NBA return: Why Knicks fans should be watching the Philadelphia 76ers
"The Sixers are not trading Joel Embiid"
Yaron Weitzman, author of the excellent new book Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports, didn't mince words when we spoke about whether the Knicks could trade for the man who took on the moniker of the method by which he arrived in Philadelphia.
Weitzman knows the Sixers as well as anyone who doesn't work for the team. In what started as a conversation on Twitter and eventually made its way to my podcast, he was clear that there were several reasons the franchise wasn't trading its crown jewel anytime soon. Aside from the obvious basketball-related ones, Weitzman learned through writing his book that Embiid was a favorite of 76ers minority owner Michael Rubin, who apparently has some sway.
There's no reason to doubt any of this. But if modern NBA history has shown us anything, it's that the league's very best players always seem to find a way to change teams sometime in their prime. LeBron, Shaq, KG, KD, CP3, Dwight, AD, Melo, Kawhi, PG13, Jimmy...all guys who don't require their full name to be written, all of whom were thought of as potential (or actual) best players on championship teams at one point or another.
Embiid fits that bill. It's why I wrote back in February, less than a week after the news broke of Leon Rose' imminent hiring, that Embiid should be the Knicks top target if and when they go star chasing.
At the time, the big guy was coming off a minor Twitter dustup that made it seem like he was momentarily on the outs with his adoring fanbase:
In the immediate aftermath of that tweet, Embiid had games of 39 and 49 points, respectively - his best two scoring outputs of the season. The game after nearly hitting 50, he injured his shoulder in the first quarter of a game versus the Cavs and was out for nearly two weeks.
These are the many sides of perhaps the most complicated superstar in the game today. He is mercurial but passionate, insanely talented but also injury prone. There is something to be said for the fact that Bam Adebayo, probably Embiid's closest challenger for the title of best big in the east, has appeared in more career games than the Process despite being in the NBA for less than half as long.
Partially because he hasn't quite lived up to the expectations of some observers, there was as much pressure on Embiid as any player in the league before the season shut down. Much has changed since then.
As the NBA restarts its season in very unfamiliar circumstances, the pressure that had previously been on the entire Sixers franchise to make good on their tumultuous offseason has perhaps been eased. After all, how can any team be held to the same standards as they otherwise would have been? Maybe it's the Get Out of Jail Free card Philadelphia so desperately needed after an underwhelming 39-26 start.
Or maybe it's the recipe for a perfect storm. Embiid's conditioning has always been a sore subject within the team, and after Weitzman's book made public the stories of bags upon bags of fast food that have checkered Joel's career thus far, that dial will only be turned up. If he comes back and looks bad, how forgiving will the criticism be? Or better yet, how thin will the patience of his employers get?
Similarly, this season has not marked a step forward in the quest for Embiid and teammate Ben Simmons to "figure it out." There is a chasm between the playing style best suited for Embiid's talents and the ideal one for Simmons'.
Can they figure it out? Of course. But they won't have much time before the games start again, and the clock, as always, is ticking. Embiid becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2023. If that seems like a ways away, check again. The Anthony Davis murmurs started a full two years before he was eligible to hit the open market.
Add it all up, and there is no team that Knicks fans should be watching more closely than Philadelphia come August. The Sixers are currently tied with Indiana for 5th place in the conference, and there's no assurance they'd be able to defeat any of Toronto, Boston or Miami in a first round series.
What happens if they lose? Or worse, lose in convincing fashion? Non-All-Stars Tobias Harris and Al Horford are signed for a combined $189 million over the next three seasons, while Josh Richardson - probably their most important player outside of the big two - becomes a free agent in 2021. Even if they could move Harris or Horford, they'd get no cognizable roster wiggle room as a result. They are as boxed in to their roster as any team in the NBA.
Which brings us back to the top: Would they ever deal a 26-year-old who, at his best, could be the best player on a championship team? And if they were willing to offload someone with his ceiling absent an outright trade demand, shouldn't that be enough of a red flag for the Knicks not to make a Godfather offer for his services? It depends on how much you're willing to wager on talent.
Over the previous two seasons, the only players to make one of the first two All-NBA squads in both years have been Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Damien Lillard, Kevin Durant...and Embiid.
Since the start of that 2017-18 season, per basketballreference.com, Embiid is the only player in the league to sport a usage rate over 32 (he's at 33.5), an effective field goal percentage over 50 (he's at 51.4) and an individual on court defensive rating under 105. In fact, there's only been one other player in NBA history to have combined seasons with those numbers: Michael Jordan, from 1985 until his final retirement.
With these numbers, it's no wonder that in the 2019 postseason, Philadelphia outscored the now-defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors by eighty-nine points during the minutes Embiid was on the floor. He is that good...when he wants (and is healthy enough) to be.
If we're using the Anthony Davis trade as the framework, New York simply doesn't have the assets to swing a deal this offseason, but then again, its doubtful Philly even thinks about a move that soon, regardless of how poorly they do in Orlando. That doesn't mean a few dominoes can't fall between now and the start of next season, starting with the Sixers woofing it up during the dog days of summer.
It's why, of the 22 teams suiting it up again in eight weeks, Philly is the one I'll be keeping the closest eye on. If nothing else, it's a safe bet that Embiid's former agent - the guy now running the basketball club that calls MSG its home - will be doing the same.