After Sixers flameout, Joel Embiid remains stuck in neutral

After Sixers flameout, Joel Embiid remains stuck in neutral
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Shaquille O’Neal has long been the go-to comparison for Joel Embiid: The two 7-footers punish overmatched opponents, put up 30-point, 10-rebound performances with ease and possess charming, supersized personalities.

But a more apt reference point for Embiid is O’Neal’s TNT commentating partner: Charles Barkley. Like Barkley, Embiid has faced questions about his conditioning and his ability to fulfill his vast potential. Like Barkley, Embiid has a tendency to be too honest for his own good in interviews. And like a young Barkley, Embiid has endured early postseason exits that have raised serious doubts about whether he can get the Philadelphia 76ers over the proverbial hump.

The Miami Heat eliminated Embiid’s 76ers with a 99-90 Game 6 victory on Thursday, prompting some Philadelphia fans to boo the home team and head for the exits before the final buzzer. This was deja vu all over again after last year’s disappointing elimination loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Technically, this qualified as a slight regression, as the 76ers didn’t make it to Game 7 before falling in the second round for the fourth time in the last five seasons.

“We just weren’t good enough,” Embiid said. “The goal was to win a championship and it didn’t happen.”

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Of course, there were major mitigating factors: Embiid tore a thumb ligament, suffered a concussion and fractured his orbital bone during the playoffs, injuries that limited his energy and effectiveness as the Miami series unfolded. Poorly timed health issues are nothing new for Embiid and the 76ers, who displayed far less resolve than the Heat. Tobias Harris suggested that Philadelphia needed to improve its “mental toughness,” while James Harden copped to a teamwide “lack of effort” as Miami pulled away.

Philadelphia’s latest flameout was maddening precisely because it was so familiar. While the names and faces have changed, the 76ers suffered from the same shortcomings as years past: They didn’t have enough offensive threats around Embiid, their bench was underwhelming and they cracked when the going got tough.

Meanwhile, Embiid continued his regrettable habit of pointing the finger at those around him. In 2020, he was unhappy with Coach Brett Brown’s defensive tactics against the Boston Celtics. Brown was fired within days of their first-round exit. Last year, Embiid highlighted Ben Simmons’s refusal to attempt a late-game dunk as a turning point in the season-ending loss to Atlanta. Simmons then staged a months-long holdout and was finally traded to the Brooklyn Nets in February.

This time, Embiid said that he expected more from Harden, Simmons’s replacement. Only a few months after strongly praising Harden’s impact following the midseason trade, Embiid expressed something akin to buyer’s remorse.

“Since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden,” Embiid said. “That’s not who he is anymore. He’s more of a playmaker. I thought at times he could have been, as all of us could have been, more aggressive.”

Embiid was right on the merits — Harden went scoreless in the second half of Game 6 and averaged just 18.6 points per game in the playoffs, his lowest mark in a decade — but wrong in his timing and manner. The 76ers must weigh the possibility of a massive contract extension for Harden this summer, and Embiid’s comments only complicate a delicate situation.

This wasn’t a completely lost season for Embiid, who won his first scoring title and finished as MVP runner-up for the second straight year. Even so, his career remains stuck in neutral.

Embiid, who turned 28 in March, still hasn’t reached the Eastern Conference finals in the eight years since he was drafted, and his peers are lapping him. Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, a top Embiid rival, has two MVPs, a title and a Finals MVP. Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum is four years younger than Embiid and has reached the conference finals twice. Heat forward Jimmy Butler, a former Embiid teammate, has reached the Finals and ended this 76ers’ season since his 2019 departure from Philadelphia.

“I still don’t know how we let [Butler] go,” Embiid said. “I wish I could have gone to battle with him still.”

The five-time all-star center remains stuck in the past because he’s still waiting for his next chapter, the one that was supposed to elevate him alongside the all-time greats. Remember, O’Neal reached the Finals at 23 and won his first title at 28. The NBA revolved around O’Neal in a way that it has never revolved around Embiid, despite his talents and charisma.

By contrast, Barkley played in a league that belonged to Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, and he has explained many times how badly he wanted to be viewed as the sport’s best player. Embiid, similarly, has played in an NBA that has belonged to LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Antetokounmpo, and he has expressed frustration that he hasn’t won MVP yet.

When Barkley was 28 in 1992, his 76ers missed the playoffs and he was traded to the Phoenix Suns. This was a crossroads moment for An Antsy Barkley, and the change of scenery did him wonders, as he was named MVP and led the Suns to the 1993 Finals. Barkley never achieved his championship validation, but that trade dramatically changed his personal story for the better.

Thirty years later, the parallels to Embiid’s situation are obvious. Harden told reporters Thursday that he plans to remain in Philadelphia next season, and the two stars’ salaries will limit the team’s cap flexibility and roster depth. The 76ers have a creative lead executive in Daryl Morey and a keeper in young guard Tyrese Maxey, but little else in the way of trade assets or prospects. Going forward, they look more like the Utah Jazz — a team that has hit a firm wall after years of playoff appearances — than perennial contenders like the Bucks and Celtics.

Embiid is synonymous with the 76ers, and he signed an extension last summer that runs through the 2026-27 season. He’s a certified Philadelphia icon, but it’s hard to see how he takes the next steps in his career without a drastic move. Another coaching change won’t be enough. Hoping for better health doesn’t count as a plan. Even if Embiid wins his long-awaited MVP in 2023, it’s incredibly difficult to envision the 76ers holding up through a deep postseason run.

The clock is ticking on Embiid’s prime, and he needs a more reliable sidekick, a more talented supporting cast and a more stable culture. Fixing all that ails Philadelphia will be a lot more difficult than orchestrating a move to greener pastures.

“I’m not the GM,” Embiid said, when asked what improvements are needed. “I’m not the president. I don’t make those decisions. These guys are going to do what it takes to win a championship. If it means trading people, or signing new people, or trading me, that’s what they’re going to do if they believe that’s going to give them a shot to win a championship.”

It might have been a meaningless aside buried within an extended news conference, but Embiid stumbled on the right answer. As with Barkley before him, a trade represents Embiid’s surest path to greater glory. Will pride and loyalty stand in the way?

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