If you know a casual basketball fan that hasn’t really sat down and watched Joel Embiid yet, I urge you to make an appointment to catch a Philadelphia game with them just to monitor their reactions.
The 76ers star is in his third full season playing after missing his first two with injuries. He believes Wilt Chamberlain is the greatest basketball player of all-time. His combination of fluidity and size has drawn comparisons to the “Stilt” and Hakeem Olajuwon.
While not quite as imposing as a young Shaquille O’Neal, his footwork and ability to step out on to the floor makes him impossible to guard in a different way. A native of Cameroon, he grew up playing soccer and only picked up basketball less than a decade ago. If he can stay healthy, the sky is the limit.
Anyone who hadn’t seen him when he was dominating at Kansas or over the past few years once he’s actually gotten right will marvel at how remarkable is that a 7-footer can move how he does.
There’s power in every move. He imposes his will and rarely takes plays off on either end of the floor. His impact on the defensive end is a huge factor for the 76ers, who rely on his rim protection and ability to get out and contest on pick-and-roll switches. He takes pride in that side of the ball and arguably has more impact there despite the fact he’s averaging 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds.
On Sunday, Embiid played for the first time since the All-Star Game on Feb. 17 after coming out of the break with knee soreness. That news put any thought of backing the 76ers in any futures on pause. Philly was 5-to-2 to win the East, just behind the Raptors and Bucks (2/1) and ahead of the Celtics (11/4) when the Westgate SuperBook released its odds update on Feb. 18.
This week’s new numbers list Milwaukee as a 7-to-5 favorite and adjusted Philadelphia to 4-to-1, which presents an interesting dilemma. Embiid looked winded at times and picked up five fouls, but finished with 33 points and 12 boards in a 106-89 win over the Pacers, dominating counterpart Myles Turner, the NBA’s top shot-blocker. If Embiid can be that dominant after a few weeks off, how effective is he going to be when he knocks off some rust?
Embiid carries 100-to-1 odds to win MVP at Westgate because frontrunners Giannis Antetokounmpo (1/3) and James Harden (2/1) appear so far ahead, but if his knee isn’t going to be a problem, taking a shot with the 76ers to get out of the East at +400 or to win it all at +1800 seems worth it now that the NBA’s top center has returned. Philadelphia has three sets of back-to-backs over the final 15 games and will play the Bucks twice and Celtics once more, but its odds of finishing with a top-four seed and securing homecourt advantage for a first-round series appear strong.
Although former No. 1 pick Ben Simmons struggles with his jump shot, the 6-foot-10 point guard is physical marvel in his own right. Jimmy Butler has been one of the league’s top wing defenders for years and has demonstrated an ability to play closer when called upon despite deferring on offense over the first three quarters. Forward Tobias Harris has averaged 20.5 points and eight rebounds while shooting 40 percent from 3-point range in his first 13 games after joining the 76ers via trade. Veteran guard J.J. Redick is also one of the league’s top long-range marksmen and has Finals experience.
The Bucks, Raptors and Celtics are all formidable, but the 76ers don’t take a backseat to anyone in terms of talent. Taking a shot on them given the current lucrative odds is my recommendation this week, although I still believe the struggling Warriors will ultimately win their third title in four years.
Warriors at Spurs (Monday): Golden State enters Wednesday’s date with the Rockets having lost six of 10, which is unheard of in Oakland. Kevin Durant is nursing an ankle tweak, so it’s hard to forecast a win without knowing his status, but he should be fine for Monday’s road date at San Antonio, which has been fantastic at home. In what will likely be a situation where the Warriors are slightly favored over the Spurs, we’re going to be riding with the defending champs to continue getting their act together. WARRIORS
Pacers at Trail Blazers (Monday): Indiana will be taking the floor in Portland to challenge the Trail Blazers in what will be the second-leg of a four-game West Coast swing and the opening portion of a back-to-back that sees the Pacers at Staples Center challenging the Clippers on Tuesday. There’s a great chance Indiana could pack it in early if it falls behind, looking ahead to flying into L.A. post-game. Lay the roughly 6-to-7 points and ride the home team. TRAIL BLAZERS.
Last week: 1-1
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