Joel Embiid had a procedure done on his injured left meniscus Tuesday, which will cause the Sixers’ star to miss significant time. The league’s reigning MVP was having a historically prolific season. Now, there’s doubt he’ll even be able to return in 2023-24, but he’ll be re-evaluated in four weeks.
But for Daryl Morey and the Sixers, there’s no time to feel sorry for themselves. The NBA trade deadline is Thursday, and even with a healthy Embiid, the team has holes and needs to fill.
So, what does Morey do? There are really three paths: stand pat and save assets for the summer, look for players to fill in the gaps Embiid leaves, or don’t deviate at all from the original deadline game plan.
Let’s get this one out of the way first — the Sixers will not tank the rest of the regular season and sell off players. They are still 2.5 games ahead of the six-seeded Indiana Pacers and four games up on the Miami Heat for the seventh seed/a play-in spot. As of this posting, Basketball Reference projects the Sixers to have a 95.6% chance at finishing with a top-six seed and avoiding the play-in.
By simply getting starting-caliber players like De’Anthony Melton and Nicolas Batum (not to mention the players playing through stuff right now) healthy, this team should win games with Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris as the offensive focal points. They also have a mad scientist head coach in Nick Nurse who should cook up schemes to get the team by. Even by standing pat, the Sixers should be able to stay afloat for a potential Embiid return late in the season. If that’s the case, why not look to improve the team one way or another?
It’s more of a question of what they should target and what they should be willing to give up. Morey did well in the James Harden trade to acquire only expiring contracts while restocking a mostly barren draft pick cupboard. Our Bryan Toporek broke it all down recently:
“To recap: Before trading Harden to the Los Angeles Clippers on Halloween, the Sixers could offer one first-round pick (either 2029 or 2030) and four second-round picks (2024 NYK, 2029 POR, 2029 PHI, 2030 PHI) in trades. Thanks to the Harden trade, they now have two additional first-round picks, a first-round pick swap and two more second-round picks to dangle.”
It’s worth noting that the Sixers could have even more draft picks to offer once the 2024 NBA Draft arrives. On draft night, they could move their own 2024 pick and their 2031 first-rounder, meaning they could offer up to five first-round picks for a big fish. They’d also have seven second-rounders to play with.
So, Morey has to weigh the return on investment of any player he might give up picks for vs. what he could potentially do with those picks in the offseason. While the sentiment has been that the Sixers wouldn’t want to trade for a player signed beyond this season, maybe that changes a bit with the Embiid news. If you’re going to give up a first-round pick(s) for a player(s) with Embiid’s status unclear, perhaps making sure those players would be back could be beneficial.
As far as what kind of players Morey could target, the plan likely doesn’t change much. They could use a ball handler, a shooter and a big. With or without Embiid, they could still use those things. Should Morey look to target a ball handler that’s also a perimeter creator to ease the pressure on Maxey? Should he acquire a fringe starting center that can rebound and protect the rim to make up for Embiid’s production in those areas?
While the Embiid injury does make things trickier, it makes the most sense to conduct business as usual. Embiid will be re-evaluated in four weeks following his procedure Tuesday. Clearly, he will not be ready to play in four weeks, but maybe six or eight weeks is possible. If that’s the case, the current holes should be fixed.
You can live with a scenario where you plan for Embiid to return, burn an asset or two, only for him to miss the rest of the season. What would be disastrous is if you do nothing (or sell) and Embiid is ready to go in six weeks. Embiid will turn 30 next month. How many of these playoff runs at this level does he realistically have left? Not at least trying to take advantage of one would be incredibly disappointing.
It’s an unenviable spot. It would honestly be hard to crush Morey for whichever path he chooses, though indications are the Sixers will be “aggressive” ahead of Thursday’s deadline.
But if there’s even a chance that you can get a healthy Joel Embiid for a playoff run, you have to do something to improve the team and better his chances.