Joel Embiid doesn’t seem like himself lately. He tore a ligament in his finger in January, had surgery, and returned two weeks ago—but all season, healthy or not, something’s been off with him. Embiid’s usual antics are absent or misdirected. On Sunday against the Bulls, Embiid hit a 3 with less than a minute to go. He put a finger to his lips as if to shush the crowd, which had been booing the Sixers. It was a home game.
Philadelphia won, 118-111. Reporters tried to get to the bottom of the shush. Embiid explained that he was actually shushing himself. I think? “Just talking to myself,” he said. “[I] have not been playing up to my standards. … Just mad at myself. Just frustrated.”
The shush didn’t have anything to do with the booing?
“I don’t care how it looks. I’m just playing basketball,” he continued. “Just getting back to myself, being a good asshole, just playing basketball and trying to dominate.”
To be good and to be an asshole seems oxymoronic. Consider the very origin of the insult, the literal, anatomical asshole. It’s not on the cover of textbooks for a reason. Even Alec Burks, sitting to Embiid’s left, was thrown off by the phrase. Burks was traded to the Sixers last week. He didn’t play against the Bulls, and I have no explanation for why he was on the podium. He stared aimlessly throughout, at the stat sheet and at his lap. Then Embiid said, “good asshole,” and Burks whipped his head to look at his new teammate. This was no Warriors press conference.
Joel Embiid was asked about the shush after the game: “Just talking to myself, have not been playing up to my standards. Just frustrated.”— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) February 10, 2020
“I don’t care how it looks… I’m just getting back to myself, being a good asshole, just playing basketball and trying to dominate.” pic.twitter.com/uuXP7HmWXh
Embiid could have meant one of two things here:
- He wants to be good at being an asshole. To perfect it.
- He wants to be good, while also being an asshole. To be multifaceted.
I know in my heart that it’s the second one. The more I thought about it, “good asshole” is, indeed, a personality type. They’re a complex people: A good asshole is enough of an asshole to talk his wobbly great aunt into participating in the family pickup game only to cross her over a minute in; a good asshole is still good enough to make funny faces to pacify a crying baby on a plane. They’re endearing, but they’re heels at heart. My coworker, John Gonzalez, is from Philly. He said that “good asshole” sounds a lot like Philadelphians as a whole. Then he got specific, and said that it sounds like his family. It was ruthless, though there was clear affection in his voice. This is what Embiid thinks is missing from his game.
In basketball, there is an asshole spectrum. On one end is “not an asshole.” This is where Boban Marjanovic’s smile lives, alongside Red Panda and her halftime act. It’s wholesome ground; it’s rated PG for Pure ’n’ Good, no assholes here. All the way on the other side of the spectrum is “asshole asshole.” This is where you’ll find the quote “She tastes like Honey Nut Cheerios,” and Michael Jordan ruining Muggsy Bogues’s career.
The middle is “good asshole;” this is where Embiid wishes to return. Competitive, foul mouthed, chaotic, but utterly lovable: That’s Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, etc. (Wolves-era Jimmy veers toward asshole asshole; 2011-to-2016 Jimmy and 2018-current Jimmy are still at center.)
“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” Embiid wrote Monday on Instagram. Butler—his good friend, former teammate, and fellow good asshole—replied, “I know a place where villains are welcome.” Embiid responded emphatically: “Damn right my brother.” It’s unsettling to watch your franchise center be recruited on social media. Then again, at least he’s back to being audacious.
NBA drama is unsurpassed in American sports pic.twitter.com/71LcTAq9k2— David Gardner (@byDavidGardner) February 11, 2020
Before that post, Embiid hadn’t been in the good asshole spirit all season. In December, Charles Barkley and Shaq picked him apart on TNT’s Inside the NBA. He wasn’t being tough, they said, or playing hard enough. Old Embiid would’ve replied with a cheeky Instagram caption. Or a tweet. This is the man who bullied his team president online, and told Hassan Whiteside, “Your plus-minus was ass.” Hashtag: softy. Embiid once owned so much mental real estate among his peers that I did an appraisal of each property. When it was time for Embiid to address Chuck and Shaq’s comments, though, he told reporters that they were right.
“I need to be more aggressive and just look to impose myself and look to dominate. I think the whole season, I haven’t done that. … I think that they’re right, and I’ve got to make a change.” That was two months ago, though Embiid’s missed 11 games since. I remembered something he said before the season began. He told ESPN’s Zach Lowe that he wanted to cut the antics in 2019-20.
“I’m not talking trash ever again,” Embiid said in September. “Allegedly. Maybe. I’m done with all that. That’s what I’m saying now, but we’re going to see if I can hold up to it. The best way to talk trash is to dominate. When you dominate them and you talk some more and go on social media after the game and talk some more, that’s really hurtful. Sometimes I feel bad for them. That’s why I had to stop.”
It was unlike Embiid to want his actions to speak louder than his words. He is proof that playing well and speaking ill can be done simultaneously. Embiid said that he was shushing himself on Sunday—perhaps all that trash talking has turned inward. But Embiid is focused on finding what fuels him again. That might mean shushing the crowd, even if it’s full of Philly fans. He’s getting back to being himself. What kind of good asshole do you think he is?