CAMDEN, N.J. — Joel Embiid’s tears when he walked off the floor following Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 buzzer-beater last May weren’t just because his Philadelphia 76ers had lost a heartbreaker. Rather, he felt like he had let his team down.
Embiid’s stats and efficiency dipped in the playoffs as he dealt with knee pain as well as an illness in the series loss to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors.
On Monday, as he started a new season, Embiid said it haunted him and contributed to an offseason program that helped him drop 20 pounds.
“I just remember thinking I let my team down,” Embiid told ESPN. “You can’t control sickness or when it’s going to happen. Obviously my knee was bothering me the whole second half of the season and the playoffs. But all I was thinking was what can I do make sure I don’t let my teammates down again or my team. Or the whole city basically. That was to take better of my body. To work on the stuff I never really paid attention to, and it’s been going well the whole summer.”
Embiid averaged 27.5 points and 13.6 rebounds during the regular season for the 76ers but was slowed by knee tendinitis. He missed 12 games after the All-Star break, and in the series with the Raptors, he averaged just 17.6 points and 8.7 rebounds.
“I’m competitive. I think everybody knows about me. I like to compete. I want to win,” Embiid said. “My production has got to go up in the playoffs instead of going down. That’s why I feel like I let them down. We had a great chance of winning the whole thing. If that shot [by Leonard] hadn’t gone down, you don’t know what was going to happen.”
Now healthier, lighter and armed with new teammate Al Horford, Embiid is setting huge goals for this season. His health is perhaps the biggest variable for Philly and a big reason the team added Horford to help take some stress off of him.
But Embiid only wants to do more. He wants to play more games than ever before, he wants to win major awards and he wants the 76ers to be the top seed in the East.
“Last year I played the most games I’ve ever played, 64. This year I see myself playing over 70 games,” Embiid said. “That’s going to be good for us because we’re trying to get the No. 1 seed and we’re trying to win over 60 games. It’s going to help me because I need that team success if I want to win be able to win MVP or Defensive Player of the Year.”
All that said, with his history of foot and knee issues, Embiid does plan to try to pace himself. He met with coach Brett Brown and general manager Elton Brand and discussed playing more games but fewer minutes as part of his load management this season.
“Last year I started off too high, playing 35-36 minutes a game and then I started slowing down,” Embiid said. “This year, we’re going to start off, not slow and not a minute restriction, but we’ll start off at the right number, like 30-31 minutes to start, and then as the season goes on you start ramping up. It’s hard to balance it. I’m competitive. I want to be out there with my guys. But you can win MVP playing 70 games.”