This is not an argument against Joel Embiid. It is an argument for reality. The Sixers cannot afford to lose themselves in the fog of prior convictions. They are at an inflection point, and it demands an honest and sober appraisal: of themselves, and of the environment in which they will be competing. After a regular season that produced a sixth-place finish and a postseason that produced zero wins, the Sixers no longer have the luxury of selling their fan base on the self-evidence of a brighter tomorrow. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Three years ago, it was reasonable to believe that the combination of momentum, inertia, and good fortune would be enough to make the Sixers legitimate contenders. Now, after a near-inconceivable run of failed draft picks, lopsided trades, and inefficient spending, they are attempting to drive a camel through the eye of a needle. Where once their goal was to build the best possible team around Embiid and Ben Simmons, they now must build the best possible team given the restrictions that they have placed upon themselves. That may still lead them to the realization that their best path forward is to do what they can to complement their two young stars. But they need to consider all of the other paths available, including a trade of their biggest piece.
The enormity of Embiid is a fact on every level. Literally and figuratively, concretely and abstractly, the entire organization has operated in Embiid’s shadow since he first took the court in his No. 21 jersey. Every significant personnel decision made by the team includes some mention of his name. When your roster includes a player of Embiid’s unique physical gifts and mesmerizing potential, your most-important consideration is how to best build around him. At least, that was the thought.
According to Elton Brand, that is still the Sixers’ thinking.
“I’m not looking to trade Ben or Joel. I’m trying to compliment them,” the Sixers GM said recently. “They’re 24 and 26 and want to be here. You try to make that fit as long as possible.”
Yet, you also must consider the possibility that the fit does not exist. Four years into Embiid’s playing career, the NBA is a vastly different place from what it was when the Sixers’ current paradigm took shape. When Embiid broke into the league, Robert Covington was a three-man. Today, he is the Rockets’ center. Given the extent to which the NBA’s more-progressive general managers have de-emphasized the center position, you have to consider what the future will bring. The more-talented the center, the more he needs the ball, and the more a team is forced into a style of play that is increasingly at odds with the NBA’s rapidly changing reality.
Absent a center with a superhuman amount of stamina, or ridiculous efficiency, or excellent passing skills and a perfect supporting cast, a post-oriented attack can easily become its own worst enemy. Embiid has yet to achieve an adequate level of any of these traits. Remember, the Sixers are coming off a series in which they did not have the decisive mismatch in Embiid vs. Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter. That should give everyone pause.
This is different from saying that the Sixers cannot win with Embiid. He is an immense talent. His only fault against the Celtics was that he could not single-handedly carry his team to victory. And the only reason we’re even entertaining this conversation is that the Sixers’ current circumstances will make it extraordinarily difficult to give him the supporting cast he needs.
Even if Embiid returns from the offseason with a physique reminiscent of a prime Dwight Howard, the Sixers will need a miracle to surround him with the shooting and ball handling that he needs. The ideal scenario would see them trade Al Horford and Josh Richardson and replace them with a guard who can consistently penetrate off the dribble and shoot 35-plus percent from three-point range, and a wing who is either an excellent defender and a decent shooter or an excellent shooter and a decent defender. Problem is, they’d probably need to attach something of value to Horford’s contract just to get rid of it. Which makes it hard to think that such a trade would return one of their necessary pieces. Which would leave them needing to parlay Richardson and future draft picks into two playoff-caliber players. Which is a long shot, even without factoring in the salary-cap considerations that will further restrict their freedom to maneuver.
Long story short, the Sixers are at a point where they might need to play the cards that they’ve dealt themselves. Let’s assume that Horford has no value on the trade market, and none in any lineup that also includes Embiid. Let’s also assume that Horford can, at worst, be an adequate center on a playoff team that does not need him to be a primary scoring option. In such a scenario, doesn’t it make sense to explore a deal that would swap out Embiid for an elite guard or wing who could be a primary scoring option in a starting lineup that includes Horford, Tobias Harris, and Ben Simmons? Or, for a package of players who complement Simmons?
Granted, there might not be such a player, or a package. Would Washington accomplish anything by swapping Bradley Beal for Embiid? The Heat might be able to cobble together an enticing package, given their abundance of young guards and wings. The Nets, too. All would require a dramatic reenvisioning of this Sixers’ identity and the enormous risk that such a deal would tilt the Eastern Conference in the other team’s favor.
Again, this isn’t an argument that the Sixers should trade Embiid. Rather, it’s an argument that they can no longer definitively say that they shouldn’t. The same is true with regard to Simmons. Except, the argument for trading him is based entirely on an argument for keeping Embiid. Which makes Embiid the central piece to consider.
Between now and the offseason, whenever it officially starts, there will be plenty of time for Brand to figure out a way to turn Horford and Harris and Richardson into a cast that better supports Embiid and Simmons. But that is no longer where the figuring should start, as difficult as it might be to admit.