By Connor Thomas
Last year, Joel Embiid was the consensus best basketball player on the planet – well, at least in Philadelphia. Much of the NBA world agreed, but ultimately he did not play in enough games to deserve the award. In spite of that, he was absolutely dominant in 2020-21, and reports out of this year’s training camp (the few not about #25) said that Embiid was in even better shape this season. But now, 4 games in, there are already concerns about the big man’s health, and his ability to play through the myriad of aches and pains that come along with being a 7’2” Center in today’s NBA. Not only has Embiid complained of issues with nagging injuries already, but his play has also seemingly suffered through the first couple contests this year. So the question is beginning to pop up: is it time to start getting concerned about Joel Embiid’s ability to carry the Sixers this season?
Well, in fairness, the load is more on his shoulders than it has ever been considering the issues still surrounding Ben Simmons and his future with the Sixers. Even if Simmons does return to play, he is at constant risk of being traded, leaving Embiid potentially with less support than what he has when #25 is on the floor alongside him. To this point, the two haven’t shared the floor together this season, meaning that the focus of opposing teams has fallen much more heavily on the Sixers’ franchise cornerstone. Through the first 4 games this year, Embiid is averaging 19.3 ppg, 7.3 boards, and 4.5 assists on 42.3% shooting. Last year over the same (admittedly miniscule) stretch, the big man was posting 26.5 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 2.5 assists on average with 53.4% shooting from the floor. It’s an interesting study in how Ben Simmons’ absence has affected the team – Embiid is being covered more effectively, but he is averaging more assists which would lend to the idea that the spacing has actually improved – but it also shows a worrying drop in overall production for #21. It’s a small sample size, but it certainly appears that Joel will need a hand from his supporting cast more often this year if Simmons continues to sit out.
The other concern, though, is one that has persisted throughout his entire career: injuries. Embiid has already hit the floor hard multiple times this season, and has been listed on the injury report multiple times in just the first week and change. At 27 years old, he’s not necessarily on the back side of his career, but big men always age faster. Embiid is not getting any younger, and one could make the argument that without another superstar to take some of the focus and contact off of the big man, that aging process could potentially be accelerated. It’s a worry that is certainly valid, and will require constant managing by the Sixers coaches and medical staff, but only time will tell how much it will affect the team. Ultimately, will Joel Embiid still be a dominant basketball player? Absolutely. Will he be the best player on the Sixers this year? Almost surely. But through the first few contests, there are some slight alarms being raised as to whether or not this season could end up being a regression from what was one of the great Philadelphia basketball seasons of all time last year.