Before the 76ers can worry about Joel Embiid staying on the court this season, the franchise needs to get him in the practice facility. According to 94WIP’s Howard Eskin on Thursday, Embiid’s agent, Leon Rose, is planning to hold the big man out of five-on-five play until Philly offers a contract extension. And yes, it might feel premature, with Embiid having played only 31 career games, but he is up for an extension on his rookie contract, with just one year left on the deal he signed after being drafted in 2014. Teams have until October 16, the day before the season begins, to decide on rookie contract extensions.
In a second report from the Bucks County Courier Times, also on Thursday, an anonymous NBA source denied Eskin’s report, calling it “absolutely not” the case. But even if Rose is not planning on holding Embiid out of scrimmages, both parties likely want an extension; Philly does because of his promising performance last season, and Embiid does for the security of a long-term deal. The maximum the 7-footer is eligible for in 2017-18 off a rookie contract is a four-year deal worth roughly $100 million.
From the Sixers’ perspective, of course the organization wants to hold on to its biggest star, if for nothing else than the fact that the team has waited patiently since the 2014 NBA draft to fully utilize him. Embiid’s long injury history kept him sidelined his first two years, and ended the third short. Last season, finally the Cameroonian’s rookie year, he averaged 25.4 minutes for the two-fifths of the season in which he played.
But during those moments — and they were moments — the league saw why Philadelphia’s wait could be worth it. Embiid’s rookie season stats (per 36 minutes) ended up grouping him with the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, David Robinson, and Hakeem Olajuwon; Embiid rose to elite status just as quickly as he disappeared. He is, in the words of Ringer colleague Justin Verrier (and the hopes of Chris Ryan), “a top-10 player if healthy.” That’s worth the wait — if, in fact, that wait is over.
The 7-foot center’s reputation for being injury prone will follow him into the negotiating room. As faithful Processer Michael Baumann wrote when the center inevitably went down last year, “Embiid, who missed the postseason of his freshman year at Kansas and his first two NBA seasons with a broken navicular bone, has never had good injury luck. Based on what we know about meniscus tears in athletes of Embiid’s stature, this has the potential to get even more frustrating in the years to come.”
Should Philly send a blank check to a player who has played in less than 13 percent of the games that have transpired since they drafted him?
If the team decides to not offer an extension, Embiid will become a restricted free agent next summer. Former teammate Nerlens Noel will be back on the market, as will DeMarcus Cousins, Jusuf Nurkic, Brook Lopez, and Greg Monroe. Embiid could top that list in production if he can translate last year’s stats to an entire season, and as I’ve written since Gordon Hayward’s exit to Boston, what happens in restricted free agency can sour players later on. A franchise waiting for another team to send along an offer sheet before maxing out its own guy can backfire when it’s time for that player to decide what loyalty means to him as an unrestricted free agent.
Philadelphia has plenty of spending room as of now, with $85.5 million in total cap allocations against a $99 million NBA salary cap maximum. That will change before the season ends, as Robert Covington’s contract will likely be renegotiated and extended as well, something the 76ers have to wait until mid-November to do. JJ Redick’s contract tops the Sixers’ rookie-deal-heavy roster sheet, but he is signed to just one year. His $23 million salary is $12 million more than the next-highest-paid, Amir Johnson, who is also on a one-year deal. Even with money available, Philly has to build with the future in mind; a high-ceiling rookie like Ben Simmons will eventually have to be paid, and if Redick goes, there will be a glaring absence next season at the 2-spot.
But at the top of the Sixers’ list is Embiid. “I'd just say we want Joel to be on the team for a long time," owner Josh Harris told ESPN in late June. "We want us all to grow old together." Embiid’s health could risk that future together; hesitancy about paying someone like him because of his health could risk their being together at all.
An earlier version of this piece misstated Embiid’s minutes-per-game average for the 2017 season.