Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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It’s a remarkable feeling, knowing you have a player that gives you a chance in every game. Last night against the San Antonio Spurs, Joel Embiid wasn’t even having that great a game through two and a half quarters, but a late-third surge helped the Sixers keep pace with the red-hot Spurs, and by the end of the night he had 33 and 19 in an outing that wouldn’t even rank among his 15 best this season. That’s what having a legit MVP candidate means for your squad -- even your off-and-on nights are still good enough to give your team a chance to linger around long enough to maybe steal the game in the last minute.
Embiid has been the very model of reliability for the Philadelphia 76ers this season. He’s played in 46 out of a possible 49 Sixers games, and posted at least 20 and 10 in 33 of those. He gets to the line every game, he anchors our defense every game, he spoonfeeds J.J. Redick open looks every game, he hits threes… well, not every game yet, but even that’s starting to be more games than not. He plays hard, he plays smart, he plays tough, he plays Philly. He’s already everything we hoped he would be, and he doesn’t even turn 25 for another two months. We will never be able to properly appreciate just how lucky we are to have him.
But what if we didn’t have him? We’re fortunate enough in 2019 to not be worrying every second of every day about the possibility of Joel’s health cutting his season (if not his overall prime) cursedly, cruelly short -- though given his recent back flare-ups and mid-game trip to the locker room last night, maybe we should be. But there was a time, not all that long ago, where it was totally uncertain that he would ever even play a minute of competitive pro ball. Towards the end of him missing the entirety of what should have been his first two seasons recovering from various knee and leg ailments, his trade value was nearly as low as Markelle Fultz’s is currently -- just another cautionary tale about drafting a big man with a lower body made mostly of gelatin.
Now a whopping 140 games into his career, those worries now blesseldy seem a world away. But let’s take a moment for a theoretical look at the universe where Embiid never gets right in the summer of 2016 or anytime thereafter, and ask how the domino effect from that might’ve impacted our ability to still be trusting the process in 2019.
What would the 2016-’17 team have looked like?
Not pretty. Of course, to a large extent we already know what that team would’ve looked like, since Embiid only played 31 games his rookie year before succumbing to knee injuries. But those 31 games were enough to turn around the entire team’s momentum, as they went 13-18 with JoJo in the lineup (and 15-36 without him). He averaged 20 and 8 on 58% true shooting with 2.5 blocks, providing the team its first true fulcrum since at least peak Andre Iguodala, if not all the way back to Allen Iverson. As a rookie, Joel showed that if he could ever play 65 games in a season, the team would almost have to be legitimately competitive.
Without him? Well, it’d be up to Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel to gobble up his available minutes and half-court gravity -- and Nerlens was hurt to start the season, so Okafor would be first up. We saw the year before how the team played with Jah as our main man in the middle, and his sophomore season probably wouldn’t have been much different -- more veteran presence might’ve meant we could at least do better than 1-30 in our first 31, particularly if we still made the Ersan Illyasova trade early in the season, but probably not a lot. The season would’ve almost certainly been lost in a sea of missed Sergio Rodriguez turnovers and Gerald Henderson clanks well before Noel got healthy.
The one potential positive of this scenario? Maybe with more opportunity available from the start of the season, Dario Saric plays himself in to pro shape a little earlier, puts up more consistent numbers from late 2016 on, and prevents Malcolm Brogdon from winning the Rookie of the Year trophy by default. Good news for Tony Snell’s fragile psyche, anyway.
Would the Nerlens Noel trade still have happened?
Actually, maybe there’s a second positive from this Embiid-less scenario: With a lighter glut of healthy available prospects at the center position, perhaps Nerlens is deemed less expendable as a part of the Sixers future, and the Colangelos think better of dealing him to Dallas for a fake first-round pick at the ‘17 deadline. Hell, maybe with Okafor getting those extra Embiid minutes, he puts up enough empty production to convince another team to actually deal for him in February -- or maybe he does enough to convince the Sixers that he has to go at that point no matter what -- and he doesn’t get yanked around for a week just to end up sticking with Philly through the season anyway.
