Welcome to ‘Winning Culture’ the new column focusing on the Philadelphia 76ers for tapintothemainline.com. Throughout the season we will be following the Sixers and trying to make sense of going from 10 wins to hopefully 55 in just three years. Be sure to check back each week for offbeat insights, weird references, and as many words about Joel Embiid as we can write.
As I write this the Sixers have just wrapped up demolishing the Houston Rockets in South Philadelphia 121-93. Joel Embiid scored 32 points in 27 minutes, chipping in 14 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 3 blocks. He finished the game at +21, out-dueling MVP candidate James Harden who finished with 37 points, but -23 in 32 minutes.
The signature moment for the game was an Embiid chase down block on a Harden layup. After the block, Embiid had a few words and a long stare for Harden who lay crumpled on the floor. It was the kind of moment and reaction that Embiid is becoming known for throughout the NBA. He’s brash, loud, and a skilled trash-talker. He plays to the crowd and they love every moment of it. He also raises his game when he’s playing the leagues superstars.
Harden was just the latest victim in a string of games where Embiid has outplayed and gotten into the heads of other NBA stars.
The game prior to Houston was a street fight style game with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Sixers lost on a last-second Paul George three-pointer, but not before Russell Westbrook fouled out. Westbrook had 21 points in the game on 8-21 shooting and went charging at Embiid after a tough foul late in the game. Afterward, when asked if he and Embiid were cool with each other, Westbrook responded with “**** No.” Embiid, despite the loss, was nonplussed with Westbrook, commenting that “He’s always in his feelings.” A lot of players seem to be in their feelings after playing Embiid, just ask Andre Drummond.
I’ve written before about Embiid and the Sixers taking a heel turn and it seems to be happening in real time. It’s more than just being a “bad guy” however. Embiid gets MVP chants at home games when he shoots free throws, and those chants are warranted. Coming into Monday night’s nationally televised game, the last time James Harden scored fewer than 30 points was December 11th, more than a month ago.
The Sixers game was his 20th in a row with at least 30 points. That’s an incredible number, and it would have been more points totaled if the Sixers hadn’t beaten the Rockets so bad Harden sat the entire 4th quarter. An MVP front-runner getting clowned by a Sixers team starting Corey Brewer is a bad look and one that should open voters’ eyes to Embiid’s candidacy.
The Houston game was Embiid’s 20th game with at least 30 points and 19th double-double. Currently, he is averaging 27 points, 13.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 2.0 blocks per game. He is shooting 80 percent from the line on an amazing 9.8 attempts per game. Those are certainly MVP numbers, but it’s more about how and when he’s doing it.
Head to Head Matchups
Last week the Sixers beat the Minnesota Timberwolves by 42 points. The Timberwolves are having an up and down season, but they have one of the leagues brightest young stars at center in Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns scored 13 points and grabbed 3 rebounds in that game while finishing at a stunning -42 in 28 minutes. Embiid scored 31, with 13 rebounds, 3 assists, and a block in 27 minutes. It wasn’t that long ago that people around the league thought Towns might be better than Embiid. It would be a pretty hard case to make after that game.
A few weeks before in a matchup with Rudy Gobert, last years defensive player of the year -- over second-place vote getter Embiid -- the Sixers won 114-97 with Embiid scoring 24, with 13 rebounds, 6 assists, and 5 blocks. He was +17 for the game, Gobert was -15 with 17 points.
Embiid tortured him all night.
In their previous matchup this year, also a Sixers win, Embiid scored 23 and was +12 to Gobert’s 12 points and -26.
Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans is another guy on the MVP shortlist. In their one head-to-head matchup, this season Embiid reduced him to rubble. Davis has 12 points in 40 minutes and finished -7 despite having a five by five game with 16 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 steals, and 5 blocks. Against a normal center, those numbers would have been enough for a Pelicans win. Against Embiid it was a losing effort. Embiid had 31 points and 19 rebounds in the win.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is one on of the few MVP candidates who got the better of Embiid this season. He had a triple-double in the Sixers early season loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. They have a couple of matchups left on the schedule so that one is undecided.
Stepping Up At the Right Time
The Sixers have started out the toughest stretch of their season in stellar fashion. It will still be an up and down run as they play 12 straight games against playoff teams. Thus far they have risen to the challenge and the epicenter of that is Joel Embiid. He still has bad games and makes some bone-headed mistakes, but game by game he dominates as almost no one in the league can.
Ben Falk, the former Vice President of Basketball Strategy with the Sixers and analytics manager with the Portland Trailblazers runs a site called Cleaning the Glass. The site is very much for hardcore NBA nerds. It has a stats section that goes well beyond the traditional and gets deep into breaking down player performance in a way that most other sites don’t. You would expect this kind of depth from one of the top basketball minds brought in by former GM Sam Hinkie.
One of the stats on Cleaning the Glass is called Expected Wins. The number is derived by comparing teams to similar historical teams with similar scoring and defensive efficiency based roughly on points scored vs points allowed per 100 possessions. It’s a bit more complicated, but that is the gist of it. The expected wins for a player is how many more wins a team could expect with that player on the floor than when they are off.
For example, Giannis’ Expected Wins is +10. James Harden is +14, LeBron James is +13, Kawhi Leonard is +13. To give an example of non-MVP candidates, Zach Lavine is -3, Lonzo Ball is -3, John Wall is -16. No stat tells the whole story or makes a case all on its own, but this one is a solid measure of the kind of impact players have on their team. It takes into account offense, defense, and the team itself.
Joel Embiid is +30.
All Hail the King of Monsters
There is a Godzilla movie coming out this year. In it, the giant monster squares off against other monsters, including famous foes like Mothra and Ghidorah. All the other monsters are great, fun, and scary, but at the end of the day, there’s only one that matters — Godzilla. The NBA is a bit like that. There’s plenty of giant monsters battling for supremacy, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, one rises above.
Joel Embiid is the King of All Monsters.
Jacob Jones-Goldstein has written about the Sixers for Roundballrev.com, loves statistics, and Trusts the Process. He dabbles in fiction, watches a lot of movies, and goes to more concerts than he should.