Now in his sixth NBA season, Joel Embiid is better than ever. Since returning from a bout with coronavirus (COVID-19) in late November, the 27-year-old is on a tear. Does that lessen the urgency for the Philadelphia 76ers to end the Ben Simmons standoff before the Feb. 10 NBA trade deadline?
Embiid thinks so. He likes where the team is. Why wouldn’t he? Without a three-time All-Star in Simmons, the Sixers are 2.5 games off the lead in the Eastern Conference in what looks like a six-teams-in-the-ring free-for-all.
The superstar center is having perhaps the best year of his stellar career. But are the 76ers good enough to stand pat at the NBA trade deadline? That’s a more complicated question.
Joel Embiid is scorching hot for the Philadelphia 76ers
Joel Embiid has played 24 of 25 games for the Philadelphia 76ers since his Nov. 27 return. In that span, the team is 16–9. Since Christmas, the Sixers are a sizzling 10–2.
In his last 24 games, Embiid averaged 30.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.1 blocks in 33.4 minutes. His shooting splits are 51.2%/36.7%/82.8%. That’s MVP-level production.
Over the last 12 games, the three-time All-NBA center doubled down. Since Dec. 26, Embiid averages 33.3 points on 56.8% shooting overall and 37.5% behind the arc.
Ask the Orlando Magic how well he’s playing. On Jan. 19, Embiid scored 50 points in 27 minutes. According to ESPN News Services, it’s the second-fewest minutes played in a 50-point game in the shot-clock era (1954–55). Klay Thompson scored 52 points in 26:33 in October 2018. Embiid logged 27:03 against the Magic.
The four-time All-Star is a difference-maker for Philadelphia. The Sixers are 23–10 when Embiid plays, 3-8 when he doesn’t.
It’s the second part of that equation that complicates things.
Joel Embiid is why the 76ers can’t stand pat
As great as Joel Embiid is, he’s just as fragile. The superstar’s current streak of 16 consecutive games is the third-longest of his career. That’s not even 20% of a season. However, it’s like A.C. Green iron-man territory for Embiid.
His only longer streaks were 19 straight games from Feb. 22-March 28, 2018, and a career-long 26 consecutive contests to start the 2018–19 season.
The No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft played 293 games so far in his career. The Philadelphia 76ers have played 517 in that span. Knee problems are the primary concern since he sat out his first two seasons with a broken foot. He’s never missed fewer than 18 games in a season, and he is at 13 this season.
The native of Cameroon doesn’t think Philadelphia needs to make any moves. After a win over the Boston Celtics on Jan. 14, Embiid said as much, per Tim Bontemps of ESPN.
“When I look at where we are when we got most of the team in the lineup, especially me in the lineup, then we are 21–9 (now 23–10),” Embiid said. “That’s not bad. … There’s really no urgency to change anything. I think we got everything we need.”
He’s right to a degree. The 76ers are OK but with an enormous caveat: They’re fine if nothing goes wrong with Embiid. History says that’s not a bet in which to invest heavily.
It’s a long drop off for the Philadelphia 76ers after Embiid
The Philadelphia 76ers have three players on maximum contracts. Besides Joel Embiid and Simmons, Tobias Harris is at the top of the pay scale.
In the third season of a five-year contract signed in 2019, Harris is missing Simmons much more than is Embiid.
The 11-year pro is scoring 18.2 points per game, down from last season’s 19.5 mark despite playing 2.3 minutes more per game. Harris’s 3-point shot has all but disappeared. He’s hitting 31.3%, down from 39.4%. It’s his lowest mark since 2013–14 and well off his career 36.4% pace.
Spacing isn’t a problem for the Sixers. Seth Curry shoots 41.7% from 3-point range, Tyrese Maxey is at 40.2%, reserve Georges Niang drops 39.5% of his attempts, and veteran Danny Green hits 38.1%.
However, none of those players fits the profile of a top option. The way he’s played this season neither does Harris.
Playmaking by committee is working for coach Doc Rivers’ team. Maxey leads the club with 4.3 assists per game, but three players (including Embiid) average at least four a night, with Harris at 3.8. Still, without Simmons, the team lacks a full-time facilitator.
Joel Embiid is the leader of the Philadelphia 76ers. Ultimately, they will go as far as he takes them. But it’s wrong to think there is no urgency to resolve the Simmons situation. Given the superstar big man’s injury history, standing pat at the NBA trade deadline is an enormous risk.