Shaq was in peak condition for about four or five full seasons. Early on in Orlando, Los Angeles, and Miami, and throughout his MVP year at the turn of the millennium. The rest of his career was spent rehabbing injuries, playing himself into shape, or conceding to the flab-inducing effects of advancing age. This annoyed teammates and coaches, who resented having to do the heavy regular season lifting while the most dominant player in the league—when he was in the mood—coasted through the fall and winter months. It raised the hackles of a press that was in constant search of ways to discredit Shaq’s greatness. Year after year, usually during the league’s February doldrums, columnists, talking heads, and the odd unnamed source would grouse about Shaq’s lack of commitment. And then he would arrive in the playoffs, average 27 and 11, or 30 and 15, and walk away whistling.
Shaq probably could have won another title or two, perhaps quite a few MVPs, if he had been more engaged, but he endured a ridiculous amount of nitpicking, considering what he did achieve. And anyway, very few seven-footers seem to enjoy playing basketball as much as smaller players do. It’s just not terribly fun to get leaned on, yanked, hacked, and occasionally tackled by other goliaths for months on end, and Shaq, who looked like an armored car but was in fact made of bruisable flesh, took more physical punishment than anybody in NBA history. Consciously or otherwise, he made a choice not to sweat the details or subject himself to more maulings than he absolutely had to. If this meant he lived up to only 90 percent of his potential, that still resulted in incredible success.
Joel Embiid isn’t Shaq, but there are similarities. The immense physical gifts, the alternately goofy and deadpan sense of humor, the mood swings, the sense that they could, if they truly wanted to, put the rest of the league in a full nelson. Shaq, of course, intermittently did. With Embiid, that superpower remains mostly dormant. You see it in flashes, when the guidance system in his mind locks on and he gets his butt to the block, or when he switches onto a guard and doesn’t even hesitate, gobbles up the incoming drive like he’s Shawn Marion plus 50 pounds and seven inches. He’s both a throwback—he does things that nobody has done since the heyday of franchise centers like Shaq, Hakeem, and David Robinson—and state of the art, doing things that nobody his size has ever done.
And he has, famously and lamentably, never been in great shape. The NBA body discourse is uneven. Nikola Jokić is allowed to be doughy because it’s an intrinsic part of his charm and doesn’t inhibit a game that he might as well be playing in flip-flops. Chris Paul, who slimmed down last season after switching to a plant-based diet, isn’t exactly shredded, but he has built a Hall of Fame career more on smarts and skill than raw athleticism. Zion Williamson’s weight is discussed at least as much as his talent, in part because it does appear that he’s going to have trouble staying healthy if he stays as big as he is now.
The state of Shaq’s physique was boilerplate sports radio chatter for a decade-plus, but it was primarily noise, empty concern. He showed us nearly everything he had to offer when it mattered, and his Lakers were a dynastic power. The criticism Embiid catches when he looks bloated or out of breath on the court, Bunyan-esque stories about him housing four chicken sandwiches, four orders of fries, and four milkshakes in a single sitting—it circulates because we’re jealous of what Embiid won’t fully share with us. It’s frustrating when he’s got only 32 minutes of juice in a playoff game, or when he spends half a quarter shooting jumpers because he’s too spent to put in the draining labor around the rim. It’s not like he gets away with this; the Sixers haven’t won anything. They have a ways to go before they become a legitimate title contender, and the most obvious thing that would close that gap, along with Ben Simmons acquiring a reliable jumper, is Embiid showing up for the season pissed off, taut, and aerobically fit.
That doesn’t appear to be his inclination. We’re reaching the point where, at age 26, he’s going to have an awakening in the next year or two, or it’s never going to happen. It must be difficult, when you’re a great player, to push yourself even further than you already have. The LeBron, Kawhi, Durant level of accomplishment—to say that they work hard is an understatement; their commitment is fanatical. Shaq was the rare superstar who could afford not to be a maniac about self-improvement. Even if it was vastly overstated during his playing days, he did to some extent get by on his singular ability.
Joel Embiid has demonstrated that he can’t replicate that approach, not if he wants a ring. We make demands of him, but they don’t particularly matter. It’s up to him, how much of himself he wants to put into his vocation. He has all the tools to transcend. Perhaps he doesn’t fully want to. He has other interests, or his desire doesn’t take the same shape as the league’s very best players. There is more to figure out than basketball, after all, but that is the thing he’s most well-equipped to solve.