embiid has when he’s on the court, the sheer amount of time he’s not on the court was too big a hurdle to leap.
It is not Embiid’s fault that the 76ers have chosen to limit his minutes and hold him out of one game in each back-to-back set as his surgically repaired foot gets reacclimated to playing competitive basketball for the first time in more than two years, and as he adjusts to the physical toll of the 82-game schedule. (In fact, Embiid has at times publicly bristled at his restriction.) Still, when you’re weighing the resumes and relative merits of a group of really good players, it’s not unfair to consider that one player has played 35.6 percent of his team’s total minutes while the others have been available to their team and productive for closer to 60 percent or 70 percent of their teams’ floor time.
It’s not insane for a coach to decide he’d rather have 1400 minutes of B+ work than 750 minutes of A material. Had enough of them preferred the latter, it might have been Millsap, George or Love getting the short end of the stick; instead, it’s Embiid who winds up on the outside looking in.
To his credit, Embiid took his snub in stride, referencing his lost chance at romance, taking a swipe at TNT commentator Shaquille O’Neal (who said that Embiid has an unfair advantage over the other frontcourt competitors because he gets so much rest) and once again poking fun at our nation’s current political climate:
… which leads me to believe he’s going to be OK. The opponents who have to deal with Embiid for the rest of the season, though? I’m not so sure about them:
Embiid isn’t the only player who’s got a gripe when it comes to the coaches’ decisions. Here are several other players who would be within their rights to consider themselves snubbed:
Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers: The 31-year-old wouldn’t have been able to suit up in his old stomping grounds anyway, as he remains sidelined after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb. Still, his pre-injury level of play — 17.5 points, 9.7 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game, the league’s third-highest assist percentage and fourth-largest share of teammates’ points created by direct assist, with the Clips a staggering 20.8 points per 100 possessions better with Paul on the floor than off it at the time of his injury — demanded a reserve backcourt spot. It seems like the coaches decided to dispense with the formality, but it would have been nice to see them give Paul his due and let Commissioner Adam Silver do the job of selecting an injury replacement from the players who didn’t make the second cut rather than unnecessarily knocking CP3 down a peg.
Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz: In addition to being the linchpin of the NBA’s No. 2 defense and a Defensive Player of the Year favorite, Gobert has made real strides on offense, improving as a pick-and-roll space-creator, finisher and free-throw shooter. As Utah dealt with injury after injury to members of its expected core, Gobert and Gordon Hayward kept them afloat and chugging toward the Jazz’s first 50-win season since 2010 and first playoff berth since 2012. He’s been at least as good a defensive anchor as DeAndre Jordan for a team with a better defense and lower-wattage offensive talent, but the Clippers center got the coaches’ nod; now, it seems, we’ll witness the wrath of a Frenchman scorned.
Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies: Always a bridesmaid, never an All-Star. After spending the summer hearing snickers from those who wondered why a sub-star got paid more money than any NBA player had ever received, Conley has responded by playing the best basketball of his career. He’s averaging a career-best 18.9 points per game, he’s become a higher-volume knockdown 3-point shooter, he’s posting a career-best assist percentage, and he’s still locking down on the perimeter for a Memphis team that has weathered injuries to remain very much in the thick of the race for home-court advantage in the West. I’d have taken him over Klay Thompson, personally, but reasonable people can differ; unfortunately, that difference leaves Conley at home for All-Star Weekend once again.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers: Dame’s individual numbers remain exceptional, and as my former boss, Trey Kerby of The Starters, noted on Thursday, that has puts him in some rarefied, if bummerific, air:
But despite Lillard’s lethal combination of off-the-bounce creativity, in-the-gym range and fearlessness with the game on the line, defensive struggles — his individually, and his team’s in general — have helped make Portland one of the most disappointing teams of the 2016-17 season, which probably didn’t help Dame’s case in a crowded West. On the bright side, though, we’re probably going to get a very motivated Dame in the second half, and maybe even a hot track, too. You know your man Gary Busey’s ready to hear that new heat!
LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs: He’s the No. 2 scorer on the second-best team in the NBA. His stats are only down because he’s making room for Kawhi Leonard to continue his growth into an eater of worlds. He’s a hand-in-glove fit in San Antonio’s evolving identity as a team that punishes opponents with interior efficiency as opposed to the ball-swinging “Spursgasm” passing sequences of years past. He’s been quietly awesome, but with so much frontcourt talent in the West, “quiet” is enough to keep you on the outside come All-Star Weekend.
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