The 2023-24 NBA season is near, so at the end of another eventful summer we take our annual trip too close to the sun, daring you to stand the swelter of these views. This is Hot Takes We Might Actually Believe.
Whether their current predicament is the result of bad luck, incompetence or a combination of both, the Philadelphia 76ers have bungled Joel Embiid’s career worse than imaginable, given the circumstances.
The question we should be asking: Why wouldn’t Embiid request a trade this season? Now is the time, too, since his Eastern Conference rivals just increased the gap between his team and theirs, and the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement places heavier restrictions on the trade market at the end of this campaign.
The Sixers are working on a sixth lead executive of Embiid’s tenure. Sam Hinkie, the general manager who drafted Embiid in 2014, stepped down when Philadelphia hired Jerry Colangelo to curb the existing strategy of intentionally losing games. Colangelo hired his son, Bryan, who stepped down for an even dumber reason. They replaced him with Brett Brown before hiring Elton Brand, neither of whom had any front-office experience. Finally, they pivoted to Daryl Morey, whom Embiid’s current co-star, James Harden, repeatedly labeled “a liar” in the summer.
Philadelphia turned Jrue Holiday and eight first-round draft picks, including five consecutive lottery picks and back-to-back No. 1 overall selections, into Harden’s trade demand and a looming contract extension for Tyrese Maxey, letting their rights to Jimmy Butler, Mikal Bridges and Nicolas Claxton, among others, pass through their revolving door in the process. That does not include the three additional first-round picks they used to pay Tobias Harris $180 million and unload the $107 million they owed Al Horford.
The Sixers have only their 2029 first-round pick and a handful of second-rounders to leverage for upgrades, largely leaving Embiid’s legacy in the hands of Harden. Nobody seemingly will trade anything of significance for Harden, much less Holiday — the same player whose exit sent them chasing their own tail for the last decade.
In a cruel twist, the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics — the only two teams to finish last season with a better record than Philadelphia’s — both just benefited from Holiday’s value to improve their own title odds. The Bucks dealt Holiday and the rights to three first-round picks to the Trail Blazers for Damian Lillard, and the Celtics flipped two more first-round picks and a pair of rotation players to obtain Holiday from Portland.
Those deals widened the disparity between Philadelphia and both Milwaukee and Boston, which was as thin as Game 7 of the conference semifinals with a committed Harden last season. Still, the Sixers were miles from the champion Denver Nuggets, who waxed the team that beat the team that beat Philadelphia.
Which is why this from Embiid on media day should serve as yet another warning sign: “If every year is going to be the same thing, that doesn’t put you closer to winning a championship. That gets frustrating. But I also believe it doesn’t matter who’s on the team, I’m always going to have a chance to win.”
The last sentence of that statement is lip service, but the rest is a worrisome extension of what Embiid said in July, when he told a crowd at the Uninterrupted Sports Film Festival, “I just wanna win a championship, whatever it takes. I don’t know where that’s gonna be, whether that’s in Philly or anywhere else.”
Even if Embiid fancies himself a better player than Nikola Jokić, he saw what kind of help his Serbian nemesis required to win the title last season, and he cannot possibly believe “it doesn’t matter who’s on the team.” Embiid has rammed his head against a second-round ceiling five times with Simmons, Butler or Harden as the co-star headlining a similar supporting cast, so it absolutely does matter who is on his team.
The Sixers can create significant salary-cap space next summer, when Pascal Siakam and DeMar DeRozan are projected as the only recent All-Stars on the market. The debate over whether either pushes Embiid closer to a championship should begin with Philadelphia’s history of free-agent failures. Besides, the waiting game is not one worth playing for a 7-foot, 280-pound center with a history of back, knee and foot injuries. Plus, if he stays on the Sixers, not only would Embiid be tapping out of the title race at age 29 — the encore to his MVP campaign — he could limit his options if a trade request comes after this season.
Next summer, suitors over the second apron ($17.5 million above the luxury tax threshold) can no longer: 1) receive more salary than they send out, 2) aggregate salaries for a higher-paid player, 3) acquire players via sign-and-trade, 4) trade cash, 5) swap a host of salary cap exceptions or 6) deal a first-round pick in 2031. Even teams committed to spending above the first apron cannot take back additional salary next summer.
Nine teams are currently projected to exceed the second apron, according to Spotrac, and a handful more are spending beyond the first apron — a combined group that includes 12 of BetMGM’s top-13 title favorites. This season’s trade deadline could see a madcap craze to set contending rosters for the longer term, before the CBA severely restricts teams from stockpiling talent. Embiid would be wise to enter the market when so many salaries are on the move, especially since many cannot be aggregated come June.
We are already seeing some of this take place. For example, the Bucks would not have been able to acquire Lillard under the forthcoming rules. Nor could the Celtics secure Holiday. In order to compete with those teams now, Embiid must join an opponent with some high-priced firepower around him, and that will not be so easy for someone set to earn $51.4 million next season (or 36% of the projected salary cap).
Considering so many contenders have stacked salaries in advance of the new restrictions, it will be difficult to find teams that can remain below either apron next offseason, have the assets to acquire Embiid and still have enough remaining to compete before the MVP is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in 2026.
Other teams are well aware of this, which is why a host of talented players on expensive rosters should be shopped before the February trade deadline. Are the Minnesota Timberwolves, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers, to name a handful, going to want to be restricted by the second apron if they become convinced they cannot contend as currently constituted?
That could mean the injection of names like Donovan Mitchell, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine, Brandon Ingram and Paul George, among others, into the market, which would further complicate a trade landscape next season. Never mind the consideration that Luka Dončić could beat Embiid to the trade request punch.
Naming your destination only becomes harder from here, and the whole league understands the rules. Because the Sixers have little more than an unhappy Harden to show for trading Butler and Simmons, the likelihood that Embiid spends the rest of his prime in a similar situation — paired with one misfit star not of his choosing and lacking talent around them to contend — increases if he does not request a trade now.
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