PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid sank a step-back jumper in the final minute of the best game of his NBA career, ran back with his arms raised high over his head as piped-in “M-V-P!” “M-V-P!” chants blared through the arena and beckoned with his hands for imaginary fans — for sure, the Philadelphia 76ers’ fanatics watching at home — to get loud.
Embiid plays with as much fun as any MVP front-runner, and on the February night he dropped 50 points on the Chicago Bulls, he sent a sign to the fans they are with him in spirit.
“The fans are always there for me when I play,” Embiid said. “I play for the fans, I play for the city. All my goals when I play basketball are related to the city of Philadelphia. I feel like they’re here for us even when they’re not. I always feel their presence.”
Guess what, Joel: Sixers fans are allowed back in the building on Sunday, and if they are among the lucky 3,100 to snag a ticket — lower-center tickets can be found on StubHub for up to $1,250 a pop — they’ll surely show the love worthy of 20,000 back to Embiid.
At 26, Embiid has not only led the Sixers (24-12) to the best record in the Eastern Conference, he’s at last blossomed into the durable, mature and downright dominant force the Sixers expected when they made him the No. 3 pick of the 2014 draft.
“I just want to destroy everything in my path,” Embiid said.
Let’s not raise a “Mission Accomplished” banner quite yet in the Wells Fargo Center rafters.
But what Embiid has done through the All-Star break has made him the betting +200 MVP favorite (Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James is next at +225) and turned — along with fellow All-Star Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris — the Sixers into perhaps the only team that can give Brooklyn a run out of the East. The Sixers have not won the NBA championship since 1983.
“It’s nice to have a big guy in the MVP talk,” Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal told The Associated Press. “You have to take a high-percentage shot and take advantage of your opponent. He’s finally playing like that. This is how you play. You want to be good, you want to be great or you want to be the greatest? You decide.”
Embiid, who missed what would have been his first two seasons because of injuries, still put up strong numbers in his first four. But he always left hints there was so much untapped potential in his about 7-foot frame.
His 30.2 points are behind only Washington’s Bradley Beal and about 2½ points higher than his previous career best. Embiid has five games of 40-plus points and 10-plus rebounds in 30 games — the rest of the NBA players combined hit that mark only four times — highlighted by that 50-point, 17-board game on Feb. 17 against the Bulls. Embiid was the first 76er to score 50 since Allen Iverson in 2005.
He is trying to become the first Sixer to win NBA MVP — the fans call it an MVBiid campaign — since Iverson in 2001. Moses Malone (1982-83), Julius Erving (1980-81) and Wilt Chamberlain (who won three straight from 1965-1968) all won the NBA’s top honor.
— Embiid’s 13 career 40-10 games tie him with Charles Barkley for second-most in team history, behind Chamberlain (31).
— He leads the NBA in total free throws made (298), free throws made per game (9.9) and free-throw attempts per game (11.6).
— Embiid, Barkley and Chamberlain are the only three 76ers with at least 900 points and 300 rebounds within their first 30 games of a season.
Embiid said he cared more this season about winning defensive player of the year — though he may have to fight off Simmons — than taking any other individual award.
“When I came in the league, I never thought I would be that good offensively,” he said. “I always focused on the defensive side. That’s been my goal, to win it.”
Leading the 76ers to their first NBA Finals trip since 2001 could bolster his credentials for individual awards. The Sixers previously bottomed out in the standings for a shot at landing a franchise player like Embiid. They did have back-to-back 50-win seasons and consecutive trips to the East semis with Embiid but were swept out of the first round last season.
“Without winning, you’re not part of those conversations when it comes to defensive player of the year and MVP and all that stuff,” Embiid said. “That’s the first thing. I want to win. That’s all I care about.”
Brett Brown was fired after the Sixers were swept and Doc Rivers, a respected coach who won the 2008 NBA title with Boston, was brought in to round Embiid and Simmons into championship form. Daryl Morey, the former Houston Rockets executive, was tasked with running Philadelphia’s basketball operations and helped change the narrative that the two franchise stars could coexist on, and even off, the court.
“One of the things I heard coming in here was that they don’t fit,” Rivers said. “My eyes kept telling me they do fit. They fit very well because of their skill sets. I think now they see that. I think that gives them confidence.”
The Sixers are helped by Embiid largely staying in the lineup. The oft-injured center has missed five games because of back tightness and one because of right knee pain and will sit out Thursday’s game against Chicago because of COVID-19 protocols. Embiid, who became a father in September, hired a personal chef, nutritionist, physical therapist and massage therapist in the shortened offseason to keep in peak physical condition throughout the condensed season.
Embiid also has cut back to a career-low three 3-point attempts a game this season after attempting as many as 263 (hitting at a 30% clip) in 2018-19. His average shot attempt this year is just shy of 12 feet.
“Whenever I see Joel, I’m going, ‘I don’t know why you shoot so many 3s,’” said his college coach, Kansas’ Bill Self. ”‘Why don’t you play with your back to your basket? Nobody can guard you.’ I think that’s a big reason he’s having the season he’s having.”
Morey, though, is fine with Embiid shooting from deep.
“He’s a great shooter, maybe the best 7-foot-2 or whatever shooters ever,” Morey said. “You should use those skills. He’s so skilled in so many ways.”
Embiid has also become a most valuable philanthropist.
Among his charitable endeavors, he committed to donating his $100,000 All-Star Game winnings to area homeless shelters, he partnered with a grocery chain in December to help five families with rent or mortgage relief and he pledged with Sixers ownership a combined $1.3 million to Penn Medicine for COVID-19 antibody testing of front-line health care workers.
He champions his teammates, and like so many greats, he is motivated by any slights, real or imagined. Witness the 40 points and 19 rebounds he put up on Rudy Gobert and best-in-the-West Utah Jazz in the final game before the break.
“It’s nice to see him separate himself in a way to be the most dominate big man in the world,” Self said. “We thought all along he had it in him, but we’re seeing it now.”