LOS ANGELES -- This is how much has changed for the Philadelphia 76ers in the past month. Before the season, head coach Brett Brown said he thought his team should make the playoffs and there was widespread concern he was getting way too far ahead of himself. Playoffs? After five years of the outright tanking, processing and losing, it seemed a bit early for Philadelphia's young 20-somethings to start talking about turning the corner, let alone winning enough games to make the playoffs.
But after the way they've played on this West Coast trip, particularly in Joel Embiid's historic 46-point, 15-rebound, seven-assist, seven-block game Wednesday night in a 115-109 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, how can you question Brown's goals for this season and beyond. Whatever stage of the process this is, the Sixers look ready to win -- now.
"It feels great. I love L.A. I love the Staples Center, so I wanted to come out here and put on a show and I did," Embiid said after becoming the first player in NBA history with that line since blocks became an official statistic in 1973-74. "Too bad there wasn't any trash-talker out there," he said with a smile. "But I still had fun and I got going. I just wanted to be aggressive. That's my new mentality. I can't wait to keep the same momentum."
Embiid's 46 points are a career high and he scored in so many different ways -- post-ups, face-ups, 3-pointers, layups, free throws -- it's hard to know where to start if you're an opposing team trying to stop or even slow him down. Embiid was 14-of-20 from the field (including 2-for-3 from behind the 3-point arc) and 16-of-19 from the free throw line, so even though he has the size and dominant post game like Shaquille O'Neal, he's a much better free throw shooter and outside shooter than the former Lakers great ever was.
"He's a problem," Lakers coach Luke Walton said in the kind of exasperated tone you'll likely hear from 28 other coaches eventually. "Embiid is a handful down there and obviously if you get a nice whistle it makes it even more challenging. He is a heckuva shooter ... we tried a couple of different things but you got to tip your hat, he's hitting pull-up 18-footers, they used him as a post-pass man to enter the ball from the post and he is relocating to the strong side corner and hitting 3's.
"He's -- he's a problem."
He's also the self-proclaimed Process. The crown jewel of former Philadelphia general manger Sam Hinkie's radical tanking strategy to give the team the best shot at finding future franchise players through the draft. It's early still, but between Embiid and rookie point guard Ben Simmons, it looks like Philly may have found two such gems. Simmons finished with 18 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds. He assisted on 13 of Embiid's 46 points.
"He took one of my rebounds," Simmons joked, when asked about Embiid's career night, and alluding to his own near missed triple-double.
Simmons may not be able to score, or shoot anywhere as well as Embiid, but his all-around game is still historically good for a rookie. In his first 14 games, Simmons is averaging 17.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 7.7 assists. That compares favorably the first 14 games of former Lakers great Magic Johnson's career, when he averaged 19.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.3 assists.
That Simmons had this kind of game in front of Johnson (now the Lakers' president of basketball operations) and against the point guard Johnson drafted No. 2 overall last June, Lonzo Ball, made it that much tougher for the Los Angeles crowd to swallow. Ball had one of his worst games as a professional, shooting just 1-for-9 from the field and finishing with just two points, five rebounds and two assists in 21 minutes. He was so ineffective Walton benched him in the fourth quarter for the second consecutive game.
"I thought tonight would've been a great opportunity for him to have one of those games where, 'OK, my shot's not going in, let me get in there and get some rebounds and some steals,'" Walton said. "I think because his shot was off, it affected his game a little bit. What we know is he is going to become requires a lot of work and a lot of growth. He will get there and there are going to be ups and downs on that path."
Embiid, who thrives and craves trash talk anywhere he can engage, has found a willing partner in Lonzo's outspoken father, LaVar Ball, at times. But LaVar wasn't in attendance Wednesday, having been away on a two-week trip to China to promote his Big Baller Brand shoes and apparel.
So Embiid waited until after the game to post an Instagram picture of him dunking over Lonzo Ball, with the cryptic location "Lavar, Fars, Iran." Minutes later, Embiid realized he was pouring salt on the rookie's wounds by poking at his father, and tweeted, "I like Lonzo's game ... no shots towards him. #TrustIt"
If anyone realizes how long it can take to succeed in the NBA, it's Embiid -- who missed two full seasons due to injury, and played in just 31 games in his first three seasons. This season, he started slowly again, missing all of September's training camp as he rehabilitated from a knee injury. He claims to be around 50 percent of where he needs to be as far as conditioning.
If Wednesday is what Embiid looks like at 50 percent, it's hard to imagine what a force he and the Sixers will be once he rounds into shape.
"Joel is special in so many ways," Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo told ESPN. "When he does finally round himself out into complete shape -- he's still catching up to a slow start to the season where he wasn't with us in September -- but everything that's now happening and coming together for him is a function of him building. We've been building him up for what he's doing now, but he's still not at 100 percent. Once he is there, it's going to be very, very encouraging."