An avid pro wrestling fan, Joel Embiid has a keen sense for the dramatic.
He understands how storylines work, knows how legacies take shape in the NBA, and is cognizant of how he’ll be remembered.
There’s something romantic about enduring bleak times and ascending to the top with a single franchise, as the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo did this past season. That’s still on the table for Embiid, who signed a supermax extension with the Sixers for four years and $196 million on Tuesday.
The fully guaranteed contract, which will start in the 2023-24 season, is further confirmation that the Sixers revolve around Embiid.
Their fate will continue to rest on his health and his performance in clutch playoff moments. Anything besides a supermax deal for the four-time All-Star would’ve been surprising, a jarring shift in the Sixers’ approach since Embiid first played in the NBA and looked like a modern version of Hakeem Olajuwon. Nevertheless, it’s a major development.
The Sixers have made several costly mistakes in their attempts to surround Embiid with the best possible team. The front office’s vision of a supersized, defensively dominant championship contender never came close to fruition during the 2019-20 season. And, despite president of basketball operations Daryl Morey’s savvy roster repairs in the form of draft-night trades for Seth Curry and Danny Green, the Sixers were a bottom-five team last season in three-point frequency, per Cleaning the Glass.
As Morey appreciates through his partnership with James Harden in Houston, stars are vital but not everything. Though the image of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant singlehandedly seizing control of a game and refusing to lose is familiar to any basketball fan, the sport oozes with randomness. Anything can happen — even 27 consecutive missed three-pointers in Game 7 of a conference finals, Morey would tell you — and the goal of a sensible executive is to improve probabilities.
One broad avenue through which Morey can accomplish that is by nailing minor moves. Perhaps Georges Niang as a stretch-four upgrade over Mike Scott will fall into that category. George Hill was not the Sixers’ missing piece last season.
Another team-building possibility that’s attracted far more attention is trading Ben Simmons. The gist of the argument for doing so is obvious: Simmons missed many important foul shots and generally didn’t look to score in the fourth quarters of the Sixers’ second-round loss to the Hawks. If the Sixers want to maximize Embiid’s prime, the intuitive assessment is there are better No. 2 stars out there than Simmons, and the 25-year-old could be the central piece in a trade package to land one of them.
However, it is not mandatory that Morey deals away Simmons. Any notion that the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up is fundamentally incompatible with Embiid is false. As long as Al Horford isn’t in the picture, the Sixers have been tremendous when the two share the floor. According to Cleaning the Glass, the team had a plus-16.2 net rating in Simmons-Embiid minutes during the 2017-18 season, plus-9.5 in 2018-19 and plus-16.0 last year.
Assembling the ideal supporting cast around Embiid is a time-sensitive endeavor. He’s a world-class talent at his peak, and injuries are always a concern. Waiting perpetually for Simmons to expand his game and solve his free throw problem doesn’t sound wise.
Still, the Sixers can’t be guided by desperation or angst about squandering Embiid’s greatness. Morey’s job is to do whatever is right by the franchise cornerstone. It’s possible that means not trading Simmons this offseason, as painful as Game 7 against Atlanta was for Embiid, a player and personality Sixers fans have grown to adore through the Process.
“It sucks, especially this year,” Embiid said after the loss to the Hawks. “I wouldn’t say it was the best team that I’ve had since I’ve been here. That team two years ago had a lot of potential, too, especially losing on a buzzer-beater to the champs that year. I’m a winner. I want to win. I do everything it takes to win.
“Losing obviously is going to take a toll on me — and it does, and it’s doing it. It’s also on me. I’ve got to be better. I’ve got to take another step when it comes to taking care of my body and my game as a whole, because I still feel like I have a lot of untapped potential that people haven’t really seen.”
Embiid, who didn’t start playing basketball until he was a teenager, has previously said his life is “like a movie.” If he keeps getting better and better, leads the Sixers to their first NBA title since 1983 and retires in Philadelphia, it would absolutely satisfy his cinematic inclinations.
Regardless of how things play out, he’ll be in the middle of it all. And there's pressure on Morey and the Sixers to help him craft the perfect story.