By his own admission, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid got off to a slow start to the 2022-23 NBA season. Granted, that came with a caveat, as the two-time MVP runner-up noted earlier this month.
“I had a slow start to my standards, even though a slow start for me is still averaging 27 [points],” Embiid said after a win over the Phoenix Suns on Nov. 7. “But for my standards, I had a slow start.”
That slow start is now a distant memory, as Embiid has single-handedly carried the Sixers to three straight impressive wins while forcing his way back into the NBA’s MVP race.
Embiid missed four of the Sixers’ first 10 games because of “right knee injury recovery” and a bout with the flu. Since his return, he’s back to looking like the player who led the league in scoring last season.
With star guard James Harden sidelined by a foot strain, Embiid has reasserted himself as the Sixers’ focal point on both ends of the floor. He went off for a then-season-high 42 points on 14-of-25 shooting, 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals and two blocks in a 121-109 victory over the Atlanta Hawks last Saturday night, but he managed to one -up himself 24 hours later.
Last Sunday, Embiid made NBA history when he scored a career-high 59 points on 19-of-28 shooting to go with 11 rebounds, eight assists and seven blocks in a 105-98 victory over the Utah Jazz. He became the first player in the past 50 years to finish with at least 50 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five blocks in a single game.
“You could watch basketball for 30 years and not see five two-way performances as dominant as Embiid’s 59-point, seven-block masterpiece against the Utah Jazz on Sunday,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote Friday.
After a well-deserved four days off, Embiid and the Sixers were back in action against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night. Not only was Harden still sidelined for that game, but starting forward Tobias Harris sat out with a hip injury, while rising star Tyrese Maxey left shortly before halftime after suffering a foot injury.
Despite being down three starters for the entire second half, the Sixers still managed to pull out a 110-102 victory over Milwaukee thanks to Embiid’s game-high 32 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and three blocks. That performance helped him make even more NBA history.
Doing that against any team would be impressive. Doing it against Antetokounmpo, who’s perennially in the mix for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, along with Brook Lopez, who’s earning some early-season DPOY buzzis other-worldly.
After Milwaukee went up 97-94 almost halfway through the fourth quarter, Embiid either scored or assisted on every remaining Sixers basket. He scored six of the Sixers’ final eight points, helping them break open a narrow three-point lead and cruise to arguably their best win of the season.
Embiid is now +1200 to win MVP this season, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, trailing only Antetokounmpo (+260), Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (+260), Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (+650) and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (+1000). With Harden not expected back for another two weeks and Maxey’s short-term availability very much in questionEmbiid might be forced to continue carrying an enormous two-way load moving forward.
Luckily, after a tough early-season stretch, the Sixers’ schedule is about to be far more manageable over the next two weeks. Each of their next five opponents currently have a losing record, and their three-game road trip surrounding Thanksgiving comes against the 4-13 Charlotte Hornets—who may be without star guard LaMelo Ball—and the Orlando Magic twice.
The Sixers shouldn’t be looking to put too much mileage on Embiid’s tires in November, but they might not have a choice until Harden and/or Maxey return. He’s made it clear that he’s up for the challenge, too.
“One of the things with me, as I’ve learned my body is that there’s no better way for me to be myself and get back to myself than just playing basketball games,” he said after his career night against Utah on Sunday. “I just need to be playing every single night.”
Between his plantar fasciitis in the offseason and his recent bout with the flu, it’s completely understandable that Embiid got off to a slow start this year (relatively speaking). But with him back in his MVP-caliber form, he’s papering over a lot of the Sixers’ issues and bolstering his chances of taking home some individual hardware this year.