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The Completely Unnecessary Joel Embiid Discussion
Because the smoke is starting early this summer.
Good morning! While we’re still a few weeks away from the trade rumors really hitting fast and furious, there’s already been some speculation about some big name players. None are bigger - literally and figuratively - than the subject of today’s column, so let’s get it out of the way early, even if it is, at the moment…
The Completely Unnecessary Joel Embiid Discussion
The only way to properly begin the Joel Embiid discussion is to acknowledge the obvious: until indicated otherwise, there is no Joel Embiid discussion.
The reasons why this isn’t a thing we should worry about yet may seem obvious, and its why league insiders like Marc Stein are saying that any trade speculation has no legs at the moment. Even so, let’s go through the current facts and circumstances for good measure:
Even though there’s been smoke surrounding James Harden leaving for Houston ever since the Woj report on Christmas, we’re still a long way from that actually happening. Yes, the latest report from trusted Sixers scribe Keith Pompey indicates that the “belief among NBA executives is that James Harden will rejoin the Houston Rockets this summer” and that “sources have said his interest in returning to Houston is mutual and not a ploy to get a lucrative deal out of the Sixers.” There are other obvious ties between Harden and his former home as well. Even considering all that though, Philly still has a head coaching hire to make that could potentially entice Harden to stay (hello, Mike D’Antoni). They also offer him a better chance to win and more money.
If Harden does leave, he cannot technically do so until free agency begins in July. There is certainly a chance that all of this gets decided by the draft in the league where tampering is more prevalent than small-town affairs (have your fun; just don’t make it obvious), but even if Harden makes his intentions known early, there’s a chance the Sixers take their time in deciding on a next move, and ultimately decide on no big move, opting instead to take their medicine and not make an earth-shifting organizational decision just because an over-the-hill star took his beard and went home.
Part of the reason why Philly might be so inclined to take such an approach is because of their unique salary cap situation. On one hand, if Harden leaves, it gives them no additional spending power this summer because they are so far under the cap. On the other hand, their situation will look immensely different in a year. In the summer of 2024, the only guaranteed money on their books will be Embiid’s $50.6 million, PJ Tucker’s $11.5 million player option and Tyrese Maxey’s $13 million cap hold. With a $140.7 million salary cap, Philly could waive and stretch Tucker if need be and open up roughly $73 million in space in an offseason that should have some elite talent hitting the market. Even if they extend Maxey this summer, they should have enough to offer someone the max.
The other area of flexibility Philly gains in a year concerns their draft equity. As of now, they can’t trade any future first round picks, but that will change after draft night this year, when their 2030 pick can be moved. Next summer, they’ll be able to agree on a trade involving their 2024 first (which they own outright, but can’t trade until after the 2024 draft because of the Stepien rule) and their 2030 first, plus swaps in 2029 and 2031.
If Harden leaves and Embiid goes to Daryl Morey and demands a trade as many assume he will, Morey can lay out all of the above in explaining why the 2023-24 season could simply be an interlude for the Sixers, to say nothing of the fact that the East contains no powerhouses. Maxey will be better, Tobias Harris will take on the bigger role he desires in Harden’s absence, and Philly will have the full midlevel at their disposal (although this would eat into their potential 2024 cap space). Miami doing what they’re doing would probably embolden a Harden-less Sixers squad to look around and ask “why not us?”
Morey also holds the ultimate trump card: if Embiid rides out what could be a brief fallow period, he can cement himself as the greatest Sixer ever. Dr. J, Wilt, Moses, AI and Sir Charles all have arguments, but Joel has a chance to end those arguments if he becomes the first Sixer great to stay in the City of Brotherly Love for his entire career.
Even if Embiid cares not for such trivialities, Morey doesn’t have to honor any trade request. Embiid has three more years on his contract before a $58 million player option in the 2026-27 season. He has repeatedly professed his love for both the city of Philadelphia and the organization. It seems far fetched to imagine he would pull a Harden and make sizable waves, such that the team would feel compelled into making a trade they’d rather avoid.
And why, precisely, would Morey play hardball and not honor the request of a player who has given everything to the Sixers for nearly a decade?