Without Embiid, though, I have to imagine the Sixers probably hedge their bets and hold on to both of them, and Noel continues to tantalize and frustrate in equal measure. With a soft market for offensively limited centers in the offseason, Noel probably demands more from Philly than he got from Dallas following his JoJo-timeline trade there, but likely not anywhere near what fans and brass were fearing when he was deemed a must-go -- maybe three years, $36 million.
Would the team have bothered pursuing J.J. Redick in free agency?
Tough to say. The better question might be if Redick would’ve considered coming here without Embiid -- following the 2016-’17 season, which probably would’ve ended as another sub-20-win campaign sans JoJo, it’s doubtful that a productive vet like J.J. used to being in the playoffs every year would’ve jumped to a team still so far away from contending. At the very least, a one-year deal would seem an impossibility -- we’d probably have needed to offer him the security of something like four years, $60 million, and the team would have no real reason to do that without either Embiid or Ben Simmons having even played a game yet.
On the plus side for J.J., he’d probably have been able to avoid a whole lot of off-court weirdness had he never come to Philly. Might even still be on social media today.
Would we still have gotten Markelle Fultz in the 2017 draft?
Hard for me to really see a way around this. The Sixers almost certainly would’ve ended up with one of the league’s worst records in 2016-’17 without Embiid, and thus probably wouldn’t even have needed a Kings pickswap to end up in the lottery’s top three. Once there -- and assuming they were still joined by the Celtics and Lakers -- they probably end up with Fultz no matter where they fall, since he was tops on our big board, but Boston preferred Jayson Tatum and L.A. was set on Lonzo Ball. (In this scenario, maybe we at least could’ve saved the Kings 2019 pick, though as we’re seeing this season, that’s not as much of a home-run asset as it seemed at the time.)
Perhaps we get screwed on lottery night and end up outside the top three, picking at No. 4 or maybe even No. 5. But then, we probably end up with Josh Jackson instead, whose value might be even lower than Fultz’s at this point. Probably better off just rolling the dice with Fultz a second time and just hoping that in this universe, he doesn’t suffer the weirdest series of ailments in NBA prospect history.
What would Ben Simmons’ rookie year be like?
Embiid’s health likey wouldn’t have affected the Sixers landing the top overall pick in 2016, or them using it to select Ben Simmons -- or, at least for argument’s sake, him breaking his foot in that practice over the summer. So young cub Simba would’ve still taken the floor for Philly for the first time in 2017-’18, along with Robert Covington, Dario Saric and maybe Noel as the starting center at this point. (Probably have to hold onto Nik Stauskas for the full season in this scenario, too, and hope that having Simmons as his point guard turns him into close to a starting-level SG.)
And I gotta say: This part would’ve been pretty cool. Maybe Simmons isn’t quite as efficient as a rookie without Embiid for on-court balance, and certainly the Sixers don’t win 16 games to close the season and get the three-seed in the playoffs -- but undoubtedly he’s still a sensation, and the team probably plays in an even more-pronounced run and gun style to accentuate his strengths. And man, if Nerlens thought playing with Ish Smith was fun, imagine him getting lobs and open-court feeds from Ben -- really, it’s one of the major shames of the Process that the two never overlapped on the court.
Simmons’ numbers probably end up comparable to his actual rookie season’s, but outside of Embiid’s shadow, he probably gets the level of attention Blake Griffin got as a rookie, blazes past Donovan Mitchell in the Rookie of the Year discussion and is hailed as the Sixers’ long-promised savior. We might even go an extra month longer before starting the debate over if the Sixers can ever really win until he develops a workable jumper.
Would Brett Brown live to see the team’s turnaround?
