Joel Embiid has been through a lot since he was drafted third overall by the Sixers in 2014.
Professionally, personally, on the court, off the court — Embiid’s time in Philadelphia has been tempestuous. There’s no need to rehash it all. If you’re reading this, you know.
While Embiid is certainly to blame for some of the failures of the team, the franchise hasn’t always done what’s best for a player that will have his No. 21 in the rafters someday.
But, despite the chaos of James Harden’s very public trade request, the Sixers are doing everything they can to build a contending team around Embiid — for now and years to come.
Would Embiid like to have Harden back? Sure. The 10-time All-Star helped Embiid land his first MVP. Harden gave Embiid his first competent half-court playmaker since Jimmy Butler. And, yes, the Sixers ultimately lost to the Celtics in an embarrassing Game 7, but they were on the precipice of the Eastern Conference Finals with a lead late in Game 6. Because of the way the team has plateaued in the second round, it might be hard to view them as close, but they were.
With all that said, this doesn’t feel like a situation where Embiid is hanging on every Harden update, letting what happens with that situation decide his own fate. As ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne recently reported, Embiid is “happy to be a Sixer.” Despite all the noise, Embiid is gearing up for this season, with Harden or not.
We’ve seen Embiid take his fitness and diet much more seriously in recent years. The results speak for themselves. Now, he’s looking to build upon his game as the reigning MVP.
And a recent picture shows the big man looking mighty svelte.
Much like the Ben Simmons trade demand before it, this could be a galvanizing moment for the Sixers. Before Simmons was traded for Harden, the Sixers had a 35-23 record. That’s a .603 winning percentage. For context, the Knicks were the East’s fifth seed with a .573 winning percentage. You could make a solid argument that the 2023-24 Sixers, even without Harden, are a better team than that Simmons-less version.
We can debate if the rotational mix is better. In are De’Anthony Melton, P.J. Tucker, Patrick Beverley, Danuel House, Jr. and Mo Bamba. Out are Seth Curry, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang and Andre Drummond. It’s obvious though that the Sixers have better versions of Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and Paul Reed (and maybe Jaden Springer?) than they did in 2021-22.
Maxey’s presence is the one thing you should not overlook when it comes to not only how good the Sixers can be without Harden, but in keeping Embiid happy. People around the team see a big brother-little brother relationship between the two — Embiid can be tough on him, but it’s because he knows Maxey can take it and he believes the young guard can be great.
In a way, Embiid has become for Maxey what Jimmy Butler once was for Embiid. Butler would constantly push Embiid and tell him he could be the best player in the league. Now, it’s Embiid wanting Maxey to be more assertive and look for his own shots so that he realizes his potential.
Going into the season with Embiid and Maxey is a flat out enviable place to be compared to most of the league. Does it make the Sixers a championship contender? Probably not, to be frank. Could they be with Harden? Possibly, yes.
But this team still has a decent chance to be a factor in the East. Milwaukee and Boston are the cream of the crop. Miami could be there as well, depending on how things shake out with Damian Lillard. Cleveland and New York will absolutely be in the mix. Beyond that, who in the conference is clearly better than this iteration of the Sixers?
But if the Sixers are better with Harden, and Embiid still wants him here, why wouldn’t Daryl Morey give Harden the contract he desires?
The answer is Embiid.
Make no mistake, Harden is still a very good player. He probably should’ve been an All-Star last year. But he’ll turn 34 and is simply not the superstar he once was. So, why would Morey risk throwing a long-term deal, no matter how big or small the dollar amount, at a player that might not help Embiid throughout his current max deal that has a player option for 2026-27?
Embiid is kept in the loop on all the things the Sixers are doing. He knows the team could open up a max cap slot for next offseason and the players that could be available. He knows that Morey is not secretly hoping for a rebuild, as other reports have suggested. Teams like the Knicks and Heat might be “monitoring” the situation, but the Sixers aren’t taking any calls. They’re all in on Embiid as the centerpiece of the franchise.
Embiid trusts Morey and managing partner Josh Harris, according to a league source. He also feels a loyalty to the organization for the way they supported him during the early trials of his career.
But as Robert Frost once said, nothing gold can stay.
Presently, Embiid is where he wants to be and he’s gearing up to play with Maxey and the rest of the group Morey assembles. He’s genuinely excited to play for new head coach Nick Nurse, per a league source. The non-Harden vibes with the Sixers as a whole are actually good.
But as we’ve seen around this league, things can change in a heartbeat. Even the Harden and Morey “mutual lovefest” has hit an expiration date.
Eventually, Embiid might want to leave the Sixers, but today is not that day.
And the Sixers are doing everything within their power to make sure it stays that way for as long as possible.