By Bryan Toporek
For the third straight season, Joel Embiid will spend February, March and April in a suit rather than a Philadelphia 76ers uniform. With him becoming eligible for an extension this coming offseason, his shaky health history raises uncomfortable questions about whether the Sixers can count on him as the fulcrum of their ongoing rebuild.
Embiid missed his first two seasons to recover from a pair of foot fractures, but it didn’t take him long to win over the Philadelphia faithful. Despite playing just 14.7 minutes per game across seven preseason outings, Embiid averaged 11.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 0.9 blocks, quickly emerging as a Rookie of the Year front-runner. Though the Kansas product was a turnover machine over that span—he averaged 6.3 cough-ups per 36 minutes, a problem that followed him into the regular season—he quickly quelled concerns about how much rust he’d have following his two-year layoff.
Before going down in late January with the bone bruise and meniscus tear that would prematurely end his rookie campaign, Embiid averaged a surreal 20.2 points on 46.6 percent shooting, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 2.1 assists and 1.2 triples in just 25.4 minutes across 31 regular-season outings. For all of the talk about young “unicorns” such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Myles Turner helping usher in a new age of big men, Embiid quickly vaulted himself toward the top of that conversation by demonstrating two-way greatness.
With Embiid on the court this season, the Sixers outscored opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions, making him the lone Philadelphia player with a net rating in the positives. Hell, he’s the only Sixers with a net rating above minus-3.0. With him off the floor, opponents outscore Philadelphia by 9.4 points per 100 possessions, the second-highest mark on the team (trailing only forward Robert Covington). The Sixers’ net rating with Embiid would be tied with the Los Angeles Clippers for the league’s seventh-best mark, while their net rating without him is lower than the Brooklyn Nets’ league-worst 8.1.
In other words: The Sixers were a playoff-caliber team with Embiid on the court, and they’re a godless abomination with him on the bench.
Though Embiid’s per-minute scoring output jumps off the screen, his defensive impact was equally impressive. Among the 52 players who have faced at least five shots per game at the rim this season, Embiid allowed opponents to shoot an NBA-low 41.0 percent on such attempts. Foes shot 6.5 percentage points below average against him overall, including a whopping 17.7 percentage points worse than usual when he guarded them within six feet of the basket. The Sixers’ defensive rating with Embiid on the court (99.1) is nearly two full points per 100 possessions better than the San Antonio Spurs’ league-leading mark of 101.0.
Four days before going down with the bone bruise in his left knee, Embiid tormented the Milwaukee Bucks defensively, tying his career-high with five rejections. With a 7’5″ wingspan, freakish athleticism and innate defensive instincts, Embiid is a one-man wrecking crew on that end of the court.
Offensively, Embiid possesses gifts that few 7-footers could dream of. He’s one of just six players this season averaging at least 20 points, one block and one made three-pointer per game, joining the likes of Towns, Kevin Durant, Marc Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins and Brook Lopez. He went 36-of-98 from deep during his time on the floor this season, demonstrating surprising comfort pulling the trigger when fed beyond the arc.
In what ultimately became his final game of the season—a 32-point, seven-rebound, four-assist, three-steal and two-block outing against the Houston Rockets on Jan. 27—Embiid tied his career-high with four made treys. The big man peppered Houston from deep, as Nene and Clint Capela were frequently too slow to contest his shot attempts.
Around the basket, Embiid proved to be damn near unstoppable, converting 64.0 percent of his shot attempts from within three feet of the hoop. He has an inherent size and quickness advantage against most of the bigs he faces, but his footwork is also years ahead of his age. With the ability to put the ball on the floor and spin, juke and drive around opposing big men, allowing Embiid to catch the ball anywhere near the basket spells doom.
Embiid also proved willing and able to lead a transition attack after swatting an opponent’s shot against the backboard, making him that much more dangerous. It’s difficult enough to cover Embiid when you have proper defensive positioning against him; what happens when you’re attempting to get back and he’s charging at you with a full head of steam? As Houston’s Nene can attest, it doesn’t tend to end well.
Embiid coughed the ball up an ungodly amount as a rookie (3.8 times per game), but his mammoth usage rate of 36.1 percent contributed to those giveaway woes. Once he begins playing alongside No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons, who the Sixers plan on using as their de facto point guard, his turnover rate should plummet. Not having to create as much offense on his own should help him considerably shave his number of cough-ups.
Remove health from the equation, and the wide-ranging skill set Embiid flashed this season would make him a no-brainer max-extension candidate this summer. Teams wind up in the lottery year after year without acquiring a talent anywhere close to his caliber (see: the post-Dwight Howard Orlando Magic). Shot-blocking, three-point-shooting big men are en vogue, but few tout his two-way upside.
Unfortunately for the Sixers, health looms large over Embiid’s extension negotiations.
“The assessment of Monday’s follow-up MRI of Joel Embiid’s left knee appears to reveal that the area affected by the bone bruise has improved significantly, while the previously identified meniscus tear appears more pronounced in this most recent scan,” said Dr. Jonathan Glashow, the Sixers’ chief medical director and co-chief of sports medicine orthopedics at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center, in the statement announcing Embiid was out for the year. “We will continue to work with leading specialists to gather additional information through clinical examination and sequential testing to determine the best course of action and next steps.”
Though the setback with Embiid’s meniscus tear is cause for concern, “the Sixers aren’t shying away from their franchise player” in the wake of this latest injury, according to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “All indications are that he’ll receive a lucrative contract extension before the deadline in October.”
“The Sixers view Embiid as a one-of-a-kind player who will get over this injury,” Pompey added. “They believe his current situation is a breeze compared with the career-threatening foot injuries he overcame.”
If that’s the case, perhaps Embiid and the Sixers will agree to a five-year “Designated Player” extension this summer with a starting salary north of $25 million and spare themselves any acrimony during negotiations. Investing that type of money in a big man who has missed 215 of a possible 246 games is an enormous risk, but so is allowing the Oct. 31 deadline to pass without signing Embiid to an extension.
If the big man enters the 2018 offseason without an extension in tow, he could opt to sign his one-year qualifying offer to ensure he’ll become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. Embiid’s lengthy injury history would likely deter he and his agent from going down that path, but if he feels as though the Sixers’ medical staff has erred in its handling of him—a not-unpopular opinion these days—perhaps he’d be more willing to trust his body could hold up for an extra year before he receives his hefty payday. Even if Embiid agrees to take a Stephen Curry-esque discount on an extension this summer, the Sixers would then need to weigh whether signing him at a lower price would be worth sacrificing a year of team control. (To sign him to a five-year extension, the Sixers must offer him a maximum salary.)
Accordingly, extension negotiations this offseason will be a balancing act between Embiid and team president Bryan Colangelo. Has Colangelo seen enough to offer Embiid a five-year max extension, health risks be damned? Would Embiid be willing to sign a non-max deal to ensure he has a guaranteed salary beyond next season? Would the two sides be better off tabling any such talks until after the 2017-18 campaign to see whether Embiid can make it through the year healthy?
Given the risks involved with each potential route, there are no easy answers for Embiid and Colangelo here. If Embiid doesn’t promise he won’t sign his qualifying offer in 2018, the Sixers may wind up having to bite the bullet and sign him to a five-year max extension this summer. At that point, all of Philadelphia would have to hold its breath every time Embiid comes down hard from a dunk for the next half-decade.