Joel Embiid has revitalized basketball in Philadelphia. The Sixers were the also-ran of the NBA for years — granted, by design — waiting for Embiid to step on the floor and begin to show what we hoped he could when he was drafted three seasons ago. Now the sure-fire NBA Rookie of the Year leader, Embiid has loftier goals. He wants the Sixers to make the playoffs, he could be on the outside of the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year and, more pressingly, he could be a 2017 NBA All-Star.
But should he be?
“Listen, I rewarded Joel Embiid because he has made the Sixers relevant again,” Charles Barkley said on Thursday’s TNT telecast when offering his potential selections for All-Star reserves. “What he’s doing in Philadelphia…not playing back-to-back games. Playing less than 20-30 minutes a night…this kid is making a difference in Philadelphia. Listen, I got so much confidence, Joel Embiid is going to the All-Star game.”
“Oh, he’s going to be an All-Star,” Kenny Smith added. “If coaches can’t think that this guy is an All-Star…it’s impossible.”
Look, it’s possible. It’s actually probable. While there’s a case to be made in Philly that he should be the MVP if you watch how the team plays with him and without him, he’s just not on the court enough to make as big an impact as other, also deserving players. Through 42 games, Embiid has only played 30, and while he’s putting up 19.8 points per game, he only plays 25.3 minutes in the games he’s on the floor.
A Numbers Game
Let’s put his minutes in perspective.
Fans were feverishly voting for Embiid to start the All-Star Game, and while he did finish third in the fan voting for Eastern Conference frontcourt players, that only accounted for 50 percent of the vote. In the player voting, Embiid finished eighth, while in the media voting, he finished fifth, giving Bulls forward Jimmy Butler the third frontcourt spot with LeBron James and Bucks big Giannis Antetokounmpo. Embiid has already become a big NBA star, but some of the media voters said they didn’t pick him because of a lack of sheer volume, because he’s just not on the court that much. And they are right.
Embiid has played 757 minutes this season, through games on January 23. Butler has played 1,578. Kristaps Porzingis, the 7-2 young star for the Knicks, has played in 38 games so far this season, just eight more than Embiid, and he’s played 1,289 minutes.
Volume is a concern. With Embiid a rookie, there’s not even the second half of last season to fall back on for balance. Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies, for example, has gotten some consideration in the West despite only playing in 34 games due to injury — though 1,102 minutes — but Conley has the benefit of 10 seasons of equity in the league. Embiid, for all his wonderful play, has 30 games and an awesome social media profile. And NBA coaches, who do the voting for reserves, probably don’t care about his Twitter.
And, yet, perhaps they should.
Embiid was a star in the NBA before he even stepped on the court, and since his first 30 games have proven all the Process deniers wrong, while exceeding the lofty expectations of those who thought (read: knew) he would be great. There’s a strong case to be made that Embiid should be at the All-Star game over players who might be more deserving because of their numbers, but not because they are bigger stars. After all, this is the All-Star Game, not the All-Guys-Who-Have-Had-Quality-First-Half-Stats Game. Sorry Hassan Whiteside. Your league-leading 14.2 rebounds per game are great, but they aren’t getting you to New Orleans over Embiid.
Still, while no one will deny Embiid is a star, the question becomes if he’s one of the 12 biggest stars in the Eastern Conference, and if that star power — and quality per-minute numbers — will outweigh some other frontcourt players up for consideration who have more volume.
In a vacuum, Embiid is an All-Star, but up against the other deserving reserve candidates, does he belong?
“He’ll be an All-Star. To me in my vote, just not now.”
That’s what former Sixers center and NBA TV analyst Rick Mahorn said last week, putting some of those other stars on his list before Embiid. “ It’s all about him preparing to get better each game,” Mahorn said. “I look at Andre Drummond who has been consistent — 20 rebounds — you got to give this man some love. He was an All-Star last year, you’ve got to favor him to be an All-Star this year. And Kevin Love…surprisingly, he’s been playing pretty good. He’s been playing 20-and-10 like every night.”
NBA All-Star Roster
East Starters (5):
- LeBron James
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
- Jimmy Butler
- Kyrie Irving
- DeMar DeRozan
Those five players were selected to start for the Eastern Conference, and seven more players will be selected to round out the roster. The coaches for each conference pick the reserves. They can’t pick their own guys.
Reserve Locks (2):
- Isaiah Thomas
- John Wall
Isaiah Thomas is a lock to make the All-Star roster, and having finished second in the backcourt voting for the players and first among media, it’s ridiculous he’s not starting over DeRozan. Wizards guard John Wall is a lock too, finishing fourth in player voting and fifth in media voting and totally deserving of a spot. There are two other guards who probably deserve to be there as well, and if both make the team, Embiid could be the odd big man out.
Reserve Probables (3):
- Kemba Walker
- Kyle Lowry
- Paul George
It’s hard to say anyone else will be a lock, but it’s also tough to imagine the Eastern Conference All-Star roster without Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry and Paul George.
