Joel Embiid has become so synonymous with the 76ers, he co-opted the moniker of Sam Hinkie’s bold plan – The Process – as his own nickname.
But Embiid was always so keen on Philadelphia.
As he entered the NBA in 2014, Embiid had ambitions of getting drafted No. 1 by the Cavaliers or by the Lakers, who held the No. 7 pick.
A reminder how the 2014 NBA draft began:
1. Cavaliers: Andrew Wiggins
2. Bucks: Jabari Parker
3. 76ers: Joel Embiid
4. Magic: Aaron Gordon
5. Jazz: Dante Exum
6. Celtics: Marcus Smart
7. Lakers: Julius Randle
That June, Embiid worked out in Cleveland and impressed the Cavs, who were then run by David Griffin.
Yaron Weitzman in “Tanking to the Top:”
Smiles swept across the faces of Griffin and the rest of the Cavaliers brain trust. Griffin would later tell people that it was the best workout he’d ever seen. “He was like the second coming of Hakeem,” he’d say. His mind was made. “He told us there he was taking Joel No. 1,” said Francois Nyam, one Embiid’s agents at the time.
But Embiid was soon diagnosed with a fractured foot. For a player who already had medical concerns, that caused too much trepidation in Cleveland and Milwaukee.
Griffin had a mandate from ownership to win and needed a player who could immediately help the team. Even if he wanted to take Embiid, the Cavaliers’ doctors wouldn’t give him the green light. The Bucks, meanwhile, had locked in on Parker, another Tellem client, at No. 2, and anyway, Embiid had no interest in playing there. “That place is corny,” he hold Nyam. What he really wanted was to fall to the Lakers at No. 7. He’d been living in Los Angeles and grown comfortable in the city. “Work your magic,” he told Tellem. Tellem knew there was no chance of Embiid plunging that far, so instead he and Nyam sold on Embiid on Philadelphia.
In fairness to the Cavaliers and Bucks, Wiggins and Parker looked like the top two prospects given Embiid’s volatile health.
But chasing immediate help at the top of the draft – which both Milwaukee and Cleveland sought – is a fool’s game. That’s the opportunity to land a long-term star. Besides, teams drafting that high are usually too far from winning to justify prioritizing quick help.
The Cavs were an exception, though they didn’t know it at the time. LeBron James returned later that summer, and they traded Wiggins for Kevin Love. LeBron and Love helped Cleveland win a title. A LeBron-Embiid pairing was probably never in the cards. But it’s worth imagining: Would LeBron have remained patient during his (seemingly) dwindling prime if Cleveland kept an injured Embiid for two-plus seasons? Would LeBron and Kyrie Irving have led the Cavs to great success, anyway? If he waited out Embiid’s early-career injury woes, would LeBron still have left the Cavaliers – including a blossoming Embiid – in 2018?
The Bucks had no LeBron complication. All they had is a raw rookie named Giannis Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee got practically nothing from Parker. An Antetokounmpo-Embiid pairing would have been so tantalizing. Instead, they’re now Eastern Conference rivals.
As for Embiid’s Lakers interest (which he, or at least his Twitter account, signaled at the time)… Embiid is far from the first draft prospect who wanted to join a premier team. Some make it happen. Embiid’s agent, Arn Tellem, famously steered Kobe Bryant to the Lakers in the 1996 draft. But the draft largely succeeds in funneling top prospects to the least-desirable teams.
Still, as Embiid and the 76ers look a little antsy with their current arrangement, Embiid’s fondness for Los Angeles is at least interesting. That was six years ago, and a lot has changed since. I’m certainly not predicting Embiid will ever join the Lakers. But it’s just a nugget of information I’ll keep in the back of my mind.
Disclosure: I received a promotional copy of “Tanking to the Top.”