DETROIT – By now, most of the basketball universe is aware that Joel Embiid voiced his displeasure with the way he’s being utilized by the 76ers.
Embiid didn’t play in Friday’s 117-111 victory over the Pistons in Detroit because the team was “resting him.” It was a game in which Jimmy Butler scored a game-high 38 points -- for the second straight game -- with 26 points coming in the second half. Coach Brett Brown called it the best win of the season under the circumstances.
But at 5:45 p.m. – an hour, 15 minutes before game time – Embiid said his recent struggles had more to do with his new role as opposed to being tired. Some interpreted the 76ers All-Star center’s statement as if he’s unhappy with the addition of Butler, a four-time All-Star. That’s not true. It’s actually far from it. Embiid knows that Butler is the third star the team needs to pair with him and Ben Simmons.
He did convey he is indeed unhappy with his role, a role that has changed since the Sixers (18-9) acquired Butler via a trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves back on Nov. 12.
But it must be emphasized that this is not an Embiid vs. Butler problem. It’s a Brett Brown problem. The Sixers coach must find a way to keep both of his All-Stars engaged, and all signs point to that not becoming an issue. That’s because Butler enjoys playing with Embiid, and actually defers to him. The two get along well and Butler is unfazed by Embiid’s displeasure. There is not an issue with it today. One gets a sense there won’t be an issue any time soon -- if at all.
Brown, aware that even Hall of Fame coaches are expendable, has to keep Butler and Embiid happy while, at the same time, winning games and strengthening his status.
While Butler is the veteran star this team dearly needs to go deep into the playoffs, the organization has created a culture where Embiid is bigger than any other employee -- coach and general manager included. He’s a good friend of co-owner Michael Rubin, who attended Friday’s game in Motown. And Embiid is recognized as “The Process,” playing off the “Trust the Process” slogan.
So the team tried to go into damage control mode Friday night shortly after Embiid voiced his displeasure. After reading the article, Embiid reached out to me to stress that he’s not upset with Butler or with the trade. He wanted to add that he’s disappointed with his performance and wants to help his team.
But Friday’s initial comments didn’t go over well with Brown, who is upset that Embiid aired his frustration in the media.
This isn’t the first time Embiid voiced his displeasure with situations. In most instances, his speaking-up led to him getting his own way.
He’s hoping the same thing happens this time.
But right now, it’s obvious that Butler has some leverage and the team wants to keep him happy.
The swingman is expected to opt out of the final season of his contract this summer and become a free agent. At that point, the Sixers will be able to offer him a five-year, $190 million max salary. The organization would love for him to accept that, considering they gave up a lot to the Timberwolves to acquire him. His leaving in free agency would set the franchise back at least two steps. The Sixers will do everything in their power to make sure he remains with the organization.
Meanwhile, Embiid is locked up for the next four seasons after signing a maximum-salary rookie extension back on Oct. 10, 2017. He’s the league’s top center and the face of the franchise. So he’s definitely not going anywhere.
Before the Butler trade, it was obvious that Brown wanted Embiid to incorporate more of what they call “Bully Ball,” getting the ball in the paint and attacking the rim in the early going, into his game.
But recently, the Sixers abandoned feeding the 7-foot-2, 270-pounder down low on the block early in games. Embiid pointed out that Brown has had him starting on the perimeter in sort of a stretch-five role.
Embiid thinks his new role contributed to his not playing well offensively in his last three games. It has been upsetting to the 24-year-old, who wants to help the team achieve success.
Why wouldn’t he?
Embiid is the longest tenured Sixer and was still the face of the franchise while being sidelined his first two seasons with two foot surgeries.
At the end of the day, Butler and Embiid both need to be in positions to excel. For Embiid, that requires getting the ball on the low post.