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76ers Should Not Waste Joel Embiid's MVP-Caliber Season

If Daryl Morey can trade Ben Simmons for a valuable piece, Philadelphia could vault itself among the NBA’s true title contenders.

Joel Embiid is having an MVP-caliber season.

Are the Sixers really going to risk wasting it?

On a night he was named an All-Star starter for the fifth straight season, Embiid went out and showed why. He scored 26 points in Philadelphia’s 105–87 win over the Lakers. He pulled down seven rebounds. He handed out nine assists. He anchored a defense that held L.A. to 41% shooting. He played in his 20th straight game—the second-longest consecutive games streak of his career—and, in a variety of ways, controlled it.

Voters declared Embiid to be among the NBA’s top 10 players.

The numbers point to his being in the top three.

Which raises the question: As we close in on the Feb. 10 trade deadline, is Philadelphia going to get Embiid some help?

76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reaches for a rebound against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second quarter at Wells Fargo Center.

Ben Simmons has not played a minute for the 76ers this season, and every week that passes it seems less likely he ever will. There doesn’t appear to have been any substantive progress made since Simmons bailed on training camp in October. Simmons still wants a trade. The Sixers still want equal value back in return.

“It really is important that the player we add to Joel, if we really want to take our odds from wherever we’re at right now, to something materially higher, it has to come back in an impact player,” Sixers president Daryl Morey said last week in an interview with 97.5 The Fanatic. “If you trade one of these great players for multiple [players], it does not move your championship odds enough to make a difference.”

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No question, Morey is in a tough spot. Whatever he can get for Simmons now—Sacramento and Atlanta have been frequently connected to Philadelphia in a Simmons deal—may be good. What Morey can get next summer could be better. There has been buzz about the Sixers’ interest in James Harden. In Portland, Damian Lillard could become available. Bradley Beal could be an option via sign-and-trade. Simmons, a 25-year-old All-Star with three full seasons left on his contract, is the best trade chip any GM could hope for. Morey wants to make the most of it.

But he needs to make the most of Embiid, too. Embiid is having a monster season. He was averaging a career-high 29 points per game entering Thursday night’s game against the Lakers. Since Christmas, he’s posting nearly 35 points per night. He totaled 171 points and 51 rebounds in the four games before the Sixers faced L.A., one of only four players to rack up 170/50 numbers over four games since the 1976–77 season. “Dominating every night,” Stan Van Gundy tweeted Thursday. He’s right.

The Sixers are good. Thursday’s win bumped them to 29–19 this season. They are tied with the Nets for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference but sit just two games back of the top spot. Tyrese Maxey has been excellent in a starting role. Seth Curry has been lethal from three. Philadelphia has a top-10 offense, a top-15 defense and one of the best road records (17–9) in the NBA.

But are they contenders? “When we are at our best,” Embiid said, “I think we can beat anybody.” Maybe. Make a list of the NBA’s top-tier teams. The Heat, Nets and Bucks in the East. The Warriors and Suns in the West. Is Philadelphia in that group? It’s close, but probably not. The Sixers feel like they are a player away from being a true title contender. Simmons could help them get it.

The argument against rushing into a Simmons trade is that Philadelphia appears to have a wide window. Embiid is 27. Maxey is 21. Matisse Thybulle, a defensive stopper, is 24. Philadelphia doesn’t need to go all-in for a title this season, not with several more championship-level seasons to come.

“There's really no urgency to change anything,” Embiid said earlier this month. “I think we got everything we need. We’re [going to] keep on going and I’m happy. … We just got to stay healthy [and] keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

But it’s a funny thing about windows. Sometimes they slam shut. Embiid has been healthy this season. But he played 51 games last year and has never played in more than 64. He has overcome the foot problems that plagued his first two seasons, but he has battled through injuries to both knees and his back in the years since. There’s no reason to expect Embiid to deal with injuries in the future, but a seven-foot, 280-pound big man with a history of leg and foot problems will likely always worry about them.

Which makes maximizing this season critical. Is a John Collins/Kevin Huerter–headlined package equal value for Simmons? No. A Kings deal built around Tyrese Haliburton and Harrison Barnes isn’t, either. But the Sixers are getting nothing from Simmons now. Getting something for nothing might be all Philadelphia needs to put it over the top.

This decision isn’t easy. “If [the fans] think we’re burning the season away without trading Ben, we’re not only burning this season away if we trade Ben for something that makes everyone feel good, we’re also burning away all the other future seasons,” Morey said. Indeed. History will record the results of the Simmons saga, and Morey’s name will be attached to it. But Embiid is having a special season. It would be a shame to waste it. 

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