This would maybe be the biggest immediate casualty of Embiid not making it to the court for 2016-’17 -- it’s hard to imagine Brett Brown surviving a fourth straight season of minus-20 wins, particularly without Sam Hinkie around to protect him. The Colangelos always seemed lukewarm on Brett in those days, but Embiid provided the Sixers enough forward momentum and hope for the future to make a canning seem counterintuitive. Without him, and with Simmons a year away, there’d really be nothing standing in the way of Bryan and Papa C cutting the cord with Brett and instituting their own guy -- undoubtedly some insufferable veteran coach who’d impose his own overbearing personality on the team. Mark Jackson? One of the Van Gundys? Jason Kidd (eventually)? Shudder to think.
How would the 2018 draft have gone down?
The Simmons-led ‘17-’18 Sixers would’ve been two tons of fun, and almost certainly would’ve won more games than any other squad of the Process era -- particularly if Fultz somehow avoided falling into the Springfield Mystery Spot in this timeline -- but likely would’ve stopped well short of playoff contention, maybe with a win total around 30. Thus, they would’ve ended up with another pick somewhere in the No. 10 range, where they were already selecting via the Lakers pick.
So maybe in this timeline, they actually draft and keep Mikal Bridges, and find another team to still do some version of the Zhaire Smith trade with. (The Clippers, maybe?) The extra asset they land trading down to get Zhaire probably doesn’t end up quite as valuable as the Miami unprotected 2019 pick, but getting to both keep Mikal and still get a chance with Zhaire would’ve been pretty cool. Maybe Mikal’s positive influence would’ve kept him away from potential allergens for the summer?
Would Burnergate still have happened?
Hard to say, since we still don’t (and perhaps never will) totally know what prompted it in the first place -- but if it’s a matter of 91 having cause to complain about her hubby being done wrong by the Sixers’ roster, you can only imagine that having a whole lot of Okafor and Noel in Embiid’s stead wouldn’t have helped a ton with that. Would be sad to not have Embiid around to laugh about it on Twitter afterwards, in any event.
Do the Sixers still get in the mix for Jimmy Butler?
Maybe depends a little bit on who’s behind the wheel for the Sixers at this point, but it’s hard to imagine that even the Colangelos would push the team’s timeline ahead this dramatically without in any realistic way being one major piece away from title contention. They probably try their luck in free agency and strike out, and maybe try to cash in a couple of their mid-level prospects for some legit veteran help at the deadline, but any moves on the level of a Butler trade have to wait until at least this offseason, if not longer.
So where would that leave us with the Sixers in 2019?
Not in a totally helpless place, certainly. We’d have Ben, Dario, Covington and Nerlens as a very promising young core -- assuming Nerlens hadn’t infuriated our new coach to such an extent that he was promptly shipped out for a couple fake second-rounders -- along with Markelle, Zhaire, Miles, and likely a decent vet or two. That’s a League Pass team for sure, and a competitive one, maybe even one who could make a playoff push in the top-heavy East. All in all, we’d probably be about where the Sacramento Kings are right now, with a stronger franchise anchor in Simmons than anyone in Sacramento.
But would the Process have definitively worked? That’s a little harder to say. Simmons is wonderful, with a ceiling about as high as the Sistine Chapel. But he’s not Embiid. The minute Embiid took the court for the first time, you knew the Sixers would be fine -- his greatness was that obvious, that unquestionable, that beneficial. Simmons’ instant excellence was hardly obscure either, but his slightly softer presence and general on-court irregularities meant it didn’t quite carry the same authority, didn’t offer quite the same security. Ben may end up as great (or close to it) as JoJo, but it’s hard to imagine we’ll ever be able to look at him and intuitively feel we got this in quite the same way. We might be OK with Simmons leading the way, but we might not.
Would we have been able to land a piece like Joel, through free agency or trade or maybe even one of our other prospects panning out? Not impossible, perhaps, though as is becoming increasingly obvious through 49 games this season, you can count the number of pieces like Joel across the entire NBA on one hand. Many teams will go an entire generation without getting one. And even with all it took to get him here and get him healthy -- and all that’s gone on and gone wrong around him in the meantime -- he’s still the thing that makes the Process worth trusting, fully and unquestionably.