Three letters: M-V-P.
Those three little letters bring us to the reason Joel Embiid is worth worrying about in the first place. It’s the reason why, amidst all the possibilities that exist for the Knicks this summer, I’m opening this week with a newsletter about a player whose chances of ending up in New York are far slimmer than some of the other names being bandied about.
I’ll get back to Embiid’s bonafides in a moment. Let’s first take a moment to understand how unprecedented it would be for him to get traded just months after being awarded the league’s top individual honor. Only twice in NBA history has a reigning MVP been traded before the start of the following season. Both times, oddly enough, have involved the Sixers.
In 1968, Philadelphia traded away a soon-to-be 32-year-old Wilt Chamberlain to Los Angeles even though he was coming off his third consecutive Most Valuable Player win. It worked out pretty well for the Lakers, who went to four Finals in Wilt’s five remaining seasons, winning once over the Knicks in 1972 and twice pushing the East champ to a seventh game.
14 years later, Houston center Moses Malone was coming off of his second MVP win in four years and entering restricted free agency ahead of his age-27 season. He signed an offer sheet with the Sixers which Houston matched, but then dealt Malone to Philly anyway. The move resulted in a title the very next year as well as a third MVP for Malone.
And that’s it. Not since 1982 has the league’s consensus top player been traded away immediately upon adding the heftiest of hardware to his collection. That said, an Embiid trade wouldn’t be quite as unprecedented as I’ve just made it out to be. Since the Wilt-to-LA deal, there have been six other trades in addition to Moses in which a former MVP was dealt while still in his relative prime. The results have been mixed, to say the least:
1975: Four years after leading the Milwaukee Bucks to their first NBA championship, three-time MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was traded to Los Angeles for Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith and Brian Winters. The 28-year-old Kareem was a year removed from his most recent Most Valuable Player win at the time of the trade and would immediately win the next two awards in a Laker uniform. He’d help lead LA to five titles in the 80’s before retiring as the NBA’s all time leading scorer.
1976: A year and a half after capturing the 1975 MVP and just months after he finished second to Kareem for the 1976 crown, 25-year-old Bob McAdoo got traded to the Knicks 20 games into the 1976-77 season for John Gianelli and cash. McAdoo led New York to one playoff series victory in what was a tumultuous time for the franchise following its title years. He was dealt to Boston a little more than two years later for three 1979 first rounders, including the pick used to select Bill Cartwright. McAdoo still holds the franchise record for highest career scoring average at 26.7 points per game.
1979: After missing a season and a half with foot injuries, Portland traded 1978 MVP Bill Walton to the Clippers for Kevin Kunnert, Kermit Washington and a 1980 first rounder. The 27-year-old Walton would play just 14 games in the 1979-80 season before missing two full years due to injury. He was eventually traded to Boston, where he’d win 6th Man of the Year for the 1986 World Champion Celtics.
2004: Shaquille O’Neal only won one MVP award in 2000 but was arguably the sport’s most valuable asset for at least a decade. At the tail end of that run, he was traded to the Miami Heat for Caron Butler, Brian Grant, Lamar Odom and a future first. After finishing second to Steve Nash in MVP voting the season after the trade, he helped lead Miami to the 2006 NBA Championship a few months after his 34th birthday.
2007: Even though he never got the Timberwolves to the playoffs again after he helped lead them to the 2004 West Finals in his MVP season, few doubted Kevin Garnett’s ability to helm a contender. Sure enough, in his first season in Boston after he was traded there for Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Telfair and two 2009 firsts, the 31-year-old helped lead the Celtics to their 17th NBA title.
2021: James Harden had won his MVP a few years earlier but was only 31 and still coming off of a 1st Team All-NBA appearance when he pouted his way to Brooklyn to join KD and Kyrie. The trade helped reset the Rockets, both allowing them to tank and sending them the rights to seven total first round picks or swaps. Meanwhile, the Big Three that was never meant to be was undone by several factors - injury, a global pandemic, an inconveniently large big toe, etc - and ultimately prompted Harden to lallygag his way off of a second team in as many years.
