With James Harden uncertain and Philly’s roster missing key pieces, it is likely that Joel Embiid will ask for a trade from the 76ers in the next year. What can Philly do to avoid this?
The Looming Joel Embiid Question
It has been a well known fact in the NBA for a long time that the clock is always ticking for superstars. From the moment you draft a player that is top five in the NBA, you are on the clock to deliver them a supporting cast that can win a title. If you succeed, your franchise is surrounded by glory, and promised a future that most fans would envy.
Ask the Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Nuggets with Nikola Jokic, or the Warriors with Stephen Curry. That is the good side of the coin. But to those who fail, the path is scary, highlighted by a trade or departure of your superstar and a looming rebuild. Ask the Cavaliers with Lebron James the first time, the Thunder with Kevin Durant, and the Pelicans with Anthony Davis.
For a long time, it looked like the Philadelphia 76ers were heading down the right path with Joel Embiid. They had a co-star for him in Ben Simmons and eventually James Harden, good players like Tobias Harris and P.J Tucker, and a promising youngster like Tyrese Maxey. The expectation was that they would deliver at some point. But now, Joel Embiid is turning thirty years old in March.
Simmons is long gone, and Harden was kicked off the team plane heading to Milwaukee before the 76ers lost their season opener. Maxey doesn’t look like a superstar, their role players are aging, and the hope for a return for a disgruntled Harden is dim. All these factors considered, I believe Joel Embiid will request a trade from the Sixers in the next year.
How We Got Here
Joel Embiid was considered the first part of the process era in Philadelphia, being a prized lottery pick that was supposed to take them to the next level. Despite a lot of injuries early on, he delivered on this promise, and made Philadelphia a playoff team starting in 2018.
However, the other members of the Process did not really hold up their end of the bargain. 2016 first overall pick Ben Simmons started off great but eventually fell apart in Philly, losing all confidence in his shot and requesting a trade after an ugly playoff loss in 2021. 2017 first overall pick Markelle Fultz dealt with injuries and never became a real player in Philadelphia, departing the team just a few years after he was drafted.
Other guys like Jahlil Okafor and Zhaire Smith were either injured or just never as good as they were supposed to be.
To supplement some bad drafting decisions, Philadelphia tried making trades to add talent to their core. The three main players added via trade during Embiid’s tenure were Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, and James Harden. Harris is still in Philly, but has never been an All-Star, making max money to just sort of be an okay player on the team.
He is good but it would have been better to use that money elsewhere. Jimmy Butler was excellent in his brief stint with Philadelphia in 2019, but ended up leaving for Miami and bouncing the 76ers out of the playoffs in 2022. Harden, who was traded for Simmons, has either been a nuisance or performed poorly in the playoffs, and now seems likely to be on his way out of Philly.
Overall, these trades were well intentioned but did not end up working out and becoming key pieces to a championship team in Philadelphia. It is hard to say what I would have done differently, but results are what matters in the NBA and the failure of most of these moves to even lead to a conference finals is what puts Embiid in this position.
How Can Philly Fix This
That being said, Philadelphia is now in a spot where their roster is far behind the best two teams in the East in Milwaukee and Boston, and probably behind a team like Miami as well. To keep Embiid happy they will probably need at least a conference finals appearance this season, so they will need some big things to break right.
One savior for Philly could be Tyrese Maxey turning into a bigger star than he is, or Maxey being traded for a big star. Most of the league’s top ten to fifteen players seem pretty secure, so the best player they could realistically trade for seems to be either Zach LaVine or DeMar DeRozan from Chicago.
That deal would probably not include Maxey, so maybe getting one of those guys with Maxey would give Philadelphia enough backcourt scoring. They could also wait for a star to be available, but they are clearly running out of time.
The other thing that could save Philadelphia is an unexpected leap from Joel Embiid, to somehow being better than he already is. That is pretty difficult to expect, but it would be what Philly needs barring an injury. A guy like De’Anthony Melton could also play better for Philadelphia, but he definitely won’t be a star.
The last ditch effort is an attempt to get a good return out of James Harden, which would likely require him to come back and play really well. This is also unlikely, as he is now thirty-four years old. Relying on scenarios like this means there is no easy answer, and it’s possible that all they can do is sit and wait. For their sake, let’s hope not.