The 2019-20 bubble-abbreviated season was a self-admitted down year for Joel Embiid. He still averaged 23.0 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, but he didn’t feel dominant. Not even close.
Fast forward to this year where he’s firmly planted his size 17 sneaker into the MVP conversation. It’s a three-man race right now between Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Stephen Curry. But the Sixers’ outspoken 7-footer is arguably the leading candidate to win it, among both the Sixers’ diehards and in Embiid’s own mind.
“There’s no doubt,” Embiid told Stadium’s Shams Charania, when asked if he deserves MVP. “The main thing I’m always focused on is winning. When you win, everybody on this team wins. If you’re not winning, those stuff are not going to come.
“You’re not going to be nominated for that stuff, and you’re not going to have the chance to win that stuff, so my focus is always about winning the championship. And when it comes to those awards … I mean, you mentioned it, it just feels like every single time I have the ball, they always send three guys at me, and I’m still able to do what I do best.”
And what Embiid does best is score, whether he’s posting up in the paint or stepping back for three balls. Or doing his own interpretation of the Dream Shake. He’s been unstoppable. And when opponents have been able to slow him down, Embiid has drawn the foul call. The Sixers’ big man has gotten to the free-throw line at a historic rate: 11.7 times per game (478 attempts). Wilt Chamberlain holds the league record (1,336) during his legendary 1961-62 season.
“Last year I felt like I was disrespected. Everybody forgot who I was so I thought that I needed to do better,” Embiid said. “But a down year for me is still better than a lot of guys. But the standard is high and I still feel that I should have made All-NBA Team because a guy of my talent should never miss that stuff.
“So that really bothered me a lot and I remember during this past offseason, I actually tweeted and I was like … What did I say? I feel like I got deported because everybody forgot about me. So that was the point where I thought I had to get back to where I was two years ago.”
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What Changed to Motivate Embiid This Year?
Embiid had his mind on other things in the Orlando bubble, mainly because his partner, Anne De Paula, was pregnant. The couple welcomed a son, Arthur, who is named after Embiid’s brother who tragically died in a car crash in 2014. The All-Star center was worried about their health and safety last year, then re-dedicated himself to building a legacy for him.
“He’s the main reason why I’m playing the way I am this year,” Embiid said of Arthur. “I’m always going to remind him it ain’t easy, to stay humble. I’m going to raise the bar very high. Multiple championships, multiple MVPs, Defensive Player of the Year, the best player in the world.”
But his primary focus remains on winning a championship and delivering Philadelphia its first Larry O’Brien Trophy since 1983. The Sixers recently slipped to No. 2 in the Eastern Conference standings following three straight losses. Not to worry, Embiid still sees a dream ending to this crazy COVID-19 nightmare.
“In a perfect world, NBA champions,” Embiid said when asked how this year ends, “and I really believe that we have a chance. We have everything in place. We have everything — and, in the middle, I’m not going to stop. I’m not going to slow down. I’m even going to get better.”
Responding to Criticism From NBA Legends
Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal have been mercilessly harping on Embiid’s flaws for at least three years now. Barkley infamously called him a “fat butt” while O’Neal said “you ain’t playing hard enough.” Embiid listened intently and never clapped back. He credited them for motivating him.
“They kept talking about how dominant I could be,” Embiid said. “I understood. Because they saw the talent and the things I could really do, but I wasn’t using it [talent]. I wasn’t doing it. So when they were criticizing me, I saw it as a way to kind of open my eyes and actually be better. Instead of using it as criticism, I took it as I want to be better.”
No more excuses, according to Embiid. He also heaped praise on new head coach Doc Rivers and team president Daryl Morey for putting all the championship pieces in place. The Sixers finally have the shooters around Embiid to maximize his talents.
“No more excuses,” Embiid said. “This was the spacing I’ve always asked for. This is the spacing I always needed. My focus is on winning the championship.”