BY: KWAME FISHER-JONES
From Nerlens Noel to head coach Brett Brown there is finally a sense of clarity surrounding the Philadelphia 76ers, except when it pertains to the oft-injured Joel Embiid. The center who has held this franchise hostage for the past three seasons continues to be a painful reminder of promise over production.
This summer Embiid will seek a maximum extension from the only NBA franchise he has known, and Philadelphia must say no. Furthermore, with the current NBA trade deadline quickly approaching the organization must seriously consider moving the player that has rejuvenated the franchise and fan base.
The missed games to date are staggering (183 of a possible 212 games missed). Despite such a lack of actual game participation, the championship delusion centered on the big man remains present and accounted for. Meanwhile, the Sixers actual on the court progression cannot be halted by such unsubstantiated wishful thinking.
The center was believed to be the steal of the 2014 NBA draft, and when he plays it is easy to see why. The caveat being “when he plays”, which frankly has not been much. Two full seasons have passed and “The Process” is still struggling to play more than two games a week. 730 plus days between organized basketball games and the big man still is closely monitored, for fear he might be hurt yet again playing the game he dominates.
“Trust”, “Hope” and “Process” are mainstays in any conversation involving Joel, even now with almost a full three years elapsing since the former Kansas JayHawk was selected. With talented and perceived disenchanted center Jahlil Okafor all but traded, Philly cannot allow the ascension of the franchise to hinge on a player who rarely plays.
The 76er center has experienced back, foot and most recently knee injuries. What makes the knee injury so troubling is the team has done everything imaginable, short of engulfing his seven foot frame in bubble wrap, to avoid it. No back-to-back games, minute restrictions and a strict diet have all been put in place to keep this talent on the court. Only for nature to inevitably strike.
While it is easy to fall in love with such a talented and hardworking player, one need only to remember love is an emotion and championship teams are rarely established on emotion.
Rings are gained through sweat and production, and yes it is a process (pun intended) in building a championship contender. That process must be rooted in growth and consistency. This season has shown us all that the only consistency the current Sixer big man offers is the inconsistency of his presence in the team’s lineup. That lack of game after game participation cannot and should not be ignored by Philadelphia’s top brass.
General Manager Bryan Colangelo has been diligent and prudent in regards to player movement during his first year in Philly. This is a stark contrast to the 25 or so personnel moves former General Manager Sam Hinkie made during his first calendar year.
Colangelo has drafted or traded for future NBA Hall-of-Famer (Steve Nash) and All-Stars (Shawn Marion, DeMar DeRozan, Joe Johnson, Amar’e Stoudemire, Stephon Marbury, and Michael Finley), therefore his ability to assess talent should not be questioned.
Yet, like most organization care takers, the NBA lifer has made some blunders (Shawn Respert and Joe Kleine immediately come to mind). The goal here, regardless of how painful it is to accept, is to not duplicate those mistakes. Signing the Cameroonian to an extension would register as such a mistake.
It is difficult to surmise such a move with the team resting at 20 – 34 and the universal belief that Joel is a franchise altering player. In addition to possibly being that transcendent player, the center also represents justification for the organization’s investment in losing. He is the prize, therefore a lack of long term commitment would be an admittance that their plan was an epic failure.
The 76ers would be openly admitting the best the process yielded was a possible Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Nevertheless, availability is in fact an ability and should be judged as such. So this alternative to signing him long term should not be viewed so skeptically.
Injuries are as much a staple of Joel’s game as the ferocious dunk. His lack of on court reliability should remove any belief Philadelphia has in him of being a long term solution. The Sixer will be entering the final year of his rookie contract and if he can make it through the first half of the All-Star break reasonably healthy (50 plus games played), then there is the option of trading him to the highest bidder.
Imagine what the big man would command in return. Especially, if the league believes Philadelphia would consider playing the role of fool and parting with the money Joel will be seeking.
Yet, in all likelihood “the Process” will continue to miss a huge chunk of games due to injury. And in the instances that the big is available to suit up, there will always be restrictions placed upon the coach in hopes of avoiding something that seems unavoidable.
Choosing to not re-sign the third overall selection will undoubtedly drastically impact the 76ers for years to come. Some could argue the team is not strapped for cash and re-upping Embiid would not limit them financially going forward. The impact of such a robust personality could have a negative impact on a more talented squad. Also, such a cloud of uncertainty around an impressionable hungry group of young guns sets a bad precedent. Keep in mind this current group of overachievers are playing for their collective NBA lives and they struggle to duplicate the same energy and production from when Joel plays versus when he does not play.
Why would you want to create an obstacle for a developing nucleus hell bent on etching their own mark on the league?
With such a documented injury history and Philly already having Ben Simmons in tow, the former JayHawk should be viewed more as a luxury than cornerstone at this point. The “play one game sit the next two philosophy” that has been prominent thus far would be a detriment to the necessary growth of a new foundation.
Through accident or fruition this team has a fresh start coming its way in the form of Simmons. As much as Okafor would benefit from playing with a disciplined talent such as Ben, the 2015 NCAA champion has earned a new start in another NBA city. Noel will receive an offer that Philly is unlikely to match, leaving Joel as the only thing remaining from the three franchise picks that couldn’t.
When Hinkie drafted the former JayHawk, hope was given to every 76er fan. Three years later that hope has been replaced with reality. A reality that the center is more Ralph Sampson than Hakeem Olajuwon. And just because that reality is colder than a January wind, it does not make it any less real.
Certainty, continuity and availability could once again be the staples of Philadelphia basketball, but only if this group can avoid the missteps of placing their faith in magic beans. Only if this group will simply believe in what they have seen rather than what they hope to see.