Bryce Harper stinks these days. Joel Embiid played soft down the stretch. Carson Wentz can’t stay healthy, and his teammates don’t all adore him.
Three of Philadelphia’s professional teams have established rosters and concrete blueprints, but the linchpin of each of those organizations lacks an element that holds back both the player and the club. That’s the bad news.
The good news: Each player has sworn to address that shortcoming. For a city that revels in its agonies and miseries, this should supply unbounded hope.
Harper is 26, three months older than Wentz, about 17 months older than Embiid. So each of them should expect at least another decade of productive play. Each was an MVP candidate at least once within the last two years, and Harper won it in 2015. All should be MVP candidates for the next several seasons.
Harper addressing shortcomings: Harper already has addressed his shortcomings, to some degree.
He’s slumping early for the second straight season, with a .223 average and 73 strikeouts, the most in the majors. But we’re one-third of the way through the year, and he’s still providing protection to the entire lineup, and, besides, Harper is prone to slumps. The issue when he landed in Philadelphia for $330 million over the next 13 years was ... everything else.
He had become an indifferent baserunner and an uninterested outfielder the last three seasons with the Nationals. Neither of those problems exists so far with his new team.
He has been aggressive and clever on the base paths. Some defensive metrics place Harper among the top one-third of outfielders this season, after spending the previous four seasons in the bottom third. He had one outfield assist in all of 2018, and he hasn’t had more than nine since 2014. He already has four this season.
And then there’s the effort. He dived once last season, and that was more of a fall, after he’d reached for a sinking liner and missed. He has dived or slid for catches at least four times apiece this season.
Harper is a workaholic and he’s playing hard, which is the behavior that Embiid needs to emulate.
Embiid knows his limitations: After spending three summers injured, the Sixers center finally entered a season without restrictions. But between his indifferent preseason preparation, his horrific sleep patterns and his legendarily awful diet, his body was unable to withstand the rigors of the first 58 games. That cost him 14 of the last 24, games as well as one of the Sixers’ 12 playoff games, and compromised him for about seven others.
Embiid knows that his limitations likely cost the Sixers a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals and a good chance at their first NBA Finals since 2001. This knowledge fuels his resolve.
“I’m going to work harder,” he pledged the morning after Kawhi Leonard’s four-bounce prayer won Game 7 in Toronto. “I’m going to be a much better player than I was this year. I’m excited about all the work I’m going to put in. I’ve still got a lot to give. I still have a lot of potential. A lot of people haven’t seen what I can really do.”
His change had already started. After the Sixers beat the Nets in the first round, he met with general manager Elton Brand (who also was a husky NBA center) and began a high-protein, high-fiber, low-sugar diet. He began getting more rest. The tendinitis that had dogged him since the All-Star break immediately diminished.
He grew up during the series. Humiliated by hip-hop star Drake and the Raptors crowd in Game 5 -- they mocked his airplane celebration -- Embiid, a prolific taunter, taunted no more.
And, of course, Embiid wept both on the court and outside the Sixers’ locker room after the deciding loss. It became a meme.
He made it his Twitter avatar.
Wentz working on body and soul: Don’t expect Wentz to embrace his issues as candidly as Embiid. He has mastered McNabb-speak -- the ugly art of dancing around pertinent questions that address obvious topics, from his health to his accuracy to his workout.
His workout strategy was a topic of interest during his media availability last week, considering his proclivity for injury; he has been hurt each of his last four seasons, including his senior year in college. He reported for OTAs leaner and more flexible. He admitted that he’d improved his diet, his recovery habits, and his stretching routines. If that sounds familiar it’s because Tom Brady has preached that gospel for years.
There’s that for his body. There’s this for his soul:
Wentz’s reaction to a PhillyVoice.com story in January that painted him as a selfish, myopic, bullying force showed more leadership than he had shown in his three seasons as the Eagles starter:
“If someone did have this perception of me, why? What have I done wrong? What can I get better at? I realize I have my shortcomings.”
All three of them do. All three are addressing them.
Therein lies the hope.