That brings us full circle, as Harden may now be souring on Philadelphia and deciding to go back the place he wanted out of to begin with.
If that does indeed prompt Joel Embiid to want out, can we learn anything from the other teams that have traded for current or recent MVP’s throughout NBA history? For one, the odds are that a championship parade will be taking place in the near future. Wilt, Kareem, Moses, Shaq and KG all delivered a title to the teams that acquired them even though three of the five were older than Embiid is now. Perhaps just as importantly, each of those teams was able to either immediately or eventually pair their newly acquired MVP with at least one additional top-75 all time player (West/Elgin, Magic/Worthy, Dr. J, Wade and Pierce/Allen).
As for McAdoo, Walton and Harden, they proved to be fool’s gold for one reason or another. And, as fate might have it, all three would be brought up if Embiid was ever rumored to be coming to the Big Apple - and for all the wrong reasons. McAdoo’s name would arise as one of only two former MVP’s (along with Derrick Rose) to get traded to the Knicks, each with less than inspiring results. Walton, meanwhile, is the worst-case injury comp for the rest of Embiid’s career. Finally, Harden and Embiid have two of the worst playoff resumes of any MVP winner in history.
For all of these reasons and several more, if Embiid-to-New York rumors start in earnest, there will be an immense amount of skepticism surrounding a potential trade. Between the Knicks’ track record of acquiring past saviors and Embiid’s injury history & playoff foibles, that’s enough bad juju to make you afraid. But what would it say on top of that if Morey relented to his star’s demands rather than fight like hell to keep him in Philly (or worse, willingly engage in trade talks even if Embiid didn’t ask out)?
The answer to that question, of course, has everything to do with what Morey would be getting back in return. Unlike the Donovan Mitchell saga last summer, there would be little to no negotiation involved. Save for Jalen Brunson, everything and anything would be on the table. Much like Durant to the Suns, Harden to the Nets and AD to the Lakers, the package would be monumental, including every pick and swap under the sun, not to mention a good young player or two as well.
Crazy talk? Perhaps, but recent history says its not. The superstar transaction log says that when teams have a chance to get one of these guys, very little quibbling will go on. No hemming. No hawing. Just paying through the nose and hoping for the best.
And that’s really it. There is no “will they or won’t they” discussion to be had. If they can, they will. If they can’t, they won’t. It’s that simple.
Would there be risk? Of course. During his six healthy seasons, Embiid has missed an average of 18 games per year due to injury or illness, in addition to eight of a possible 61 playoff games. Speaking of the postseason, Embiid is now 0-5 in conference semifinals and has shot 43 percent from the field across 29 games in those series. He has certainly had his good moments, but overall, while other stars have raised their games in April and May, Embiid, largely, has not.
On top of all this, the reining MVP might not be joining a ready-made championship core. Brunson is the surest thing the Knicks have, and even he has yet to make an All-Star team. Considering that a few rotation players would need to go out in the trade, there would be work left to be done.
Oh, and if Portland decides to get in the running and Embiid doesn’t have the ability and/or desire to force his way to New York? Then this is really much ado about nothing, because the Blazers have the ability to put together the best package out there.
And that’s really all that needs to be said at the moment. The Harden rumors are the first domino, but several more need to fall before this becomes a reality.
Just remember: if those dominoes start falling, they won’t topple into a conflicted front office, uncertain as to whether the juice is worth the squeeze. On the contrary, Leon Rose will be waiting with arms spread wider than the Brooklyn Bridge.
Will he have the opportunity to welcome his former client back into the fold?
It’s a long shot. But it’s one that warrants all the attention it’s already getting.
Amazing how much weight three little letters can carry.
See y’all soon! #BlackLivesMatter
Not counted amongst this group: Oscar to Milwaukee, Barkley to Houston, Iverson to Denver, Nash to the Lakers, D-Rose to New York or Russ to Houston. On the flip side, I think Durant to the Suns should count even though KD was dealt nearly nine years after winning his lone MVP. Even with his injury history, no one disputed Durant’s status as one of the sports very best players. The issue there is that the trade to Phoenix is so recent that I’m not sure what, if anything, we can learn from that deal.