Philadelphia 76ers general manager Daryl Morey sat down with Sports Illustrated NBA Senior Writer Howard Beck for a recent si.com story. Within the interview, Morey knowingly referred to Sixers star center Joel Embiid, as in, not James Harden, as the most impregnable offensive force he’s seen.
“I get in trouble when I say stuff like this, but he’s the most unstoppable thing I’ve ever seen,” Morey told Beck. “And I’ve seen a lot. You know who I’ve seen. But I’ve never seen anything like it. Like last night against Rudy Gobert, he faced him up at eight feet, and I mean, it ended in a dunk. And (Gobert) is an amazing defender. And he had no answer.”
There’s something to what Morey is saying on the eye-test portion of this, although it’s obviously subjective (and debatably prisoner of the moment). Morey highlighted Embiid’s 40-point, 19-rebound outburst against two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert right before the All-Star break, which fails to stand as even his most dominant performance of the season. In fact, it was Embiid’s fifth game of at least 40 points and 10 rebounds, which includes his only 50-point game ever, which was on Feb. 19, against the Chicago Bulls.
In comparison to Harden, which is difficult given their playing styles, the main distinction to make is Embiid’s standing as a center versus Harden’s place as a ball-dominant guard in a league catering to that very position. That said, Harden did average 29 points or more for five straight seasons a streak that will end this year, but an all-timer nonetheless. It includes a two-year stretch in which Harden posted 36.1 and 34.3 points per game.
Not to say one is better than the other in this stupid sports debate — and frankly, I don’t have a side in this, and I don’t care what yours is either — but to Morey’s point, maybe Embiid’s first 30 games have made him seem more unstoppable once you peel back the layers. For Harden, the league-leading scoring numbers came on 44 percent shooting from the field. When netting 36.1 points, he shot 36.8-percent from three and 35.5-percent the following campaign when he averaged 34.3. Not bad efficiency-wise, but he was aided by his free throw attempts per game (11.0 and 11.8, respectively), where he knocked between 86-and-88-percent. Harden also attempted 24.5 shots per game, over 13 of which came from three, at his most unguardable.
For Embiid, it’s just different. The 7-foot center is averaging 30.2 points and 11.6 rebounds while still reigning as one of the league’s best defenders, doing it on both ends. Embiid is also putting forth shooting splits of 52.1 / 41.6 / 85.6 but is predominately scoring inside the arc. Even at 18.2 shot attempts per game, Embiid’s only hoisting three three-point shots per contest, the lowest tally of his career. He’s also shooting 11.6 free throw attempts per game.
Embiid’s numerically working harder for his buckets. His average field-goal attempt distance is 11.7-feet, almost five-feet closer than Harden’s, meaning Embiid’s facing much more congestion in the lane and on the interior. 83.7-percent of Embiid’s shots are from two, a career-high, whereas Harden stood under 50-percent because of his volume of threes. And Embiid’s offensive rating of 124 would stand as Harden’s best outside of his Sixth Man of the Year season in Oklahoma City (2011-12), though, The Beard’s current run with the Brooklyn Nets has brought his O-rating to 124, which would match Embiid this season, but his two super-scoring seasons would be worse (118 and 120).
Most notably, in this guard-driven league, Embiid’s averaging 30 points this season, which is primarily a feat achieved by guards like Harden, Steph Curry, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, and Michael Jordan. If Embiid does remain at or above the 30-point per game threshold, he’ll be the first big man since Karl Malone (1989-1990) and first center since Moses Malone (1981-1982) to net this historic mark.
So overall, it isn’t full-proof, but Morey has a case. It might not be better or worse, just different. But there’s something to be said for Morey’s claim, which Embiid could enhance depending on how the rest of the season goes.