Walker finished in a tie for sixth in media voting and seventh in player voting, but he was on nearly everyone’s reserve list on both TNT and NBA TV, and his performance this season certainly warrants inclusion. So, too, does that of Lowry, who some suggested should start ahead of his Raptors teammate DeRozan in the East backcourt. It’s difficult to figure on the Philly product not making the team after finishing fifth in fan and player voting, fourth in the media vote.
Including both Walker and Lowry with Thomas and Wall will give the East six guards for two spots on the floor, leaving just three open spots for forwards. One of those three is certainly going to Paul George. He checks of all the All-Star boxes, in that he’s a bona fide star, he’s averaging 21.9 points, 6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game — all at-or-exceeding his career averages — and he finished fourth in the player vote, so his peers certainly think he warrants inclusion. He may not be a lock, but he’s as sure a pick as it gets in the front court.
Reserve Possibles (2):
- Kevin Love
- Andre Drummond
- Paul Millsap
- Dwight Howard
- Hassan Whiteside
- Kristaps Porzingis
- Carmelo Anthony
- Jabari Parker
- Al Horford
- Joel Embiid
Go ahead and you pick two of these guys and make it seem in any way fair to the others. Heck, pick three, and tell Lowry, Walker or George they didn’t make your team. The coaches have to pick at least three forwards, and maybe four, but no matter what only three of these players are making the team…at most.
It hurts Embiid that rookies aren’t traditionally picked for this game. There’s a separate game for rookies and second-year players on Friday night of All-Star Weekend to showcase the league’s young talent, often precluding coaches from selecting rookies unless they really deserve it. The last rookie to make the All-Star Game was Blake Griffin…in 2011. Embiid is special, but his per-game stats compared to other bigs may hurt him.
Look at Embiid’s numbers against Kevin Love, for example. Sure, Love is the third option on the Cavs, but they just won the NBA title and Love has been a big star for years, so while the intrigue may be with Embiid, the “star power” is surely with Love. And so are the per-game numbers.
And yet, when we run those same numbers per 36 minutes, Embiid is clearly a better pick.
Let’s not forget that while Embiid hasn’t played nearly the minutes of other candidates, his usage rate — or the percentage of plays a player is involved while on the court — is remarkable, as he ranks third in the NBA in usage percentage (36.1 percent), behind only DeMarcus Cousins and Russell Westbrook. Love ranks 44th.
The other two players with the most All-Star buzz are Andre Drummond and Paul Millsap. Here are how Embiid’s numbers stack up against them when run per game.
Embiid has favorable numbers against Drummond outside the rebounding stats, and as rim protectors go, Embiid’s field goal percentage defense inside six feet is -18.3, the best in the NBA. Drummond’s mark is -0.8, barely a difference at all.
Embiid’s rate overall is -7.0 percent, fourth in the NBA for anyone who has played 25 or more games. Millsap’s? 2.4. Drummond’s is 4.6! Yikes.
So Embiid has played fewer games, yes, as Millsap has featured in 41 and Drummond 45, and that should account for something. But Embiid has better offensive numbers than both despite fewer minutes and better defensive numbers than both…despite fewer minutes! Look at his per 36-minute rate against both.
Embiid may not make the team over either of them, but he probably should. He should make it over Al Horford, too, as he’s averaging better numbers per game, and obviously better per 36, than the Boston big. Also, as good as the Celtics are, Thomas will be on the team, so there’s a case to be made that a player on a team without another representative will get the nod ahead of him
Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony are wild cards. Neither should be on the team — Howard over Millsap and Melo over Porzingis would be a joke — but you never know when it comes to NBA star power. Whiteside probably lacks that star power, at least this year, and while Jabari Parker probably has it, not more than the others on the list. Besides, like Horford, he’s not even the best player on his team this year, so his inclusion is unlikely over another top star.
That leaves Porzingis, who is uniquely similar (if that’s possible) to Embiid. A foreign player who has freakish skills for his size and instantly became a cult hero. Only, Porzingis isn’t a rookie, and he plays in New York. Still, on their per game numbers, Embiid deserves the nod.
Porzingis does have good defensive numbers, with a -6.0 defensive field goal percentage difference, and -14.6 within six feet. On offense, his usage rate is 69th, at 24.2 percent, but again…Melo.
So…Yes All-Star? No All-Star? Who All-Star?
Look, if I were voting, Embiid and Porzingis would be in because that’s what fans want to see: Young stars playing with the game’s best. Embiid is a star, and the league needs to put its young stars on the biggest stage. All due respect to Millsap, Drummond, Horford and even Love, the guy (if healthy) is the future of the league in a way none of them will be. The NBA should embrace that while they can.
NBA TV’s Sekou Smith said it best: “We were making jokes about Philadelphia. Now they’re actually a team you tune in to watch to see what kind of production and dominance you’re going to get out of Embiid on a given night. I’d love to see him in the All-Star weekend scene, just because I know his personality is perfectly suited for what’s going to go on in New Orleans.”
For that, he should makes the team. We find out this Thursday if he does.