The Sixers are staring down a fork in the road in the wake of James Harden’s trade request.
If the Sixers trade Harden to the Los Angeles Clippers (as he hopes), they’ll likely be worse this season than they were last year. If they refuse to deal Harden, they could have an absolute circus on their hands. Either way, there’s a non-zero chance that the Sixers have already missed their best opportunity to win a championship with Joel Embiid.
The Sixers appear to have no interest in exploring that endgame right now. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported in late May that new head coach Nick Nurse “separated himself in the interview process” by “selling a vision for the Sixers centered on Embiid.” Shortly after Embiid’s comments caused a five-alarm fire in Philadelphia, team president Daryl Morey told Anthony Gargano of 97.5 The Fanatic that Embiid “wants to win here. He wants to win it for Philly. That’s the only place he wants to win.”
Even if Embiid eventually walks away from the Sixers ringless—whether via trade, free agency or retirement—that shouldn’t detract from the highs that he’s provided Sixers fans over the years. As much as we’d all love to see him win a championship in Philadelphia, he’s already cemented himself as one of the greatest Sixers of all time and a franchise icon whom we’ll one day tell our kids and grandkids about.
Embiid has helped fuel one of the greatest eras of Sixers basketball in the past four decades. They’ve made six straight playoff appearances for the first time since the 1980s, and they’ve had more 50-win seasons over that span (four) than they did from 1990-91 through 2016-17 (one). They’ve won five playoff series with Embiid, which is four more than the Brooklyn Nets did during the short-lived Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving era and three more than the New York Knicks have over the past two decades.
Embiid is the first center to lead the league in scoring in back-to-back seasons since Bob McAdoo in the mid-1970s, and he’s the first Sixer to win a Most Valuable Player award since Allen Iverson did in 2000-01. His six All-Star/All-NBA appearances are already tied with Charles Barkley and Larry Costello for the fifth-most in franchise history, and he’s poised to add to that total over the next few seasons.
The on-court accolades don’t fully encompass what Embiid has meant to Sixers fans over the past decade, though. He is the personification of the Process era, both good and bad.
When he missed his first two seasons with back-to-back foot injuries, it was fair to wonder whether Embiid would be the next Greg Oden, a big man whose body betrayed him before he could put his otherworldly basketball gifts to good use. Although Embiid hasn’t fully evaded the injury bug, particularly in the playoffs, he’s stayed healthy enough to cement the Sixers in the upper echelon of the NBA for the past half-decade.
Embiid has toned down his antics in recent years, but the early-career version of him was tailor-made for Philadelphia. Who could ever forget his legendary Twitter takedown of Hassan Whiteside? “Your plus/minus was ass” deserves a permanent spot in the NBA lexicon, and it stemmed from a preseason game.
Or what about his Players’ Tribune article from 2018 where he revealed the secret of how he learned to expand his shooting range?
So I’m chilling one night, and I go on YouTube, and I’m thinking I’m about to figure this shooting thing out.
I go to the search box like….
HOW TO SHOOT 3 POINTERS.
HOW TO SHOOT GOOD FORM
Then the light bulb went off, man. I typed in the magic words.
WHITE PEOPLE SHOOTING 3 POINTERS.
Embiid’s lackluster play toward the end of this year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals seemingly caused more Sixers fans to turn against him than ever before. What was once heresy a few months ago—the thought of even entertaining trade offers for Embiid—has since become a legitimate consideration for the first time in his Sixers career. (Although, as Liberty Ballers’ Gordie Jones wrote in late May, history doesn’t reflect favorably on that idea.)
While the Knicks and other potential suitors are slobbering like hyenas over the prospect of Embiid eventually hitting the trade market, that doesn’t appear to be a legitimate consideration yet. Regardless of what happens with Harden, the Sixers figure to retool around the big man and see whether Nurse can coax more playoff success out of him than Brett Brown or Doc Rivers ever did.
It’s becoming increasingly fair to grow frustrated with Embiid’s playoff shortcomings. There were no physics-defying shots or Ben Simmons late-game meltdowns to blame for the Sixers’ collapse against the Boston Celtics this year. It’s unclear whether they’ll ever win a title with Embiid—or whether he can even be the alpha around whom a championship team is built. He’ll have to continue working on his conditioning and cutting down on turnovers, particularly against double-teams, for that to become a reality.
But no matter how the Embiid era in Philadelphia eventually ends, fans should be grateful for the time he spent in a Sixers uniform. Players like him don’t come around often, and they deserve to be cherished as such, even if they fall short of bringing home a Larry O’Brien Trophy.