It does not matter where you watch him. At the elbow, on the foul line, back to the basket, at home in the regular season, on the road in the playoffs. Joel Embiid is one of those players whose physical gifts are so prodigious that even the untrained eye can look at a court and spot the guy who lives on his own planet. Everything he does leaves you with the distinct impression that it should not be done. Everything seems to move in orbit around him. He is, quite literally, the center.
Over the next two weeks, you will hear plenty of debates about the direction the Sixers should proceed in their as-yet futile quest to build a contender. These debates will involve a variety of incarnations of additions and subtractions. The one common variable in these debates will be the notion that Daryl Morey and his front office must find a way to get something in return for a player who is currently giving them nothing. The question is Ben Simmons. But the answer must start with Embiid.
Desperate times cannot be fixed by half-measures. It is why the Sixers are where they are, six months into a standoff with a player who was the original answer to the conundrum that is Embiid. Rare talent brings rare opportunity. Morey isn’t a dummy. He knows that this is his last best chance to seize it.
For more than a month now, the best center in the NBA has almost single-handedly kept the Sixers’ head above water. Since Dec. 16, Embiid has averaged 33.5 points per game, the highest-scoring 16-game stretch in the NBA this season. He had scored 50 and 40 in his last two games before adding 38 in Sunday night’s win over San Antonio and is now one of three players who lead the league with five games of 40-plus points this season (the others are fellas who go by the names Steph Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo). Yet with two weeks to go before the the trade deadline, the Sixers look every bit the sixth-place team that their 27-19 record says they are.
If this story sounds familiar, it’s because you hear it every year. They say the hardest thing in the NBA is to take a team from good to great. But the Sixers have somehow turned not doing it into an equally impressive feat. Four different front offices have failed to accomplish the task, stretching back to the year before Embiid debuted, when Sam Hinkie drafted Jahlil Okafor at No. 3 overall.
The remarkable thing about this run of ineptitude isn’t the number of times the Sixers have failed to make the right decision. It’s the number of times they’ve somehow managed to make the worst possible one. They traded up to draft a shooting guard who either could or would not shoot. They traded away a player who had them within a quadruple doink of the conference finals. They replaced that player with another center whose contract they would pay to get rid of one year later. At the same time, they opted to keep two players who they are trying desperately to trade now.
Join us now for a solemn reading of the names.
Markelle Fultz . . . Jimmy Butler . . . Al Horford . . . Tobias Harris
Six seasons into a career with Hall of Fame potential, 46 games into a second straight MVP-caliber season, Embiid remains bound and gagged by the roster that surrounds him. That the Sixers are somehow in a position to do it again is a testament to the runway they laid during The Process Years. But this is almost certainly their last chance at redemption.
The one thing that Morey cannot do is the one thing each of his predecessors did. He cannot settle for the best available offer.
“This is literally our way to pair Joel with Tobias and another impact player to give ourselves a real chance to win,” the Sixers president said in a recent interview with The Fanatic (97.5). “And if we just do a marginal trade that’s mostly sideways because we’ll all feel better that there are names playing on the court, that will hurt Joel, that will hurt the 76ers, that will hurt our whole roster in the long run more than if we’re patient.”
Disregard what Morey says about Harris. If the veteran forward was a fixed part of the answer, we would not be here. The Morey Doctrine says that it takes multiple superstars to win a championship. That does not sit well with lots of NBA fans, but the historical record leaves little doubt. Any attempt to dispute it turns into a semantic argument. Maybe Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli weren’t superstars, but if Morey had a chance to put them around Embiid, I suspect that he’d take it. Remove the Duncan-era Spurs from the table, and you’re left with the 2011 Mavericks.
The Sixers cannot afford to test those odds. And they are not yet at a point where they should feel the need to. If the goal is an NBA title, and the Sixers weren’t close to winning one with Simmons, why should they feel any pressure to make a move? Where’s the incentive to make a trade that doesn’t bring the Sixers any closer to maximizing Embiid?
The closer you get to the top, the longer it takes to travel the distance it takes to get you there, and the further backward you can tumble. Morey’s refusal to deal Simmons has been described by some as patience, others as obstinance. Really, though, it’s cold rationality. Morey has two options: wait for a deal that gives Embiid the supporting cast he needs, or wait until the potential for such a deal is dead.
These are the simple truths to keep in mind as the trade deadline approaches.
1) The Sixers have a player who has given them an incredible margin for error.
2) They owe it to that player and to themselves to get this next move right.
3) The margin for error is nearly gone.