The NBA’s best players are bellwethers. Their excellence is taken as a template; they are understood to say something about the state of the game. That Nikola JokiÄ and Joel Embiid, the winner of and runner-up for the 2021 MVP award, put up such commendable years has a meta meaning, at least to those tired of the sameness of contemporary basketball: The tyranny of the perimeter is over. The center is back.
Of the two players, Embiid makes the more compelling case, fitting the position’s traditional contours better than the avant-garde Serb. Following alterations to his body, his game and the roster and coaching staff around him, the Philadelphia 76ers’ 7-footer played more purposefully than ever over the regular season, setting career highs in scoring average and effective field-goal percentage and leading his team to a 49-23 record. On offense, he was a montage, stroking midrange jumpers and blasting through double-teams for dunks. On the other end, he put up the seventh-best season in defensive RAPTOR, laying the foundation for the league’s second-stingiest defense overall. The uptick has carried into the postseason; over the five full games he’s played against the Wizards and Hawks (setting aside the one and change missed with a partial meniscus tear), Embiid put up 33.4 points per game on 60.9 percent shooting.
“You don’t realize just how dominant he is,” Philadelphia head coach Doc Rivers told ESPN.com in May. “He does things that no other big can do.”
The top-seeded Sixers had better hope so. In the 12 seasons since Kevin Garnett led the Boston Celtics to the 2008 title, few Finals teams have featured even vaguely center-shaped players as their focal points. When JokiÄ lost his most productive teammate to an ACL tear in April, Embiid became the position’s best chance to cap its resurgence with a Finals appearance. His postseason, then, will double as a litmus test: Is leveling up into one of the world’s best players enough to make big men matter?
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The logic behind guards and wings ruling the playoffs is straightforward enough. The spread pick-and-roll remains basketball’s most devastating tactic, and a ballhandler who unlocks its direct and indirect outputs — rim finishes, step-back threes, dimes to lane-running bigs and stationed marksmen — can help sustain an offense through a seven-game series. Post play is reductive in comparison. It amounts to a bet that one-on-one superiority trumps in-the-moment adaptability; recent NBA history has shown the gamble to be a bad one.
Embiid’s own postseasons haven’t exactly supported the idea that an elite center is a prerequisite for a contender. In each of his three pre-2021 playoff runs with the Sixers, when he faced defenses with time to prep for and adapt to his game, Embiid’s effective field-goal percentage dropped from its regular-season levels. His player-efficiency rating over that stretch, 21.4, was 3.5 points lower than his regular-season mark. Small-sample caveats apply, as they always do with postseason figures, but among the NBA’s superstar class — the 14 players who have made at least two All-NBA teams over the past three seasons — Embiid’s PER drop-off was the fifth-steepest.
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There are deeper-seated issues. Conventional wisdom holds that the mark of a true title hopeful is a top-10 offense and defense, and Embiid’s Philadelphia teams tend to fall short of the first qualification. Only once in his career have the Sixers breached the league’s top third in offensive efficiency, an eighth-place finish in 2018-19; this year they ranked 13th. Philly’s occasionally muddy attack isn’t all Embiid’s fault, of course — having a point guard who treats jump shots like Bartleby treats paperwork is less than ideal — but last August’s first-round loss to the Boston Celtics put the shortcomings of post-centric attack on display. Playing without the injured Ben Simmons, Embiid put up the best individual numbers of his playoff career to that point (30 points and 12.3 rebounds per game), but the Sixers scratched across just 106 points per 100 possession over a four-game sweep.
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Still, champions are exceptional by definition, and Embiid in his current form merits a kind of attention not previously paid to him or his back-to-the-basket colleagues. His improvement spans category and encompasses both the design of his game and its execution. He’s become more judicious in hoisting 3-pointers, shooting a career-low three per game over the regular season but making them at a rate (37.7 percent) that turned a flimsy show of versatility into a viable threat; the mark put him in the 70th percentile of NBA bigs, per Cleaning the Glass. His midrange shooting likewise received an upgrade, from 41 percent (62nd percentile) last season to 47 percent (76th) this year. Aided by Rivers’s assertive sets — more early-in-the-clock cross screens, fewer paint-by-numbers post-ups, at a revved-up pace — and the 3-point infusion courtesy of Seth Curry and Danny Green, he’s getting more open looks at his preferred spots; the share of 2-pointers he took with the nearest defender at least 4 feet away jumped from 38.4 percent last season, according to Second Spectrum, to 45 percent this one. This turbo-boosted Embiid tallied a 30.3 PER during the regular season, second to JokiÄ’s 31.3, and a +8.8 in total RAPTOR, again second only to JokiÄ.
Embiid’s performance against Washington and Atlanta has offered both a survey of the overhauled approach and an argument for its playoff readiness. A representative sequence came in the second quarter of Game 2 against the Hawks, in which Embiid would tally a career-playoff-high 40 points to help the Sixers even the series. On one trip down the court, he caught the ball on the left block, fired a jab step at Clint Capela, and tossed in an 8-footer (a good shot last year, a great one now) over a late-arriving double-team.
On the next, Embiid gathered the ball in the same spot and, as Capela inched forward against the jump shot, rumbled around (and then through) him for a jam. Taken together, the buckets suggested a this-or-that element to his game every bit as sustainable as, say, James Harden coming off a ball screen: I’ve got everything I need right here.
Whether that’s true remains to be seen. If the Sixers advance, they’ll likely match up with the hyper-modern Brooklyn Nets, who are presently reminding the Bucks and everyone else what’s really required to keep pace in the new era. Philadelphia sits at 120.6 points per 100 possessions over the playoffs, more than 5 back of Brooklyn’s league-best figure. But when Embiid plays, that number jumps to 134.6. Calling on Embiid to maintain his newfound postseason efficiency while shouldering a heavier minutes load (he’s played just 28 a night so far) would be a big ask. But it would also make for a fitting ending to a year in which he’s had fans wistful for the glory days of NBA behemoths.
There’s a mythic aspect to the dominant center, this figure who at his best has no physical peer on the floor. Embiid’s job is to make the myth as real as he can, as often as he’s able.
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