The Philadelphia 76ers have been an enigma this season. Capable of beating anyone at home and losing to anyone on the road, it’s hard to tell what this team really is as 22 NBA teams head to Orlando to resume the season next month.
Joel Embiid enjoys being the centre of attention. His conditioning is often just that, and never more so than right now. It takes a yet greater focus following the photos of a slimmed down Nikola Jokic that have surfaced over the last couple days.
The narrative that Embiid will not return in peak physical condition tends to be the most common one at the moment. There are other ways to look at the league’s resumption for a player like Embiid, however.
The break could allow him to recover from niggling injuries. Perhaps recharging the batteries and less wear and tear will allow him to dominate in the playoffs in a way we haven’t seen before. Maybe the eight regular season games are just the right amount to get him ready for a bruising first-round series against Boston or Miami.
Embiid should be the best player in a playoff series against the Celtics, Heat, Raptors or Pacers. Christmas Day showed how he can matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks. Of the East’s top six, Philly are best set up to quieten the soon-to-be two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Brett Brown wants Embiid fit enough for 38 minutes per night in the postseason. If he can get close to that number, the Sixers are going to be a serious threat in the Eastern Conference. Embiid influences the game at both ends even when he’s not near the ball – opponent’s shot charts change with him on the floor, they are always wary of him getting the ball in the post.
The loss of those regular season games, the months off from competitive basketball, could feed in an element of randomness to the NBA’s return. Different theories can be followed on who it benefits most of all.
Players like Embiid, players with history of injuries, players who can burn out in the playoffs, have the greatest window of uncertainty ahead of the league’s restart. An out-of-shape Embiid could see the Sixers become a non-factor. It is possible to imagine a scenario, though, where a seven-foot-plus big man is able to push himself to new levels after such a period to rest.
Taking over a high-standard playoff series is what stands between Embiid and a guaranteed spot in the NBA’s top 10 players. To get close to his ‘second coming of Hakeem’ potential, Embiid has to be a two-way force in a deep playoff run. Conditioning, illness and injuries cannot get in the way.
The 26-year-old may never have a better chance than the 2020 playoffs. Amid front office changes and roster overhauls, the ever-turbulent Sixers provide their challenges for Embiid and Ben Simmons.
This roster isn’t perfect, but if Embiid is to deliver on the promise he showed in his pre-draft workouts and throughout his first years in the NBA, he needs an ascendant playoff series sooner rather than later.
As it stands, the Sixers would face Boston in the first round. That’s a great matchup for Embiid. Then it would likely be Toronto, a series Philly might be favoured in. Embiid, Al Horford and Simmons are a formidable triumvirate to throw at Antetokounmpo in a potential Conference Finals.
The home and away splits are a hard factor to evaluate. The loss of their home crowd matters, but they aren’t playing road games either.
Embiid, an entertainer and the result of The Process, will miss his Philly faithful more than anyone, but for a team unlikely to even have had homecourt in the first round, the Sixers probably don’t lose too much from playing at a neutral venue.
The ceiling of these Sixers is still the NBA Finals. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them depart Orlando with a whimper in the first round either, though. That’s part of what makes them such a popular NBA storyline, such a fascinating team to discuss, to ponder.
It isn’t all down to Embiid, but Philly obviously need him at his Defensive Player of the Year, unguardable best if they are to challenge deep into these delayed playoffs.
The majority of conjecture about Embiid is negative – there’s reason to be positive about the season’s delay and how the 22-team format could benefit the charismatic big man.