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Joel Embiid May Be a Shaq-Sized Solution

The Sixers will get a second chance to prove that their once-in-a-generation center is the best counter to the toughest matchups in NBA history on Saturday in Philly

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Joel Embiid Experience is so overwhelming that it borders on perverse. His utterance of “69” in a postgame interview Wednesday night on live television — complete with a knowing, mischievous half stare directly into the camera — seems quaint compared to the gluttonous, boundary-shattering nature of his physical gifts. Simply by planting his right foot on a drive, Embiid can conjure a hologram of himself standing in the same position he was in a beat prior, all while his actual body is shifting left. Lakers center Brook Lopez, the victim on Wednesday night, thought he was defending a standard pick-and-roll, but soon found himself frozen in time slow-dancing with a nonentity. We have visual evidence of this happening, yet after hundreds of replays, it still registers as unfathomable as it did live.

Embiid’s 46-point, 15-rebound, seven-assist, and seven-block eruption against the Lakers on Wednesday was unlike anything we’d seen from an NBA center since the turn of the century. It felt like a performance born from the imagination of a child in 1995, marveling at the clash between Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon in Game 1 of the NBA Finals series featuring the Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets, noticing their stark differences in size and style, and then wondering, “What if Shaq could shoot like Hakeem; what if Hakeem were as big as Shaq?” More than two decades later, Embiid has arrived as wish fulfillment. He is a thought experiment come to life, a stylistic amalgam of two ’90s titans sent to us to solve the modern problem plaguing the NBA — the Warriors’ dominance.

Conversations about greatness invariably become conversations about time. That’s why the most compelling matchup to think about for the 2017–18 Warriors isn’t necessarily this season’s Houston Rockets, but the 1995–96 Chicago Bulls, or any other team in the league’s pantheon. This season’s Warriors are operating in a landscape they helped build; while other teams are still finding their way around, Golden State has the blueprint in its possession. It’s more interesting to consider forces that the Warriors have never had to deal with.

My favorite Warriors-era thought experiment involves Shaq in his physical prime — before the incessant hacking forced him to add hibernative bulk to protect himself from the beating he was taking. Imagine peak-athlete Shaq (the most terrifying athletic specimen of my lifetime, surely) in a four-out offense surrounded by athletes and shooters, not too much unlike his ’94–95 squad. Imagine that Shaq being defended by Draymond Green, who would be giving up at least 50 pounds and 6 inches. That’s what makes Embiid the unicorn of unicorns, and arguably the most fascinating player in the NBA this side of LeBron: Longevity aside, Embiid is as worthy as any player has ever been to serve as a Shaq proxy. He is a massive bridge between the post-up isolation and the spread pick-and-roll, the two dominant modes of play of the past 25 years. Finding ways to split the difference is something that Sixers coach Brett Brown has had to navigate over the past year.

“It’s always that slippery slope of playing with pace and movement, and then realizing you’ve got Joel Embiid,” Brown said after the Lakers game. “Tonight we realized we had Joel Embiid.”

The problem with fantasy booking an NBA matchup is that nothing is ever one-to-one; it wouldn’t be up to Draymond to personally neutralize Shaq, just as it wasn’t Draymond who single-handedly held Embiid to 4-of-11 shooting and seven turnovers in the Warriors’ 135–114 win over the Sixers last week. Despite having never played against either Embiid or Ben Simmons, the Warriors succeeded in taking both players out of their comfort zones, thanks in large part to Green’s quarterback role as a help defender. Keep an eye on Embiid at the start of this play:

Embiid gets jammed by Draymond as he tries to run from the top of the arc to the right block, and that extra bit of contact prevents him from getting clean positioning on Zaza Pachulia. As the play develops with Embiid clearly calling for the ball down low, Green kills two birds with one stone by playing far off of Simmons. He is ostensibly still guarding the rookie, but is functionally sandwiching Embiid between himself and Pachulia, creating a three-man obstruction along the baseline, which not only made it impossible to feed Embiid, but also eliminated a driving lane for Simmons. The result is a turnover.

Unlike in the Lakers game, when Luke Walton essentially forced Julius Randle to handle the Sixers big man on an island in Embiid’s 19-point fourth quarter, the Warriors were quick to rotate and double as often as they could, especially when he was turning blind along the baseline. The Warriors kept a traditional center in the game whenever Embiid was on the floor, which meant a lot more Kevon Looney than most nights. Looney has been deployed most effectively as containment for the league’s most physically imposing centers; the most he’s played in a game this season was against Hassan Whiteside and the Heat, the second against Embiid and the Sixers. His ability to hold his ground against Embiid enabled a helper — either Green or Kevin Durant — to slide over for additional pressure. Embiid was often slow to react, and it led to some messy situations:

Making quick and decisive reads out of a double-team is a part of the job description for a dominant center of any era, but the speed at which the Warriors can converge unsettles even the best of the best. The problem is that most of the doubles Embiid faced in his first meeting with the Warriors had a common link: The helper was almost always Simmons’s man.

“They double-teamed me a lot from Ben’s man every time I sprung baseline, so it kind of threw me off,” Embiid said after the Warriors game. “They were kind of mixing it up.”

The two teams will meet again on Saturday, exactly one week after their first bout. According to Embiid, his conditioning levels were less than 50 percent optimal for that game, and have steadily increased as the week went on, culminating in the *cough* 69 percent he was at against the Lakers. Should the week’s trend continue, he’ll be at more than three-fourths capacity against the Warriors this time.

I think the league is ready to find out what that means. Embiid is one of the most complete players — from size and skill to personality and IQ — we’ve seen in a long time, and yet we’re nowhere near close to understanding the kind of impact he can make five years down the line (should his body hold up). He plays as though he doesn’t have much of a grasp on it either. His candor and relentless trolling both on and off the floor will probably get him into a few fights by the end of the season, but it’s refreshing to watch a player with such immense talent treat it as something other than a burden.

When healthy enough to step on the court, Embiid has seen exponential growth dating back to his high school days. He grew obsessed with watching old Olajuwon videos, and incorporated the techniques seamlessly at an accelerated rate. In 2014, Embiid’s coach at Montverde Academy predicted that Embiid would become a 3-point threat in the NBA even though he had attempted only five shots from behind the arc in college; he’s made 46 in 43 career NBA games so far. His stat line per 36 minutes last season was the stuff of legend; he’s more or less met or exceeded them so far in 2017–18. More impressive than his hulking frame or 7-foot-5 wingspan or shooting range is what has seemed like a genius-level proficiency as both a tactile and kinesthetic learner. But Embiid’s torrid rate of improvement up to this point in his career will face its greatest challenge yet. The 46–15–7–7 line he dropped on the Lakers was historic. Truly a mind-numbing feat. What might become of our minds if he’s able to, in the span of a week, correct his mistakes against a budding dynasty?