Joel Embiid can see the finish line of the regular season now just eight games away. The Sixers were in first place, just for a moment, before they fell to the best-in-class Phoenix Suns. Now, they have dropped all the way to fourth place, although just a half a game separates the top four teams in the Eastern Conference.
The Athletic’s Sam Amick, actually a friend of our “Gastroenteritis Blues” pod, caught up with the front-runner for the 2022 NBA MVP award Joel Embiid, and got him to share some thoughts on a few hot topics in Sixerland.
On Ben Simmons
Joel talked about the Ben Simmons saga. In case you just crawled out of your hibernation, Simmons never suited up for the Sixers this season. He told the team he was dealing with mental health struggles, back in October, which precluded him from playing. But the team managed to remain in third place, despite missing an All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
The narrative here certainly doesn’t hurt Embiid’s case for MVP.
Embiid in his own words, Per Amick:
“It was a tough situation to navigate and go through (with Simmons). Even to this day, I don’t have any hard feelings towards everything that happened. But being in my position, having to answer questions about that whole thing every single day, it was kind of draining. And I’m sure it was draining for my teammates….
I supported him (Simmons) throughout everything because I kind of understood the human side of it, too. But then again, you know, it’s a business.”
On prioritizing health
Many believe that Joel Embiid would have won MVP last season. He was actually favored just before going down with a knee issue on a scary fall in Washington, now just over a year ago. Embiid talked about how he has prioritized staying healthy.
“The knock on me was last year that I wasn’t healthy enough. So to come back, take another step (with his play), and then also stay on the floor, that was a big goal for me. When you look at this year, sure it looks like I missed, what, 12 games or whatever. But nine of them were due to COVID and all that stuff. So I’m really happy, and I’m excited for myself….
I’m extremely excited because I’ve come a long way from missing those first two years (and) really the first three years. (From) being on minute restrictions and all that stuff, to be able to really say that I could have played, you know, 70 to 80 games this season — it was hard to deal with.”
What precisely Embiid did to stay as healthy as he has (knock wood) is an interesting subject. When we hosted his trainer Drew Hanlen on a Jan. 2021 LB pod, Hanlen said they did not work specifically on finding ways to avoid injury. Maybe that changed, or maybe it’s something Joel works on with team trainers instead. Ramona Shelburne of ESPN has reported he has a special way to fall like a tree. This season he appears to be slowing down around the basket more and using more layups than dunks when he can.
Whatever’s the case, he’s been basically an iron man other than the breakthrough COVID bout, which you certainly can’t fault him for.
On how Daryl Morey earned Joel’s trust
Joel Embiid admitted he didn’t know Morey when the team hired him back during the 2020 offseason. But Morey began by talking about life and impressed Joel with how much he knew about an array of subjects. Then, he cleaned up the odd-fitting Al Horford, Josh Richardson pairing:
“He went in and he got Seth Curry (in a deal with Dallas that sent Richardson and the 36th pick to the Mavericks) and then obviously from there it just looked like everything just all fit together. So I was like, ‘OK.’ We started playing well, and obviously you add that with the number one seed last year. And in the playoffs, if we all played at the level that we were supposed to, we should have at least gone to the conference finals.
So that’s where the trust really came.”
On James Harden
Embiid admitted in the interview that he didn’t anticipate the blockbuster Harden acquisition. To be honest, we didn’t either. It caught a lot of people off-guard.
“Honestly, I didn’t know anything was going to happen, really, until it happened,” Embiid was quoted as saying.
This back-and-forth from a fun interview was intriguing:
“Amick: I mean (Simmons’ camp) will tell you that Ben was shopping for houses in Houston…
Embiid: I guess it got pretty close, then. So looking at that, then I still wasn’t expecting it. And then this year, when it actually happened, I was like, ‘Yo, this is crazy…’
Amick: But you had to tell them that you were good with it at some point, right?
Embiid: I don’t really like to get into those conversations, because I don’t want to be responsible for, you know, choosing guys and not succeeding. … (But) when it did happen, ultimately, I was like, ‘You know what? That’s James Harden. We know what he’s done in the past.”
Embiid clearly doesn’t want to be viewed as pushing for this or another trade. There was a rumor out there he pushed for Bradley Beal (who he shares a trainer with in Hanlen), but who knows. It makes sense he’d keep this close to the vest. But you can imagine he was pretty happy either way.
On winning a title
“We are lucky. But we’ve all got to play at the highest level possible. I’ve got to be as dominant as ever. Obviously (Harden) has to be extremely good too, whether it’s scoring the ball or setting up guys. Everybody else has got to come in together and believe in it and really buy-in. Tyrese (Maxey) has been great. Tobias (Harris) has been great. Matisse (Thybulle) has been great. Georges (Niang) and guys coming off the bench, they’ve been great. So I think it’s all about — even nights like tonight. I’m not happy about the way we played. Honestly, it should have been a blowout.”
That answer came after the Sixers beat a shorthanded Lakers squad. After that, they had a great win vs. the Clippers, and then, a painful loss vs. the Suns. Harden dominated vs. the Clips, but was seen clutching at his troublesome hamstring in Phoenix amid a poor shooting game.
That issue is the biggest swing-factor in this team’s title hopes now.
Embiid: [Morey and I] just kept talking and talking and talking. And the thing that I liked was that it wasn’t about basketball. It was about life. Whether it’s crypto, or all the smart people stuff.
Amick: He got you on crypto, huh?
Embiid: I’m not big on it. I don’t believe in it. I just like to learn a little bit about everything.
Pretty funny that Embiid isn’t a Crypto guy. We guess Team Prez Chris Heck couldn’t get him to embrace the whole fabric of our identity stuff:
Chris Heck: “https://t.co/lVa9oS2Ztj will be woven into the fabric of our identity, and together, we will change the landscape for how crypto is integrated in sports.”
Joel Embiid: “I don’t believe in it.”
— Francis Parker (@franciszomes) March 28, 2022
Rather bluntly, Joel just says he doesn’t believe in it. With just a few regular games left, this dude has a chance to further etch his name into Sixers history by winning an MVP. Then, comes the real challenge.