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Trade Embiid? History tells us that would not be wise for the Sixers

Joel Embiid is coming off an MVP season. The Sixers’ history of trading MVP-caliber players is nightmare fuel.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

We have again reached the Spring of Sixers Fans’ Discontent. The season ended in a shambles. Doc Rivers is gone. James Harden could be going. And what of Joel Embiid?

Fake trades have already begun to emerge, the result of idle hands, social media and, well, business as usual in the NBA. Would the reigning MVP not, perhaps, want to go to the Knicks, given his ties to Leon Rose? And if not there, wouldn’t he want to go to the Heat, where he could be reunited with Jimmy Butler?


LB’s own Bryan Toporek gave the most reasoned take on this subject, writing recently that while he is not advocating in the least for the Sixers to sever ties with their six-time All-Star center, they might be forced to do just that. Bryan noted that if Harden departs, likely for Houston, it will be difficult to replace his regular-season production, given the salary-cap constraints the Sixers face this offseason. As a result, he believes it might serve Embiid and the team well to part company — provided, Bryan writes, Philadelphia can get a haul comparable to that which Utah brought in last summer for Rudy Gobert (i.e., three players, five first-rounders and two pick swaps).

That is indeed a compelling argument. I just wonder if it’s ever possible to get full value in return for a franchise player. Certainly Sixers history is replete with evidence that it is not.

The Sixers have traded nine Hall of Famers in the 74 years they have been in business — Wilt Chamberlain, Chet Walker, George McGinnis, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks, Charles Barkley, Dikembe Mutombo, Allen Iverson and Toni Kukoc. (That’s a lot, but not the most in league history. The Warriors in their various incarnations have traded 11 — Wilt, Bernard King, Jerry Lucas, Guy Rodgers, Mitch Richmond, Chris Mullin, Nate Thurmond, Tom Gola, Sarunas Marciulionis, Chris Webber and Ralph Sampson. Yes, Chris Webber and Ralph Sampson are in the HOF. I double-checked).

Toss Kukoc out of the Sixers’ mix, since he was in town about 15 minutes and did his best work elsewhere. Of the others, the Sixers did well in the deals involving McGinnis (acquiring from Denver another Hall of Famer, Bobby Jones), Iverson (acquiring from the Nuggets Andre Miller, who at that point in his career was a superior player to the fading AI) and Mutombo (re-acquiring from the Nets Todd MacCulloch, as well as Keith Van Horn, for a 36-year-old on the downside of his career).

They did OK in the trade of Cheeks (acquiring from San Antonio Johnny Dawkins, who was younger and might have been better than he turned out to be in Philadelphia, had he not blown out a knee). They didn’t do quite as well in the Walker transaction, as they acquired from the Bulls only a serviceable player, Jim Washington, for a guy who would make four of his seven career All-Star appearances in Chicago.

That leaves the trades involving the heavy hitters, each of them disastrous transactions that left the team scuffling for years afterward. Here’s the rundown:

The Deal

Wilt Chamberlain to the Lakers for Darrall Imhoff, Jerry Chambers and Archie Clark, July 9, 1968.

The Aftermath

Wilt went to LA and continued setting records; in 1972 he was part of a Lakers team that reeled off 33 consecutive victories en route to a championship. Like many of Wilt’s records, it seems unlikely that one will ever be broken. Chambers never played for the Sixers, and Imhoff, a center, played two seasons for them, averaging 11.3 points and 9.6 rebounds. Clark, a guard, was the trade’s one saving grace, as he posted nearly 20 points a game in three-plus seasons in Philadelphia.

The Aftershocks

The Sixers won 55 games the year after Wilt’s departure, but in time began to sag, finally bottoming out at 9-73 in 1972-73. Even the dreck they trotted out there during The Process years couldn’t quite meet that standard of ineptitude. (Came within a game of doing so in 2015-16, though.)

The Deal

Moses Malone to Washington for center Jeff Ruland and forward Cliff Robinson, June 16, 1986. (That same day the Sixers traded the first overall pick to Cleveland for forward Roy Hinson. The Cavaliers chose North Carolina center Brad Daugherty.)

The Aftermath

While Moses was never quite the player he had been in leading the Sixers to the Fo’, Fo’, Fo’ title in 1982-83, he was still formidable after his departure, making All-Star teams both years he spent in Washington and another in 1988-89, while playing for the Hawks. As for Ruland, his knee began hurting early in his first training camp with the Sixers. He played five games in ‘86-87, retired for four years and returned to play 13 games for Philadelphia in ‘91-92, and 11 more for Detroit the following season. Robinson and Hinson, beset by injury problems of their own, had little impact with the Sixers, while Daugherty was a five-time All-Star in his eight years with the Cavs.

The Aftershocks

The Sixers, who won 54 games in Malone’s final season in Philadelphia, did not win more than 53 in any of the next 14 seasons. They finished below .500 in eight of them.

The Deal

Charles Barkley to Phoenix for guard Jeff Hornacek, center Andrew Lang and forward Tim Perry, June 17, 1992.

The Aftermath

Barkley was named MVP while leading the Suns to the ‘93 Finals, where they lost to Michael Jordan’s Bulls. He played seven more seasons, and made four more All-Star teams, after that. Hornacek was a good player on some bad Sixers teams, and was eventually traded to Utah. Lang and Perry were just guys.

The Aftershocks

The Sixers, coached by a going-through-the-motions Doug Moe at the start of the ‘92-93 season, went 26-56, then managed to win progressively fewer games each of the next three seasons as well. That enabled them to draft Iverson first overall in 1996. A year later they hired Larry Brown, and the turnaround began in earnest.

It bears repeating here that nobody is saying the Sixers should trade Embiid, only that it is conceivable that they could. And the larger point is that while they might very well get volume in return for him — again, witness that Gobert package — there is no guarantee they will get value, no guarantee they will get somebody who moves the needle quite as much as he does. History proves as much.

So I say, let him grow old here. And let the team figure out how to shape the roster around him. Maybe that means fashioning a sign-and-trade involving Harden this summer. Maybe that means holding their water until the midseason trade deadline in 2023-24, so they can offload Tobias Harris’ expiring contract. Maybe that means waiting even longer, until next summer. As Daryl Morey said in his recent presser, there are various scenarios on the table at this point. It would be best to explore them all before parting with Embiid.

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