Before the NBA hit the pause button, the Philadelphia 76ers might have been the league's most inconsistent team. They boasted the best home record at 29-2, yet on the road, they were near the bottom of the barrel with a 10-24 record. They had secured impressive wins over the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks, but also suffered embarrassing losses to the likes of the lowly Hawks and Wizards. At 39-26, the 76ers were sitting in the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference standings behind the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, Heat and Pacers, after many expected them to compete for the top seed in the East prior to the season's start.
In a way, All-Star center Joel Embiid's season mirrored that of the Sixers in its inconsistency, as there were some real highs, like when he scored a career-high 49 points against the Hawks in February. His in late January was pretty memorable too. But his campaign also featured some major lows, like his highly publicized scuffle with Karl-Anthony Towns, or his scoreless outing against the rival Raptors in late November.
In his fourth season, Embiid is already a three-time All-Star and a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, so it's tough to be too critical of his play. However, in the 44 games that he played in during the 2019-20 campaign, he looked a whole lot like the same player that he was last season, as he was plagued by familiar issues. Again, Embiid is very good; arguably the best center in the league, and he will remain in that conversation for the foreseeable future even if he doesn't get any better. But in order for Embiid to take the next step as a superstar, and for him, in turn, to help the Sixers have the best shot at reaching their ceiling, he still needs to get better at taking care of the basketball, handling double teams, and being available for his team.
Though Embiid has trimmed his turnovers in each of his first four seasons in the league, he still averages over three a game (3.7 per 36 minutes), and he still seems to have a penchant for untimely mistakes, especially late in games. For all the damage that Embiid is capable of doing with the ball in his hands, he still has a habit of over-dribbling, or simply trying to do too much. When he does this, turnovers tend to occur. Like these:
In the play above, Embiid passes up a wide-open foul line jumper and instead opts to put the ball on the floor and dribble into traffic. The outcome was a predictable one. In the play below, Embiid again puts the ball on the floor, this time to avoid an approaching double team, and, again, the result is a turnover.
As an extension of the turnover issue and illustrated in the play above, Embiid could still stand to improve upon his handling of double teams; a problem that has followed him since early in his career when he established himself as a dominant low post threat. In fairness, Embiid has improved in this area. He is capable of making quicker reads than he was during his first couple of years. In the play below, he handles things perfectly. He allows the play to develop, reads the coming double team off of a cutting James Ennis and reacts immediately by finding Ennis for an easy layup as the second defender arrives.
Notice that he didn't put the ball on the floor once the double arrived. If Embiid could do this every time a double occurred -- or at least eighty percent of the time -- it would be a non-issue. However, while he has improved here, he remains inconsistent in his reads and reactions, and in his execution. Sometimes he reacts quickly and decisively like in the play above. But other times he allows extra time for the double team to set, or hampers himself by putting the ball on the floor. Both things occur in the play below.
It's clear that Embiid still needs to learn to take better care of the basketball, but his largest looming issue remains his inconsistent availability. Embiid missed 88 total games over his first three seasons (not including the two full seasons that he missed at the start of his career), and he missed 21 more games before the 2019-20 season was suspended indefinitely due to the global outbreak of the coronavirus. You can't blame Embiid for injuries that he has suffered -- especially since some have been very fluky like the time his own teammate, Markelle Fultz, sidelined him for weeks by running into his face -- but it's still difficult for the Sixers to manage nonetheless.
The Sixers are obviously a far superior squad with their All-Star center in the lineup, so his absence hurts them when it comes to playoff positioning, as they have a better chance of winning regular-season games with him on the floor. Plus, with their best player in and out of the lineup, it becomes difficult for Brett Brown to find a rhythm with his rotation, and similarly difficult for the team to develop on-court chemistry that they can carry over to the postseason. It also prevents Embiid himself from consistently remaining in peak game shape. An argument could be made that if the Sixers had a bit more faith in Embiid's overall availability they wouldn't have overpaid for Al Horford in free agency last summer, and in turn, could have used that money elsewhere in order to better build the roster around Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Overall, Embiid is a dominant -- and dynamic -- player. And at just 26 years old, he still has ample opportunity to improve. If he is indeed able to improve upon the areas touched on above, he and the Sixers could both take a big step forward.