NBA's 2020 Watch List: The Year That Could Define Joel Embiid

The Sixers are talented enough to win the title this season. But while many focus on Ben Simmons's upside or Al Horford's arrival, it's Joel Embiid who ultimately decides Philadelphia's ceiling.
By Andrew Sharp ,

The basketball world just lived through the wildest NBA offseason of all time. Now we’re on the other side. A dozen stars have changed teams, contenders have been transformed all over the landscape, and next season's NBA looks more wide-open than it has been for the past 30 years. Now, as the basketball world passes the time at the end of the offseason, I can’t write another winners and losers column, and we can all survive without a final round of offseason grades. Instead, what follows is an attempt to imagine where things are headed. Who are the five most interesting players in next year's NBA? Whose stories will shape the league we're watching in 2020? 

These are some answers at the end of July. On Monday, we focused on Anthony Davis. Today, we dive into Joel Embiid in the second part of our five-column series. Here's part two.

For the final few months of the regular season everyone assumed the Sixers were set to bring back Jimmy Butler on a max contract. It was a deal that would have looked ominous almost as soon as it was signed, but that didn't matter. The logic of that move would have been similar to what we see every summer in the NBA: "I don't know, we can't lose him for nothing. Do you have a better idea?"

It turns out the Sixers actually did. Rather than paying a premium to keep Butler as an overpriced solution to their weaknesses, they found a capable replacement (Josh Richardson) and then doubled–down on strength. The biggest, weirdest team in the NBA is now bigger and weirder and ready to make things even more uncomfortable for the rest of the East.

Al Horford will be aging and overpaid over the course of his deal—he'll make $97 million over four years, with an extra $12 million available in incentives; at 33 years old he averaged 13.6 PPG and 6.7 RPG playing in 29 MPG last season—but Horford won't be miscast as an All-Star who's asked to hold the Sixers together. Instead, he becomes more like a rich man's glue guy. He'll allow for more Joel Embiid rest over the course of the season. His shooting and passing will help the offense. And when everyone is healthy, the combination of Horford, Embiid, and Ben Simmons should give the Sixers a higher defensive baseline than any team in the league. It may take a few months for the offense to stabilize in a post-Redick-dribble-handoff universe, but with that defense as an anchor and some scoring upside from guys like Richardson and Tobias Harris, I trust the Sixers to figure it out. They should probably be favored to make the Finals. They could easily finish the regular season with 55-60 wins. 

Which brings us to this 2020 watch list. I originally had Ben Simmons in this spot, but ultimately I realized two things. First, everyone focuses on Simmons when they talk about this team's ceiling. His weaknesses are so glaring and his upside is so obvious, it's hard to think about anything else. But Simmons is only interesting for the Sixers if you genuinely believe there's a chance that he becomes a player who can initiate offense from the perimeter and help Philly close playoff games. I can't get there. With all due respect to shaky open gym footage and Tobias Harris' workout testimony, we've seen almost zero progress across two full seasons and two playoff runs. Simmons may evolve eventually, but probably not with this roster construction, and probably not by next season. 

The second reason to bypass the same old Simmons conversation goes back to the logic of this Philly summer: forget about the weaknesses here. The Sixers will go as far as their strengths can take them. That story begins with Embiid.

This season seems like it could be an inflection point for the rest of Embiid's career. He's had an MVP impact at various points over the past few years, but he's struggled to sustain it. There have been nagging injuries. Mysterious illnesses. Too many turnovers. Bad shots. Questions about his diet and conditioning. Not all those problems have been his fault, but he’s escaped more blame than he’s ever gotten. In any case, he's somewhere near the bottom of the top 10 players in the NBA, and the next 12 months will either vault him up a tier or move him down. He could put together the kind of monster playoff run that validates Philly's faith and makes the Sixers a title contender, or next season could end in another disappointment, for familiar reasons, and it could be much harder for outsiders to suspend disbelief going forward.

Embiid finished last season averaging 27.5 PPG and 13.6 RPG on 48.2% shooting, but by the playoffs, he was battling knee tendinitis and had to sit for Game 3 of the Brooklyn series. In round two, he was battling "the s**ts" and then a cold. He was a game-time decision before almost every Raptors game and he never really looked comfortable. In the end, his numbers reflected that: he averaged 17.6 PPG and 8.7 RPG on 36.3% shooting. (He still finished those seven games with a net rating of +18.6 and a 50.2% true shooting percentage; even bad Embiid is better than most.) 

It isn't fun to nitpick recent Embiid history. There were plenty of people who never expected him to contribute in the NBA at all. He battled season-ending foot injuries through his first two years in the NBA, we all learned what a navicular bone was, and as much as he showed glimmers of Hakeem during his year at Kansas, calling him the next Oden seemed like a safer bet. What he’s become instead is almost a basketball miracle. Anyone stressed about Embiid's turnovers or conditioning sounds like someone who wins the lottery and then worries about the tax implications. 

Still, this stuff matters. The Sixers had more talent than both the teams that beat them in the past two playoff runs, and beyond all the well-documented Simmons struggles, Embiid looked worn out in each series. Philly had a real shot to make the Finals with the teams that lost in both of those playoff runs, and given the injuries to Golden State, there's an argument that last year’s title was on the table as well. So how much did Embiid learn from Kawhi this year? What can he change going forward? Not every breakdown can be prevented, but Embiid has yet to show up in shape at any point in his NBA career. That seems like one good place to start.

The subtext here is one idea that feels premmature and another that feels like blasphemy. First: The Sixers can absolutely win a title in 2020. Yes, we need to wait and see how Horford's skills translate, whether Philly can find reliable replacements for Redick's shooting, and whether Richardson can defend opposing point guards. It's early. But checking those boxes looks doable. If that happens, and if Embiid can stay healthy and dominate at the center of that equation, the Sixers should win the East. Do that, and they should have a decent chance to match up with anyone coming out of the West. 

Alternately: Ben Simmons trade ideas are thrown out on Twitter literally every single week, all year long, but I wonder if we've picked the wrong Sixer to watch. It feels wrong to imagine any kind of Embiid trade and I understand if all of this sounds crazy in late-July, but continued failure can have a corrosive effect on any environment. Some of that uneasiness is already here. Embiid went public to vent about his role after last year's Butler trade and his relationship with the now-departed leaders of the medical staff didn't seem great. Meanwhile, the team and its coaches often had to wait until tip-off to find out whether Embiid would play last season, even during the playoffs, and it's a safe bet that Sixers management has had to indulge similar inconveniences over the past few years (this on-court training table routine is all a nod to Embiid). It would be shocking if one or both sides really do find themselves looking for a change in the next few years, but maybe it shouldn't be. 

For now, the other side of the spectrum is a lot more fun to imagine. Embiid success is impossible to hate unless you cheer for the Bucks or Celtics or you happen to be Hassan Whiteside. If he stays lucky with his health and invests in his body the way Kawhi did during last year's regular season, there's no reason he couldn't torment the East the way Kawhi did in last year's playoffs. At that point, every single Sixers dream becomes realistic. 

The future in Philly will always depend on the two stars at the center of this. Simmons probably won't be ready to take the next step and put it all together by next season. Embiid might be—or, if he’s not, then it's time to start wondering how much longer the world should wait for him.

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