The Philadelphia 76ers are a relatively easy choice to make the NBA Finals in the 2019-20 season. Along with the Milwaukee Bucks, the 76ers team that plays in the Wells Fargo Center seems head and shoulders above the rest of the Eastern Conference. Even with the loss of Jimmy Butler to Miami and J.J Reddick to New Orleans — the trio of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris, alongside the addition of perennial All-Star Al Horford and wing player Josh Richardson — should be enough to help Philadelphia win the large majority of their basketball games.
True championship contention is a complicated formula though, and having a strong roster top to bottom is almost never enough to win the whole thing. The other vital part is having a superstar — not superstar in the way the word gets thrown around by ESPN2 talking heads, but like full blown, bonafide, killer on a basketball court — superstar.
Taking a quick look back at the NBA teams that have won the championship since 2000, and it quickly becomes clear how high the caliber of the winning team’s best players are.
Toronto Raptors – Kawhi Leonard – 2018-19
Golden State Warriors – Curry/Durant – 2017-18 / 2016-17 (X2)
Cleveland Cavaliers – LeBron James – 2015-2016
Golden State Warriors – Steph Curry – 2014-15
San Antonio Spurs – Tim Duncan/Leonard – 2013-14
Miami Heat – LeBron James – 2012-13/2011-2012 (X2)
Dallas Mavericks – Dirk Nowitzki – 2010-11
Los Angeles Lakers – Kobe Bryant – 2008-9/2009-10 (X2)
Boston Celtics – Kevin Garnet/Paul Pierce – 2007-08
San Antonio Spurs – Tim Duncan – 2006-07
Miami Heat – Dwayne Wade – 2005-06
San Antonio Spurs – Tim Duncan – 2004-05
Detroit Pistons – No Clear Star – 2003-04
San Antonio Spurs – Tim Duncan – 2002-03
Los Angeles Lakers – Bryant/Shaquille O’Neal – 2000-2002 (X3)
Outside of Larry Brown’s lovable Detroit Piston championship winning team from the early 2000’s, every team that has won the NBA title in the past 20 years has a first ballot Hall of Famer leading the charge.
Then there are the names you see appear multiple times: Curry, LeBron, Durant, Duncan, Kobe and Shaq. A list of players that represent something more than even first ballot Hall of Fame status — more like the greatest of all time status.
So, the question becomes, do the Philadelphia76ers have that type of player on their roster? The name that immediately comes to mind is Joel Embiid. With obviously no offense to Ben ‘I only make off-season 3 pointers in an empty gym’ Simmons.
The big man out of Kansas is as dominant a force in the current NBA as there is. He’s most likely the best center in the league, and has improved in each of his first three seasons. However, if you take a look back at that championship winning list, the few big men who appear is a Mount Rushmore of sort. Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal are two of the best players ever. Dirk Nowitski is a top five scorer of all time who revolutionized the sport, and Kevin Garnett was an incredible NBA player who had two other Hall of Fame type talents on his championship winning team.
It leaves us again with a question, is Embiid that caliber of good?
Embiid’s career is undoubtedly on an upward trajectory. In his rookie year in 2016 he averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in 25.4 minutes of play. The following season he bumped his scoring and rebounding up to 22.9 points and 11.0 rebounds on 30.3 minutes of play. He made an even bigger jump this past season by averaging 27.5 points and 13.6 rebounds on 33.7 minutes of play. Assuming that he keeps improving his numbers by these types of margins, and he hasn’t already reached his peak performance, it would mean that Embiid would average somewhere around 31 points and 15 rebounds this upcoming season.
Embiid’s regular season averages from last season are close to exactly the type of averages from O’Neal’s, Duncan’s, Dirk’s, and KG’s best seasons, and if he were to put up 31 points and 15 rebounds next season, it would be one of the best statistical years out of any of these guys. So Embiid has that going for him, but a problem quickly emerges, the Cameroonian gets worse in the playoffs.
In eleven playoff games played last year Embiid averaged 20.2 points and 10.5 rebounds on 42.8% percent shooting from the field. That’s a pretty legitimate drop off from the 27.5 and 13.6 he averaged during the regular season. On one hand it makes sense as teams and defenses get better during the postseason, but it’s also true that many of the all time greats go way up in their statistical averages during the playoffs — including almost all of the names on the list above.
While it’s hard to exactly pinpoint the reasoning for Embiid’s faltering in the playoffs, one possible reason is a simple one — he seems to just get kind of tired. Embiid is a giant of a man. Standing at 7 feet tall, 250 pounds, and has dealt with well-documented injury problems in the first few years of his career. The wear and tear of the NBA season is no joke, and for people who watch 76ers’ games on a regular basis, there are obvious moments where Embiid just looks like he’s totally gassed.
Joel was 13th in the league during the regular season last year in total turnovers and he lost the ball 40 times in the playoffs. Players are more susceptible to turning the ball over when they’re tired, and it’s something Embiid really struggles with, especially late in games.
Outside of Embiid’s statistical resume, the other most interesting thing going into next season is how he’ll fit in with Al Horford. Embiid has rarely played with another true center during his time in the NBA, and it will be curious to see how the two big men will be able to co-exist with one another.
There is for sure a reality that exists where Joel Embiid can lead the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals and take home the Finals MVP. It will of course also depend on the play of Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and the whole Philadelphia roster, but at the end of the day, the team will go as far as Embiid can take them. For Embiid to be a championship winning level of player, he needs to make sure to stay in shape, shy away from chucking up threes, and just continue to further his dominance as the best big man in the league.