Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokić are starkly different people. Yes, they are MVP centers who were not raised in America, but the similarities largely stop there. One player is from Africa and the other is from Europe. One player is the most physically dominant in the NBA, the other combines size, court vision, and touch in an awkward ballet that always seems to result in points. Also, one of them plays for the Philadelphia 76ers and the other for the Denver Nuggets. Two organizations that built teams, but only one has a structure that is still standing.
A statement from Embiid’s press conference following the 76ers’ 112-88 Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics went viral. He was asked about James Harden’s future and his response went for nearly two minutes. For those who better spent their Sunday honoring special women rather than paying attention to an NBA press conference, these are the thoughts that pissed off much of America:
“Me and James can’t win alone, Embiid said to the media after stating that he needs to be better. “We just can’t win alone. That’s why basketball is played five-on-five. We just need everybody to just try to keep finding ways to get better and we’ll be fine.”
Jokić is a dazzling offensive player. The magnitude of his talent began to come to light during the 2019-20 season. In the bubble playoffs it was clear that he was a big man the likes of which the NBA had never seen. He went on to win two MVPs, largely because he was playing better basketball than anyone in the NBA. Without talent, improvement, and better fitness, he never would have won those MVPs, but it also would have been much more difficult without the rosters that the Nuggets have assembled.
Nikola Jokić has a lot more help
Even last season when the Nuggets’ roster was decimated by injury, of the four of Jokić’s teammates who totaled the most minutes, two of them shot better than 35 percent from the 3-point line. When the Nuggets shocked the people who decided to watch the NBA playoffs during the 2020 COVID summer, four Nuggets, besides Jokić, shot 40 percent or better from the 3-point line in the first round. Their shooting numbers were not as gaudy in the second round, but still — four rotational players shot better than 35 percent.
During the 76ers’ 2023 loss to the Celtics, the only starter for the 76ers who shot better than 35 percent from three for the series was P.J. Tucker, and he can only make them from the corners in spurts. The other two players to break 35 percent for the 76ers were DeAnthony Melton and Georges Niang.
While the Celtics were pouring threes all over the 76ers during the third quarter of their 112-88 Game 7 victory, they were also able to outscore their opponent 33-10 during that frame, because Philly’s offense had no answers. With that lack of dependable shooting, Joe Mazzulla had decided in Game 6 to put Robert Williams in the starting lineup and clog not only the paint, but cause a backup all throughout the 76ers’ offense.
The Embiid-Harden pick and roll was less successful that game, and during the second half on Sunday it was a non-factor. As much success as Harden had with it throughout the series, in Game 7 he didn’t trust his ability to convert near the rim. Embiid saw a wall of Celtics at every turn and morphed into 2019 Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Trust the process?
With the 76ers’ focus during this 10-year process of acquiring stars, as the style of NBA play has changed, they have not equipped their MVP with the necessary long-range threats to keep defenders off of him in the playoffs.
He has led the NBA in scoring for two consecutive seasons. No center has been the scoring champ since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000. Embiid can both muscle and jump-shoot his way to points during the regular season, but when an opposing team gets to analyze him over the course of a series, it realizes that it can close in on him and not worry about the rest of the team.
Tobias Harris is a starting-caliber NBA player, but doesn’t command defense at the 3-point line because he doesn’t shoot from there enough. Tyrese Maxey is a scoring threat who has shot 40-plus percent from behind the arc in consecutive regular seasons. However, the 2022-23 season was only his third in the NBA. Harden generally shoots well by volume from three, but he is no catch-and-shoot option.
Embiid would not be able to hit shooters with touchdown passes like Jokić even if the 76ers were better as a team behind the 3-point line. Still, if the Celtics felt the need to stick with the 76ers’ shooters, at least Embiid wouldn’t be getting stripped from every angle. He could have room in from the mid-post and lower to make moves if the Celtics were determined to let Tucker fire away as many 3-pointers as he wanted, even after going 3-5 in the first quarter — he attempted only one more three the rest of the game.
In an NBA in which space is paramount, forget Michael Porter Jr., where is Embiid’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? Where are the players that defenses have to honor so Embiid doesn’t see three bodies while being stuck with the ball, and having no plan with a handful of seconds remaining on the shot clock?
Embiid struggled during key moments of the 76ers’ 2023 second-round loss, and yes he is dealing with a knee sprain. He is not the first MVP to struggle in the playoffs and he won’t be the last. That being said, his worst moments were when he was hesitant. Those moments presented themselves way too often against the Celtics. A 7-foot-2, nearly 300-pound player who averaged 33.1 points per game on 54.8 percent shooting during the regular season shouldn’t be getting stifled on a regular basis late in the most important games.
As he said, he needs to get better, but so does this team. Maxey will continue to improve while Harden may not be on the team next spring. But for Embiid to have a postseason like Jokić in 2023, the 76ers have to find a way to create some space for their MVP. Those changes won’t result in highlight-reel no-look passes, but could provide reassurance that the 76ers’ offense will never again be as pitiful as it was during the third quarter on Sunday.