Joel Embiid has played more minutes this season than he did in his previous college and NBA careers combined, and boy is it fucking showing. Before Thursday’s 108-99 loss to the Miami Heat, Embiid told local media, “In a season, you’re going to go through slumps. And I feel like I have been playing bad recently, although the box score might not say it.” He then had one of his worst games of the year, scoring 17 points and committing five fouls in 28 minutes. His offense was even worse than it looked in the box score, as he banged two desperation threes in the last four minutes of the game, including a bank shot with 42 seconds left.
The Sixers have had a great second half—at 35-29 and the six-hole in the East, they’re comfortably in the playoffs, and even have a a decent shot at hosting a first-round series. But their comically weak schedule and Ben Simmons’s excellent play have masked the fact that Embiid has not been himself for a while.
Those five fouls last night were the fourth time Embiid has committed that many in the last seven games, after getting to that number only eight times in the first 46 games of the season. After starting the season with 11- and 18-point games, Embiid hadn’t been under 20 points in consecutive games—until the last three games, where he scored 19, 18, and 17.
Maybe the clearest sign that Embiid’s legs are shot is his free-throw shooting. His ability to reliably sink free throws has been huge for the Sixers. It helps a lot when your 7-foot, 250-pound center gets to the foul line almost nine times a game and makes 77.9 percent of his free throws, which Embiid did through February. In his last six games, though, those numbers have dropped to seven attempts a game and a dreadful 55.8 percent—albeit still better than Markelle Fultz’s entire NBA career.
Beyond the statistical evidence, the big fella just looks gassed. He’s always been fond of jumpers, but he appears to be settling for them instead of physical confrontations. (Kyle Neubeck of the Philly Voice ran the numbers on that one, and there’s a slight difference: 61.4 percent of his shots have come inside 15 feet the last five games, as opposed to 66.3 on the full season.) Embiid has been the monster at the rim that he usually is, but elsewhere on defense, he’s clearly been slower to rotate and help when needed.
Sixers coach Brett Brown, who finally put Embiid in his first-ever back-to-backs last month, openly admitted it after last night: “Fatigue definitely has a part to say in some of Joel’s performances recently.”
The Sixers have four more back-to-backs remaining on their schedule. Brown should forget about playing Embiid in half of those games.