By Bryan Toporek
With exactly one week until the deadline for 2014 first-round picks to sign their rookie-scale extensions, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski dropped a vintage #WOJBOMB Monday that will shape the next half-decade for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Philadelphia center Joel Embiid has agreed to a five-year, $148 million designated rookie scale max extension, league sources told ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) October 9, 2017
According to Wojnarowski, Embiid “has the ability to earn an additional $30 million—bringing the value of the contract to as much as $178 million—if he earns an All-NBA first-, second- or third-team selection, or is named MVP this season.” The deal includes “some salary-cap protection for the 76ers should Embiid suffer [an] injury that causes him to miss significant playing time,” Woj reported, but the 76ers “would have to waive Embiid for him not to reach the full value of his $148 million extension.”
Specific details about the contract are sure to emerge in the coming days, particularly with regard to the amount of money guaranteed and the contractual triggers that will increase those guarantees. ESPN’s Zach Lowe tweeted “Embiid’s extension has been described to me as ‘perhaps the most complex’ in NBA history,” which suggests it’ll be incentive-laden to protect the Sixers in the event of another serious injury.
Prior to Monday’s news, ESPN.com’s Bobby Marks hypothesized what an Embiid extension might look like—including how Philadelphia could hedge its bets. A minutes clause would ensure only part of the big man’s contract was guaranteed unless he hit certain playing-time thresholds each season. Bonuses based on “games played, minutes, statistical achievements or postseason honors” could constitute 15 percent of his salary each year.
The Sixers also had the option of protecting against a specific injury—whether it’s his prior navicular fracture or meniscus tear from last season—which would halve Embiid’s remaining guaranteed money if he failed to appear in a certain number of games due to said ailment. Considering the team would need to waive him after his first season to receive that cap relief, according to Marks, Woj’s report makes it seem as though Philly opted to go that route.
Since we don’t yet know the specifics of Embiid’s new deal, its impact on the Sixers’ long-term future remains uncertain. There’s a yawning chasm between handing a fully guaranteed five-year, $148 million contract to an oft-injured big man and having limited liability beyond the 2018-19 season. Ideally, Embiid will stave off injuries moving forward and live up to his enormous potential, but Philadelphia wisely protected itself in the event of a catastrophe. (How much the team protected itself remains unclear at the moment.)
Regardless of the potential offsets, it is fair to ask: Why sign Embiid now?
If the Oct. 16 extension deadline passed, the Sixers could have extended a qualifying offer to Embiid next June, ensuring he’d become a restricted free agent on July 1. Had he remained healthy throughout the 2017-18 campaign and resumed the dominance he displayed throughout his rookie season, Philly could have handed him the same five-year max deal without hesitation. If he went down with another foot or knee injury, God forbid, the Sixers would have no long-term money tied up in a player who can’t escape comparisons to Greg Oden or Sam Bowie.
Allowing Embiid to test restricted free agency wouldn’t have been the risk-free proposition some critics of the extension are making it seem, however. While it’s hard to see Embiid turning down a five-year max deal from Philadelphia, the injury offsets may have made it less appealing, particularly if another team offered a fully guaranteed four-year max. Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks has been particularly devious with restricted free agents in recent years, attaching fourth-year player options and 15 percent trade kickers to disincentivize players’ incumbent teams from matching his offer sheets. Would Embiid have taken a fully guaranteed four-year deal from him over a partially guaranteed five-year offer from Philly?
Unless the Sixers were prepared to offer a fully guaranteed five-year max next summer if Embiid staved off injuries this year, allowing him to test restricted free agency could have blown up in their faces. Even if they matched whatever offer sheet he received, other teams could only offer him four-year deals, which would rob Philadelphia of an extra year of team control over the big man. Add in the prospect of him signing a deal with a fourth-year player option, and Philly could have cost itself two full years of team control. (A similar situation came back to bite the Utah Jazz with Gordon Hayward this summer.)
Considering Embiid has played in just 31 games over his first three seasons, signing him to such a mammoth deal is an undeniable risk, regardless of the injury protections. Then again, the Sixers are uniquely positioned to take such a gamble at the moment.
Of the 15 players who figure to make Philadelphia’s opening-night roster, only three—JJ Redick, Amir Johnson and Jerryd Bayless—aren’t playing on their rookie-scale deals. Ben Simmons and Dario Saric are locked into relatively cheap rookie contracts for the next three seasons. No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz is entering the first season of his four-year rookie deal. Even after factoring in Embiid’s extension, the Sixers could still have roughly $40 million in cap space next summer, according to Marks. (That figure is sure to go down once the team agrees to an extension with Robert Covington, who becomes eligible for a renegotiation in mid-November.)
With so little long-term money tied up, Embiid’s new contract won’t necessarily become a franchise-sinking albatross if his body continues to betray him. His extension won’t kick in until next year, but the Sixers will have Simmons, Saric and Fultz locked up at below-market prices for the first two years of that deal (three, in Fultz’s case). Even if Philadelphia winds up sinking $10-plus million into Embiid annually over the next half-decade while he sits in a suit on the sidelines, the team’s financial flexibility should allow it to stay relatively afloat.
Ultimately, the Sixers didn’t have much of a choice here. Embiid is the crown jewel of their four-year rebuild. He’s a two-way force of nature, the linchpin to their championship upside. If injuries continue to besiege him, the Sixers could still develop into a 45- or 50-win club with Simmons, Fultz and Saric leading the way, but all hope of eventually challenging for the Larry O’Brien Trophy rests on Embiid’s gigantic shoulders.
The Sixers had a net rating higher than all but one other Eastern Conference team (the Toronto Raptors) with Embiid on the floor last year. When he was on the pine, their minus-7.8 net rating would have ranked below the Los Angeles Lakers’ league-worst mark. They allowed just 99.1 points per 100 possessions during Embiid’s 786 minutes, nearly two full points ahead of the San Antonio Spurs’ NBA-leading rating. He’s the first player in league history to average at least 20 points, seven rebounds, one block and one three-pointer in his debut campaign, and he accomplished that feat in just 25.4 minutes per game.
The Sixers wouldn’t be able to land a player as potentially impactful as Embiid on the free-agent market. Perhaps they could have wrested a star in a trade from a team ready to embark upon a rebuild—DeMarcus Cousins, anyone?—but that approach would have been fraught with risk as well. Building a championship contender requires careful strategizing, the right blend of players and a heaping helping of good fortune. One wrong step can short-circuit even the most promising dynasties in the making. (Just ask the early-2010s Oklahoma City Thunder.)
Gambling on Embiid to stay healthy could backfire on the Sixers tremendously, but the potential payoff is impossible to ignore. Between Embiid’s extension and the consolidation of assets to acquire Fultz, the Sixers now have their core of the future in place. Whether it results in one or more championships or flames out in spectacular fashion is anyone’s guess. Either way, the NBA’s most audacious rebuilding experiment just became that much more fascinating.