July 17, 2023
Any team with a star player knows they are on the clock the moment that player is good enough to even think about contending for a title. It is the reality of the modern NBA, though speculation about Joel Embiid's future has been something the Sixers have mostly been able to avoid up to this point.
That changed late last week, when Embiid sat down for an interview with Maverick Carter at the Uninterrupted Film Festival. Ostensibly, that interview was about Embiid's life and career and his new partnership with SpringHill, the LeBron James-backed media company. In the process of discussing the launch of his new production studio, Embiid provided the following quote that is going viral on Monday morning:
"I just want to win a championship, whatever it takes. I don't know where that's going to be, whether it's in Philly or anywhere else. I just want to have a chance to accomplish that, I want to see what that feels like to win that first one, and then you can think about the next one. It's not easy, it takes more than one two or three guys. Got to have good people around you, and myself, every single day I work hard to be at that level so I can push us to make it happen. Every single day that's working toward that goal, that's where my mindset has always been. MVP is just an added bonus.
I like the challenge. Can be frustrating at times, because over and over and over, same things might happen. There's never any opportunity, all my years in the league, I feel like every single year it's always been different teams, it has always been change. But I do like the challenge. It doesn't matter who's on my team, I just want to go out and try to do the best job possible to put us in a position to win.
Since roughly 0.05 percent of people actually took the time to watch the full interview, I want to include another quote from the same interview that might be of interest to you here:
Basketball is more than what happens on the floor. At times, you got to set the tone. If you just lost a game in the playoffs, you try to send a message, not just to the opposition but also to your teammates. You can use the media and what you say to push that. I have a lot of examples, my guy Tyrese [Maxey], I'm always saying a bunch of stuff. At the end of the day, they understand it, it's all because we want to win.
Here is my early prediction — when Embiid is inevitably asked about this down the road in another public forum, he will note that he's not the team's general manager and doesn't control trades or whether he continues to play in Philadelphia. In the short term, he'll continue to say things to the effect of wanting to stay and win in Philly, speaking of the alternative as something that could be out of his hands. But regardless of how he approaches it from here, Embiid is smart enough to know this is not how that message is going to be received today or moving forward.
The Sixers' offseason is already complicated enough. James Harden continues to push for a trade out of town following a disagreement over how free agency was handled this summer. Teammates have tried to give Harden a lifeline by reinforcing their desire to play with him next season, though those efforts do not seem to have changed the problem at hand. Harden and his representation may not hold ill will toward his teammates, but there's still a rift between him/them and management, and there is a growing expectation that rift could lead to an even uglier battle, sources said.
Philadelphia's position on a Harden trade has been described as "unreasonable" by competing executives, while the team has pushed back on that notion. They view their path to a Harden trade to accomplish one of two things — they want to get back a package that allows them to stay in the same tier of contention, sources say, or to make a trade that returns enough assets back to flip for another high-level player. While there has been a lot of speculation that the Sixers could try to spin a Harden trade into a multi-team deal to chase a star, there does seem to be some pushback on the idea that they could execute that style of asset-flipping trade simultaneously with a Harden deal. The Sixers would prefer to be able to make or keep the team as competitive as possible as soon as possible, but they believe that requires getting an All-Star-level return for Harden in the event that they trade him.
Embiid, who has said publicly and privately that he would prefer to have Harden back than not, is smart enough to see where this could be headed. Frankly, he has lived this before, having held down the fort for Philadelphia during the Ben Simmons holdout that led to Harden's arrival. This situation appears more salvageable than the Simmons breakup, due in part to Harden running out of time and chances as a high-level guy. But you would understand Embiid seeing all the paths ahead and concluding that many of them add up to a step back in the short term.
So the argument that we'll have for months and maybe years now begins — is Embiid posturing like this in an effort to put pressure on the franchise to compete right now, or does he genuinely have an eye on the exit door? The former point would be understandable for a player coming off of an MVP season in the prime of his career, having seen the franchise open a series of self-inflicted wounds during his time in Philadelphia. But if it's the latter position, I suspect that Embiid is about to learn that patience is wearing thin for a huge chunk of the fanbase, with this pushback coming after Embiid failed spectacularly at the end of the Sixers' second-round collapse against the Celtics.
Even if this is all about leverage and Embiid remains fully committed to Philadelphia, there is a portion (perhaps a significant portion) of the public who don't want to hear this out of Embiid. That's a feeling I can understand. If you've been paying attention for the whole ride here, you know that Embiid has been through a ton in Philly, including being attacked through burner Twitter accounts by the former president of basketball operations (or at least someone close to Bryan Colangelo). But whether you try to excuse his performances due to injury, illness, or whatever means necessary, the fact is that he has been considerably worse in the playoffs compared to his regular season performance.
At this juncture, it's basically a moot point, as the Sixers have shown zero interest or inclination to trade Embiid. For better or worse, he is the player who drives the franchise and won't be moved until or unless he formally asks to hit the road and take his talents elsewhere. Even if the Sixers absolutely nailed a theoretical Embiid trade, returning a gargantuan haul of draft picks and young players, they would likely be lost in the wilderness for an extended period of time.
As if the Sixers needed any more incentive to nail their response to the Harden situation, this Embiid quote should send a clear message to the top of the organization. They are not as far from irrelevance as they'd hope to be at this stage, and they don't appear to have the luxury of simply punting on this season and hoping they can take a crack at winning again in 2024-25.
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