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The Uncertain Future: Joel Embiid and the Haunting Shadows of Patrick Ewing

Another disappointing postseason, mounting injuries, and the increasing possibility of history repeating itself

Winning in the NBA takes work. The season is long and the playoffs are grueling. Reaching the top of the mountain with a championship is equal parts difficult and unlikely. We have seen many great players that have been unable to get to that mountaintop. Such seems to be the hurdle of Philadelphia 76ers superstar Joel Embiid, who again finds himself on the outside looking in with another second-round exit at the hands of the Boston Celtics. And as Embiid's health and future in Philadelphia become more uncertain, I can't help but think of another prominent center that ultimately never won a championship: Knicks great, Patrick Ewing.

The Great Big Man Hope

For many years in the NBA, success was defined by a great Center. Players like Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Hakeem Olajuwon were considered franchise cornerstones, the best way to ensure success. When Patrick Ewing was drafted by the Knicks in 1985, he was drafted as a savior of the franchise. The player that would restore the greatness that the franchise saw in the 1970s when it won two championships. Joel Embiid had similar expectations placed upon his shoulders as the number three overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. Both Ewing and Embiid were big men brought in to save a franchise in a league that was shifting to a different sort of player as a franchise cornerstone.

Ewing entered an NBA that would soon be taken over by Michael Jordan, a player that would redefine team building at the shooting guard position. In the 1990s, during Ewing's prime, there was a newfound proliferation of non-Centers defining team success. Embiid entered a league dominated by a do-it-all wing player in LeBron James, who later became the mold for every player drafted highly since then. In Embiid's draft, the two players taken above him (Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker) fit into this LeBron James mold in terms of position and measurables.

Both Ewing and Embiid have gone through playoff losses that have come at the hands of elite wing players. Ewing lost games to Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller, while Embiid came up short against Kawhi Leonard and Jayson Tatum. As Embiid faces another off-season of questions about his performance, the similarities to Ewing continue to be more pronounced, and that is a difficult fate to accept for a player that has championship aspirations.

History Repeats Itself

When you look at these two players it is hard not to draw comparisons. Both are immigrants (Ewing from Jamaica, Embiid from Cameroon), became highly touted high school recruits, and both attended well-known college basketball powerhouses (Ewing went to Georgetown, while Embiid attended Kansas). While Embiid modeled his game after another great Center from Africa (Hakeem Olajuwon), his game reminds me a lot of what a modern version of Patrick Ewing would look like today.

Embiid is a terrific shot blocker, averaging nearly 2 blocks per game throughout his career. Ewing was also exceptional in this regard, averaging 2.7 blocks per game while he was with the New York Knicks. But both also have shown incredible touch from the perimeter in addition to being dominant low-post players. In Ewing’s era, it was not common for big men to shoot three-pointers. However, he was above average from the mid-range, compared to the rest of the league. This is how Ewing measured compared to the rest of the league during his career:

  • Right baseline: 40.1% vs 37.8% league average

  • Left baseline: 40.4% vs 37.4% league average

  • Left elbow: 43.6% vs 40.6% league average

  • Free throw line jumper: 44.4% vs 40.4%

Embiid, similarly, has shown proficiency versus the rest of the league from certain spots on the floor:

  • Above the break threes: 35% verse 34.3% league average

  • Free throw line jumper: 42.3% vs 41.4% league average

  • Right corner three: 39.5% vs 38.9% league average

  • Left elbow jumper: 50% vs 40.4% league average

Beyond the similarities in their games, it can be argued that both Ewing and Embiid entered similar situations in the NBA. Both were lauded as top prospects, prototypical big men that you could build a team around. Both were also drafted by teams in the northeast that were struggling to find success at the time. The Knicks were coming off a 24-win season after losing star player Bernard King to a knee injury that would sideline him for the next season and derail his career. The team landing Ewing was a huge win for them as they turned the page to attempt to compete for championships.

Joel Embiid was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that was committed to long-term losing to accumulate talent throughout the draft. This approach became known as “The Process”, and was intended to lose a lot in the present to reap the championship aspirations in the future. This was a team that was long removed from the greatness of the Allen Iverson era and knew nothing but futility. From 2011-2016 the Sixers were an atrocious 227-369 and the laughingstock of the NBA. Both of these players were cast into the role of savior to franchises that were looking to recapture their glory days.

And sadly, the last comparison point is that both players dealt with injuries. Embiid missed his first two seasons with a knee injury and has had injuries slow him down during playoff runs. Ewing dealt with a myriad of knee injuries in his Knicks career that turned him into a shell of himself in his mid-30s. Embiid has missed 29% of his team's games since he debuted in 2016. The conventional wisdom is that Embiid will only be at risk to miss more games as he approaches 30 years old next season. In 7 seasons playing in Philadelphia (subtracting the two seasons missed to injury) he has yet to make the Eastern Conference Finals. Patrick Ewing didn’t make it to the Conference Finals until his 8th, which makes you wonder if we truly are witnessing history repeat itself.

Avoiding the Inevitable

There is no shame in being another Patrick Ewing. But it is a destiny that comes with a lot of what-ifs and a lot of disappointment. The personal accolades for Ewing were tremendous: Hall of Famer, 11-time All-Star, 7-time All-NBA selection, and 3-time All-Defense selection. But the number that most people associate with Patrick is 0, as in 0 championships won. It is the number that is the black cloud over his stature as an elite Center in NBA history.

The NBA has had a plethora of elite and talented Centers. Just a few names on that list that come to mind:

  • Bill Russell

  • Wilt Chamberlain

  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

  • Hakeem Olajuwon

  • David Robinson

  • Moses Malone

All of these Centers have one thing in common: they have all won championships. There is no denying that we live in a basketball world that values rings over all else. Rings are the reason why Michael Jordan is elevated by some over LeBron James, it is the reason why Chris Paul is so often maligned in the annals of basketball lore. And it is the reason why Patrick Ewing, one the best prospects to come out at that position, is often overlooked. Joel Embiid is now in the territory where he could also be a member of the “No Ring Club” with Karl Malone, Reggie Miller, Allen Iverson, and of course Patrick Ewing.

The Sixers face an off-season of uncertainty. James Harden will be declining his player option and become a free agent, where he is likely to leave Philadelphia. Tobias Harris is entering the last year of his contract, which means the likelihood of him being traded for future assets is very high. This leaves many wondering if Embiid will trust this new process and hope that the team can bring him another suitable sidekick to get to the next level that he has been clamoring for.

The Sixers made a mistake by choosing Tobias Harris over Jimmy Butler. They traded away Ben Simmons whose career has subsequently collapsed. And they mortgaged their future for James Harden, a player with a sketchy playoff resume at best who is clearly past his peak. Much like Ewing, the question over the Robin to Embiid’s Batman has never been more in doubt than it will be this off-season. The simple reality is that Embiid does not have time to waste to achieve his goals, and one has to wonder if he may request a trade sooner rather than later. History seems to be repeating itself, and it will continue unless there are some big changes made in Philadelphia. Embiid could be lost to history in the shadow of other great players of his generation.

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