After finally breaking through and being named the NBA Most Valuable Award last season following back-to-back runner-up finishes, Joel Embiid looks like he is on track to make it two trophies in a row.
The Philadelphia 76ers’ six-time NBA All-Star is thriving under newly-installed head coach Nick Nurse’s system which has allowed him to play his finest basketball yet. This is saying something, considering that the reigning NBA MVP has also won the league’s scoring title in the last two seasons and is a five-time All-NBA member.
Embiid is now the focal point of Philadelphia’s offense after their front office finally moved on from the ball-dominant James Harden last November and it has paid off handsomely. The 29-year-old center is once again leading the league in points per game with a career-high average of 35.1 points. He is also averaging 11.8 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 1.1 steals which are also the best numbers of his career along with an elite 1.9 blocks.
On the offensive end, Nurse has positioned Embiid primarily at the top of the key where he operates as the Sixers’ primary facilitator. If his teammates cannot get open after a series of cuts and screens, Embiid then sizes up his opponent for a mid-range jumper or a powerful drive to the basket.
The improved mid-range shooting of Embiid, who has made almost 60% of his shots between 15 and 19 feet this season, has opened up the floor for him and unlocked another level in his game.
This season, Embiid already owns two 50-point games and his most recent one versus the West-leading Minnesota Timberwolves was a sight to behold.
Despite playing against the Timberwolves’ twin towers of three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, Embiid hit 17-of-25 field goals en route to scoring 51 points. He also hit 17 of his 18 free throw attempts and did not even need to hit a three-pointer to reach the 50-point mark.
The 7’0 Embiid put on a mid-range clinic versus Minnesota and even forced them to try out an unconventional 1-3-1 zone in an attempt to slow him down.
This win was basically a microcosm of how this season has been for Embiid whose dominance is fast approaching the levels of the greatest offensive center of all time, Wilt Chamberlain. Embiid has now tallied more points (843) than minutes played (819) through 24 games this season and if he can keep this up for the rest of this campaign, he will join Chamberlain as the only other player to finish a season with more points scored (Minimum of 1,000) than total minutes.
More importantly, Embiid’s dominant form has allowed Philadelphia to remain within striking distance of the top two seeds in the East, the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, in spite of having much less star power. The Sixers are currently running third with a 19-8 slate and trail the first place Celtics by only two games through the first third of the season.
The early signs are encouraging, yet postseason success will ultimately determine how this partnership between Embiid and Nurse is evaluated down the road. This Philadelphia team has not made it past the second round of the playoffs since the peak of the Allen Iverson era in 2001 and it is about time that they get this monkey off their back, similar to how Embiid got over the MVP hump last year.
This run of dominance from Embiid has been a thrill to watch, but it will all be for naught if postseason success continues to remain elusive for him in the years that come.