The Step Back

Will Joel Embiid really be the future of the Philadelphia 76ers?

The roar of the crowd at the Philadelphia Eagles game on Sunday afternoon came not for Julius Erving, not for a member of Philadelphia’s most recent basketball champions at all. It wasn’t for Charles Barkley, or Allen Iverson, or even Hersey Hawkins or Eric Snow.

It was Joel Embiid, who has played 31 games with the Philadelphia 76ers, fewer than Royal Ivey, Steven Hunter or Mark Bradtke logged in a Philadelphia uniform. An incredible 31 games, looking every bit the star Sam Hinkie envisioned — but still, 31 games, fewer than Jeremy Lin logged with the Knicks during Linsanity.

“I love the city to death,” Embiid said of his experience at Lincoln Financial Field. “They got the best fans. I went to the game yesterday and it was probably the most love I ever got in the city yet, because I went to the VIP section but I had to go through basically the whole stadium to go see somebody. The love I got just walking around and people saying my name — ‘Trust the Process’ all over the place.”

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Remembering the catch phrase was a nice touch, par for the course with Embiid. But it is remarkable, really, that a player who has done so little on the court — through no fault of his own — is so central to the identity of the 76ers.

And more astonishing to consider, still, is that this might just be his final season in Philly.

Embiid is eligible for a rookie extension, and there are good reasons for both sides to find common ground on it. In the time he’s been with the Sixers on the court, he’s looked every bit like a max player. It is easy to fantasize about getting such a player at a below-market rate, then, and project the Sixers like a next-generation Warriors, who managed to accomplish so much of their roster maneuvering around not only having Steph Curry, but employing him at a rate made possible by his early-career ankle injuries.

“Whether or not a contract extension is signed in the coming weeks, there is a deadline of October 16,” Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo said. “I still remain cautiously optimistic that something could get done. It’s not to say it will, but I’m cautiously optimistic that that remains a possibility.”

Embiid, on the other hand, repeatedly referred to his restricted free agency, which will come next summer should the two sides fail to agree.

There are so many moving parts that a failure to reach accord is certainly understandable. Embiid’s health has itself provided countless column inches since the Sixers made him the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, and it was no different on Monday at Sixers’ Media Day. There is something appropriate about the answer Colangelo gave to what it will take for Embiid to participate in five-on-five drills, ephemeral and almost philosophical in response to a basic logistical inquiry.

“It’s nothing specific that I can define for you,” Colangelo said. “There are multiple categories of things as he competes and progresses with the various actions and activities that he’s asked to do and perform. Whether it’s the strength and conditioning aspects of it off the court, or whether it’s progressing on the court with various levels of activity. It is criterion based and as he checks boxes, he’ll move on to the next level.”

The Embiid era in Philadelphia feels like something undefinable, too. It is hard for fans to get their arms around. Embiid doesn’t know how many games he’ll play this season — “if I could play 82 games I would, but if I’m being honest, I don’t think I’ll play 82 games”, he said with a smile — and yet there’s something that fits about this, a process built around imagining the future rather than acquiring players for the present has produced, in Embiid, an avatar for what can be, the tangible today always just out of reach.

But build for tomorrow is no longer the hope, and truly, the Sixers will never feel quite so undefined again. Few teams can boast of a trio of potential stars like Embiid, Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons, three high lottery picks with a broad base of skills seemingly ripped from the NBA playbook of tomorrow. J.J. Redick was signed to the most un-Sixers idea imaginable: a one-year contract.

But neither Fultz nor Simmons have played a single NBA game. That is all about to change in Fultz’s rookie year, Simmons’ sophomore freshman season — “I’m 100 percent”, he said firmly when asked about his own health — and Embiid’s seemingly imminent return to the court.

Naturally, should the injuries continue, against the hopes of the Sixers and really, anyone who loves basketball, that will be an answer as well. A second season cut short by injuries will turn the yellow light on Simmons’ future to red. Fultz will either perform at the level many expect or fall short. And Embiid, if he isn’t able to become regular presence on the Wells Fargo Center court, rather than the sideline, will have provided some answers of his own, perhaps even reached the limits of the patience few ever would have believed Philadelphia fans were capable of showing.

“It just shows you that the city, they love basketball so much,” Embiid said. “They love the Sixers, and I gotta be a winner too because at some point they gotta expect us to win.”

There are many permutations of progress for this collection of talent, though — Vegas doesn’t have the Sixers winning somewhere north of 40 games on the expectation that everyone who has struggled to stay healthy, ultimately a skill, will suddenly ascend to indestructibility. Full health, and the Sixers could be hosting a playoff series.

But if Fultz and Simmons manage to remain on the court and emulate the Portland backcourt, only taller, Dario Saric, Robert Covington and either Jahlil Okafor or whoever the Sixers receive in an Okafor trade continue growing, Redick sinks 3s and Amir Johnson adds a bit of everything, well, the Sixers might just grow into a playoff team whether Joel Embiid can stay healthy or not.

And that could mean that by next summer, another team with less talent and more need for risk — a Sixers from a few years ago, such as the Brooklyn Nets — might make Embiid an offer the Sixers have no choice but to refuse to match.

On this issue — what it would take, games-wise, for the Sixers to make sure they retained Embiid, Colangelo was non-specific, and left unsaid but significant is that there are many permutations for success in Philly now, only some of them involving Embiid.

“There are obviously things that we look at when we talk about Joel and how good we can be as a team with Joel healthy and playing and being active and active part of that participation,” Colangelo said. “With respect to him and the number of games that he’ll play, I believe it will be determined over the course of the next several weeks and months when he proves healthy and able to play at those levels.”

And so, for now, the Joel Embiid era continues, in just the way it has been for the Sixers, dreaming about tomorrow, for just a bit longer. Asked about what he envisions when he thinks about the future, Embiid didn’t hesitate to provide the manna from tomorrow that’s been sustaining his fans and making a folk hero of a big, fun, talented man who has long enticed with a vision of the future that might never come.

“I think it looks pretty good as long as we stay healthy,” Embiid said. “We’ve been working a lot of rehab the past couple of years, as long as we stay healthy, the future looks bright. We’ve got a lot of pieces…I’ve been working a lot on my game, playing one on one and by myself, so, feeling good about it and, gotta stay healthy and the future’s bright.”

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