The best players in the NBA are fighters. Their perfection is accepted as a template; of course they say something about the state of the game. The fact that Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, winner and runner-up at the 2021 MVP, have raised such commendable years has a meta-significance, at least for those tired of the uniformity of modern basketball: The tyranny of the perimeter is over. The center returns.
Of the two players, Embiid makes the more convincing case, fitting better to the traditional contours of the position than to the avant-garde Serb. After changes in his body, his game and roster and the coaching staff around him, the 7-foot Philadelphia 76ers played more purposefully than ever during the regular season, setting career peaks in scoring an average and effective field goal percentage and leading of his team to 49-23 record. In insult, he was a montage, stroking middle-class jumpers and blowing up double diving teams. On the other hand, he placed the seventh best season in defensive RAPTOR, laying the groundwork for the league̵
“You don’t realize how dominant he is,” Philadelphia head coach Doc Rivers told ESPN.com in May. “He does things that no one else can do.”
The best-placed Sixers had better hopes for that. In the 12 seasons since Kevin Garnett led the Boston Celtics to the 2008 title, several teams in the finals have even presented foggy players with central form as focal points. When Jokic lost his most productive teammate to an ACL tear in April, Embiid became the position’s best chance to boost his renaissance with a final. Then his postseason will double as a litmus test: Is a tie in one of the best players in the world enough to make big men matter?
The logic behind the guards and the wings controlling the playoffs is clear enough. Scattered pick and roll remains the most devastating tactic in basketball, and the bomber who unlocks its direct and indirect exits – rim completions, three-point discounts, pennies to big guns and positioners – can help keep the offense at bay. series. Publishing is reductive in comparison. It is a bet that one-on-one superiority outweighs adaptability at the moment; recent NBA history has shown that gambling is bad.
Embiid’s own seasons do not exactly support the idea that the elite center is a prerequisite for a contender. In each of his three playoffs before 2021 with the Sixers, when he faced defenses in time to prepare and adapt to his game, Embiid’s effective goal percentage dropped from its levels in the regular season. His score for the player’s performance for this section, 21.4, was 3.5 points lower than his score for the regular season. Small samples are applied, as always with post-season figures, but among the NBA superstar class – the 14 players who have made at least two teams from all NBA in the last three seasons – the elimination of Embiid’s PER is the fifth steepest.
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There are deeper-rooted problems. Traditional wisdom says that the sign of true hope for a title is the top 10 for attack and defense, and the teams of Embiid from Philadelphia tend to lose to the first qualification. Only once in his career has the Sixers broken through the top three in offensive efficiency, finishing eighth in 2018-19; this year they ranked 13th. Philly’s occasional attack isn’t all Embiid’s fault, of course – having a defender who treats jumps, as Bartleby treats the papers, is less than ideal – but the loss in the first round last August from the Boston Celtics put the shortcomings of the postcentric attack on display. Playing without injury to Ben Simmons, Embiid showed the best individual numbers of his career in the playoffs so far (30 points and 12.3 rebounds per game), but the Sixers scored just 106 points per 100 possessions in four games.
Still, the champions are exceptional by definition, and Embiid in his current form deserves a kind of attention that has not been paid before him or his colleagues. His improvement covers the category and covers both the design of his game and its performance. He became smarter in raising 3 points, shooting three levels in a regular-season game, but did so at a rate (37.7%) that turned the fragile flexibility show into a viable threat; the brand placed it in the 70th percentile of the big NBA glass cleaners. His middle-class shooting also received an upgrade from 41% (62nd percentile) last season to 47% (76th) this year. Assisted by Rivers’ assertive kits – earlier cross-screens, less tracking with drawings by numbers, at an accelerated pace – and the 3-point infusion provided by Seth Curry and Danny Green, he gets a more open look at his favorites. places; the share of 2 points he took with the closest defender at least 4 feet away jumped from 38.4% last season, according to Second Spectrum, to 45% this year. This turbocharged Embiid collected 30.3 PER during the regular season, second to 31.3 on Jokić and a total of 8.8 RAPTOR, again second only to Jokić.
Embiid’s performance against Washington and Atlanta offered both a study of the renewed approach and an argument for its readiness for the playoffs. A representative sequence came in the second quarter of Game 2 against the Hawks, in which Embiid will collect a career in the playoffs with 40 points to help the Sixers even in the series. On a trip down the court, he caught the ball in the left block, fired a shot at Clint Capella and threw in 8 feet (a good shot last year, great now) over a late-arriving double team.
The next, Embiid collected the ball in the same spot, and as Capella moved forward against a shot, he growled around (and then through it) to jam. Taken together, the buckets offer this or that element in his game that is as resilient as, say, James Harden coming out of the screen with a ball: I have everything I need here.
Whether this is true remains to be seen. If the Sixers progress, they will probably coincide with the hypermodern Brooklyn Nets, which currently remind the Bucks and everyone else of what is really needed to keep pace in the new era. Philadelphia is ranked at 120.6 points per 100 playoffs, more than five of the best figures in Brooklyn. But when Embiid played, that number jumped to 134.6. Calling on Embiid to maintain its newly discovered effectiveness after the season, while carrying a heavier load of minutes (so far he has only played 28 per night), would be a big question. But it will also make a fitting end to a year in which he had fans thirsty for the glorious days of the NBA hippos.
There is a mythical aspect of the dominant center, this figure, which at best has no physical peer on the floor. Embiid’s job is to make the myth as real as possible, as often as it can.
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