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How Much Mental Real Estate Does Joel Embiid Actually Own?

The talented Sixers center is so good at getting into the heads of his rivals that he often settles down there

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No one ever asks Joel Embiid how he likes his steak cooked, because Embiid is never the one eating it. He’s the renowned master chef in the back, salting both sides and awaiting his Netflix special, and he’s the professional server delivering the dish, a 14-ounce, medium-rare ribeye, to the table. This isn’t what you ordered, but you, like the centers he rams against in the paint, the guards he taunts from the perimeter, and the rookies he hounds on social media, have no choice. Embiid exclusively serves beef. He’s in the beef business, and if you’re playing against him, so are you.

The Sixers were in Detroit on Tuesday night, pitting Embiid against fellow big man Andre Drummond. Drummond is a familiar adversary; last October, Embiid attacked his defense—“Defensively, he doesn’t play any defense”—and in December, Embiid attacked his offense: “No disrespect, but he can’t shoot.” Drummond waved it away that day in December, hours before the game. “When he can play a whole season without taking a rest,” the Pistons big said, “he can come talk to me.”

When they played later that day, it was Drummond who left the court early. He fouled out late in the fourth while guarding Embiid on a drive, and Embiid was still on the floor when he put his hands up, pointing to the exits like he was directing traffic. On Tuesday, Embiid struck again: Drummond picked up his second technical foul after Embiid blatantly flopped onto the ground with less than a minute to go.

It was the sprig of thyme on top of what was already a night of Embiid cooking Drummond. Embiid is a thorough instigator, leaving no word unsaid and no button unpushed. He repeatedly screamed “He can’t guard me!” after scoring on Drummond. At one point, he was just laughing at Drummond for no apparent reason. And just before the refs ejected Drummond, Embiid yelled “GET HIM OUTTA HERE!” like a fan would. After the game, which a shorthanded Philadelphia lost 133-132 without Ben Simmons, Embiid kept talking. “I feel like I own a lot of real estate in his head,” he told reporters about Drummond.

Drummond countered that Embiid does not own real estate in his head by explaining in Twitter replies, likes, retweets, and Instagram comments how much Embiid does not bother him.

“That man is fat, outta shape, and talks all day,” Drummond wrote on Instagram. “If I can’t [guard] him why he so happy to have me out the game?”

Early exits, various replies on various platforms—that’s not just any real estate that Embiid owns in Drummond’s head. It’s a sprawling lake house that he poured years of work and thoughtful planning into. And it’s hardly the only property Embiid owns. Embiid very publicly gets into the minds of many players in the league, talking shit on and off the court and festering ill will on social media. He’s a mastermind’s mastermind, and in the NBA, that’s usually good for drawing a technical. Exactly how much mental real estate does Embiid, a 24-year-old with 98 regular-season NBA games to his name, actually own? Let’s go through his various properties:

Penthouse Suite in Hassan Whiteside’s Cerebrum

In October 2017, Embiid told the Miami bench to take Whiteside out of a preseason game because he couldn’t guard him. Whiteside later recited Embiid’s stat line (1-for-7 from the field) and called Embiid a flopper on Twitter.

Replying to Embiid on social media should require a signed waiver. His online presence is a constant stream of tongue-in-cheek diss tracks that don’t shy away from anyone, not even his then GM. Embiid started the hashtag #softy for Whiteside and used analytics against him: “Your +/- was ass.”

“My location is EXTREMELY ASS,” he wrote on an Instagram post tagged with the location “Whiteside.” (I wouldn’t call this clever, but it hits home.)

Since then, Embiid’s called Whiteside a “soft,” “dirty,” and “out of shape” player. They went at each other in the last regular-season Heat-Sixers matchup, a scuffle clearly started by Embiid and ending with Whiteside getting hit with a tech. In July, ESPN wondered whether there would be “fireworks” when they played each other at this summer’s NBA Africa Game, an exhibition game played for charity.

Townhouse in Karl-Anthony Towns’s Temporal Lobe

Sixers fans started raising their cats last season to celebrate wins, which explains (1) why I’ve never been to Philadelphia and (2) this next beef.

Last December, Embiid dropped 28 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists on Minnesota and its star center, Karl-Anthony Towns, who goes by KAT.

“We ended up raising the cat last night,” Embiid captioned his postgame Instagram post, a majestic picture of him floating effortlessly over KAT, who is recoiling. Who doesn’t love a double entendre?

Towns doesn’t love a double entendre. He made the mistake of engaging and commented “That caption was as trash as your photo quality.” First of all, Embiid didn’t take this photo. He was scoring on you, Towns. So you’re burning some photographer out there just trying to make an honest living. Second of all, don’t give Embiid an easy layup in the picture AND in the comments. “Better quality than your defense,” Embiid replied.

Haunted House in Russell Westbrook’s Prefrontal Cortex

The Westbrook rivalry started out how Embiid’s typically do, with a big man. Last season, in the third overtime of a Philly-OKC game, Embiid waved Steven Adams goodbye after the latter fouled out. The opposing center was off the court, but Embiid’s real matchup—the guy who once dressed as a photographer just to jab at his former teammate—was still on the court. The Thunder won. And when the game ended, Westbrook waved right back:

In their next meeting, in January, Embiid dunked on Westbrook and stared him down; in the All-Star Game a month after that, Embiid swished a 3 over Westbrook then blocked his shot on the other end. It’d be a great rivalry, except Westbrook, like Embiid, seems to develop this level of intensity with passing strangers on the street. He enjoys grudges and mind games himself. Even if Embiid’s in Westbrook’s head, I’m not convinced that’s a place he wants to be.

Two-Bedroom in an Up-and-Coming Neighborhood in Rookies Deandre Ayton’s and Mo Bamba’s Cerebellums

Ayton drew himself dunking on Embiid for his rookie card, prompting this response from Embiid:

During media day, Embiid followed up on ESPN’s The Jump. “He’s about to get his ass kicked,” he said of Ayton. (Ayton replied that he “can’t really say anything. I haven’t put the ball in the hoop.”) Meanwhile, after some friendly preseason back-and-forth with Magic rookie Mo Bamba, Embiid planned carefully for the first regular-season game. He told the Sixers to play Sheck Wes’s “Mo Bamba” when he scored on Bamba, which he did:

To Be Determined: The City of Milwaukee

Much of what Embiid does is uncalled for in any scenario, but the city of Milwaukee really did nothing before Embiid posted an Instagram picture in Milwaukee with the location tagged “Shithole.” He later deleted it but was swift in replying to Bucks owner Wes Edens later that summer when Edens dared to mention the Sixers.

Still, does Embiid really own any real estate here? The Sixers are playing in Milwaukee on Wednesday night—check the off-the-market listings Thursday.