Joel Embiid Is Not An All-Star, And That’s Okay
Last night the NBA announced the 7 reserves for the Eastern Conference All-Star team. Joel Embiid was not one of them.
Fellow Eastern Conference coaches selected John Wall, Kemba Walker, Isaiah Thomas, Kyle Lowry, Paul George, Kevin Love, and Paul Millsap to round out the All-Star roster.
Embiid came in 3rd among all Eastern Conference frontcourt players in the fan vote, with his 922,714 votes narrowly edging out Kevin Love‘s 909,488. In previous years, this would have earned Embiid a starting spot on the All-Star team.
Unfortunately for Embiid the NBA changed the way starters are selected, with the fan vote only accounting for 50 percent of the weight towards whether or not somebody is selected as a starter. The media (where Embiid finished 5th) and players (where Embiid finished 8th) combine for 25 percent each.
That left Embiid’s fate into the hands of the coaches, and the result isn’t entirely surprising.
Coaches tend to value veterans over rookies, guys who have proven their ability over a longer track record than the exciting young phenom. That doesn’t make it necessarily right, but it does make it somewhat expected.
Perhaps more importantly, coaches are more likely to factor in the number of games a player has played, and how their presence (or absence) has impacted the team.
Let’s make no mistake about this, when Joel Embiid has been on the court he’s been one of the 12 best players in the Eastern Conference. If forced to make a list and figure out where exactly Embiid ranks, his place on my list would probably be embarrassingly high.
And let’s also get it out of the way that Embiid’s potential is astronomically, perhaps indefinably, high. It’s not a term you throw around lightly, but he absolutely has superstar potential. There is a realistic path to him being a top-5 player in the league.
And Embiid has turned the Sixers around, almost single-handedly made the team relevant, both in the NBA and in the city. The excitement Embiid has generated, and the hope he’s provided, has been nothing short of remarkable to watch as he almost willed the team to believing they can compete. That starts with Embiid, who has been a flat out dominant defender when he’s been on the court.
That last part is the only stipulation holding Embiid back from being an All-Star.
It’s not necessarily unique, at least in terms of being a qualifier to making the All-Star game. Year after year players who miss too much time will be sitting at home in mid-February, even if they’re playing at an All-Star level. It’s why Blake Griffin, averaging 21 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists per game, won’t participate.
Griffin, who missed over a month of playing time due to knee surgery, has played more minutes than Joel Embiid.
It’s a rather unique situation for Embiid because his missed time, rather than coming all at once or the result of an injury, has instead been sporadically placed throughout the season, the result of a very timid and cautious team approach rather than something actually being wrong with Embiid. That’s a tough spot to be in because his candidacy is being torpedoed by something outside of his control, but that doesn’t decrease the impact Embiid being unavailable has had on the team.
So much of this debate is centered around what constitutes being an All-Star. Is it the most talented? Embiid would surely qualify if that was the criteria. Is it the most entertaining? There are few in the NBA who would rank above Embiid on that list.
But what about who has had the biggest impact on team success over the first half of the season, which is presumably what the coaches are voting on, and what I would reward if I had a vote. How do you calculate that? If you’re looking for who has helped the team the most*, how do you factor in not being available for 65 percent of the team’s minutes? That’s where Embiid’s missed time becomes much more difficult to overlook.
(*Note: helping the team the most doesn’t mean a requirement to come from a winning team. A great player can elevate a bad team, as Embiid has done. He absolutely gets consideration despite playing on a bad team.)
The player who most point to in this debate is Paul Millsap, the Atlanta forward who has comparable numbers to Embiid (see below) despite playing nearly 10 minutes more per night. If Embiid’s more productive per minute, and equally as productive per game, shouldn’t Embiid get the nod?
Much has been made of how important Embiid is to the Sixers, with the Sixers going from a +3.2 net rating (differential in points for and against per 100 possessions) with Embiid on the court to a dreadful -10.1 when he’s on the bench. Yet that wide disparity is similar for Millsap, and the Hawks, despite a 27-19 record, go from one of the best teams in the league with Millsap on the court (+4.6 net rating, relative to 7th best record in the NBA) to abysmal with him on the bench (-7.9, relative to 2nd worst in the NBA).
Those on/off numbers help show the overall impact both players make, nuances in what they do that might be lost in counting, or even per-possession, stats. Millsap is one of the best, most versatile defensive power forwards in the league, and the drop off when he goes to the bench is crippling.
And make no mistake about it, the loss of Embiid is crippling for the Sixers’ defense too, and, I would argue, to an even larger degree. Where Millsap is one of the best defensive power forwards in the game, Embiid is one of the best defensive players in the game.
But Embiid’s lack of availability means the Sixers have to try to overcome that loss more than the Hawks do, and when factoring in who has made the greater impact on the season, that has to factor into the decision.
I could have been talked into Embiid being an All-Star, because of his sheer dominance when he has been on the court, because of what he’s meant to the city and the franchise, and because of how fun he is. But I can also be talked into, and largely agree with, selecting a guy who has been playing night in and night as the linchpin of a playoff team getting the nod. It’s a shame, because it’s not Embiid’s fault at all, but ignoring the impact his lack of availability has would be a glaring omission.
The sheer fact that Embiid is even in this discussion despite the reality of his situation speaks to the incredible production and near limitless talent we’re dealing with.
This debate, in my opinion, misses the point. Embiid has exceeded any and all expectations one could have had prior to the season. He came in with expectations to turn the franchise around, and has done that and more. He’s played at an All-Star level, scored at a rate comparable to any rookie in league history, anchored a world class defense, shown almost limitless potential, represents one of the brightest young stars in the game, and given light to a fan base that desperately needed it.
Debating over whether he’s had the 10th, 11th, 12th, or 13th greatest impact among all Eastern Conference players so far this season is sort of immaterial in the long run.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.