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NBA AM: Signing Embiid Was a Necessary Evil For The Philadelphia 76ers

Despite his injury-riddled past, signing Joel Embiid was a move the Sixers had to make.

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The Philadelphia 76ers are now, more than ever, trusting their own process.

On Monday night, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Sixers had inked their oft-injured, yet potential-laden center Joel Embiid to a five-year, $148 million rookie scale max contract extension.

One hundred and forty-eight million dollars for a man that has played just 31 games in three seasons. With this deal, Philadelphia is putting a whole new meaning into the word trust.

But they had to do it.

What is well-noted about Embiid is the lack of games he’s participated in since the Sixers made him the third overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. That number is the biggest argument against Embiid and his new contract. And rightfully so.

Big men of Embiid’s stature (7-foot-2 and 285 pounds) aren’t prime candidates for a healthy future when their past includes a series of foot, knee and back problems. On the surface, that doesn’t look promising for the team or the player. However, signing Embiid to a max contract extension is as much about the hope that he stays healthy as it is continuing to brew the culture that their franchise center has helped cultivate, despite not actually being on the court.

That the Sixers deal with Embiid contains a vast amount of protections also limits their liability—further making the option to lock him in sensible.

What’s also worth noting is as was discussed in this space on Tuesday—by signing Embiid now, the Sixers nullified the risk of having to match an offer sheet for Embiid that could have exposed the Sixers to more liability than they would have been comfortable accepting.

When Philadelphia drafted Embiid, they were in their first full season of tanking. Grabbing the product out of Kansas who looked to be the best prospect available was the first step in the direction of building a contender. Despite missing his first season due to his stress fracture and his second because of a re-injury, Embiid never lost the support of the public. When he finally burst onto the scene last season, the game had changed for the Sixers, and for Embiid.

The city of Philadelphia embraces Embiid for more than what he brings to the court. They embrace his carefree attitude on Twitter, where any tweet of Embiid’s resembles that of a normal 23-year-old and goes viral in seconds. They embrace his competitiveness—despite not being able to be on the court very often, Embiid has displayed a fire in his belly going up against the league’s best. They also embrace the sheer difference he represents for the Sixers when he does finally step on the court, catapulting them from a team with promise to a legitimate contender.

Just last week, Embiid was going for a midnight jog through Philadelphia and a Lyft driver caught the scene on camera. The driver trailed Embiid and shouted, “Trust the process!,” to which Embiid raised his fist in agreement. Philadelphia loves Embiid, and he loves them right back.

“I love the city of Philadelphia, they’re the best fans,” Embiid said at Sixers media day. “I went to the (Eagles) game and it was probably the most love I’ve gotten in the city yet. Because I was in the VIP section and then I had to go through basically the whole city to get back to Wells Fargo to go see somebody, and the love I got just walking around, people were screaming my name and ‘Trust the process,’ it was crazy.”

Now, it would be ridiculous to suggest that paying an injury-prone big man so much money is justified purely based off of what his meaning to the city is. That’s not entirely the reason the Sixers needed to pay Embiid.

In the 31 games Embiid was able to play last season, he seemed unparalleled. While being forced to sit out of back-to-back games and being held to a minutes restriction, Embiid was able to average 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks in 25.4 minutes per game. Oh, and he shot 36.7 percent from three-point range. Again, he’s 7-foot-2.

Stretched across a per-36 minute scale to help illustrate what Embiid may be capable of without a leash, he demonstrated some truly eye-popping numbers: 28.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.5 blocks, and 1.2 steals. Though those numbers might not hold up once his restriction is lifted, at this point, it’s okay to deem them to be within the realm of possibility.

Continuing down the road of hypotheticals, the impact of Embiid on the court for the Sixers last season was a difference of nearly 30 calculated wins. According to the FATS calculator on nbamath.com, the Sixers were a 49.7-win team when Embiid was playing. When he wasn’t? They operated as a 19.7-win team.

That difference alone may be worth the gamble of $148 million.

His performance last year garnered the respect of even harshest critics.

“I like that kid a lot,” DeMarcus Cousins said following a game last season where he and Embiid squared off. “I don’t give a lot of people props, but I like that kid a lot. I think he’s got a great chance at being the best big in the league … after I retire.”

What Embiid was able to display in such a small sample size, and after sitting out for over two years, is nothing short of impressive.

Sixers’ head coach Brett Brown said Monday to reporters in Boston that when Embiid has been able to practice with the team this preseason, he completely changes the gym. Brown even likened Embiid to a musician.

“He does things on a court that remind me of, you know, somebody that’s able to hear music and just play the song,” Brown said.

While Embiid’s talent is as undeniable as his injury history, getting his signature for a max contract extension couldn’t come without some level of precaution for the Sixers’ front office. 

This new deal appears to have many complex layers, and surely some will trickle out over time. But what is fully apparent, regardless of particular clauses, is that the Sixers were ready to invest in the future of Embiid, despite his past.

Brown has continuously referred to Embiid as a game-changer. Players throughout the league have echoed that same sentiment. The city that embraces Embiid, even with his flaws, feels the same way.

Yes, rolling the dice on a big man with an injury list that rivals his height is incredibly risky. But the potential that Embiid exudes on the court, and the idea that he represents off of it is worth shooting the shot for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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