Joel Embiid might not play a single game for the Philadelphia 76ers. Recently, it’s been reported that Embiid — who missed all of last season with a foot injury — stands a ‘legitimate chance’ to miss all of next season due to ongoing complications with his right foot. It’s unfair and unlucky to both Embiid and the Sixers, but there’s a lesson to be had here.
Embiid was the best player available when Philadelphia selected him third overall in the 2014 draft. 7-footers like Embiid — nimble, skilled, explosive and intelligent — don’t come around all that often. And had it not been for persisting back issues while in college, Embiid was likely to be the consensus No. 1 overall pick.
Looking at everything besides his injury history, Embiid was the best player in the 2014 draft. But of course, that injury history dropped Embiid to Philadelphia, whose approach to the draft is less complicated than it seems: draft the best player and compile as many assets as you can. And in theory, that’s not a bad approach to take — especially the compiling assets part.
Philly’s draft model is probabilistic. Which again, in theory, is great. The NBA’s lottery system is predicated entirely upon probability. So one can hardly fault Philadelphia for attempting, in simplistic terms, to increase their odds at every opportunity. After all, no team almost lands three lottery selections like Philly nearly pulled off in the lottery this year without a calculated approach.
And while Philly’s excelled at compiling assets and is already seeing the dividends of nabbing the best player available in the form of 2013 No. 6 overall pick Nerlens Noel, the perils of best player available can be far greater than the reward.
By trading for Noel on draft night, the Sixers gambled on the recovery of an injured big man, much like Embiid. And similarly to Embiid, Noel was largely considered the best player in his draft class were it not for the ACL tear in Noel’s left knee. And thankfully, after sitting out his entire first season, Noel returned to action in 2014-15 and had himself a very nice season — especially on the defensive end.
Embiid and Noel are supposed to form the next great big man duo. But while one is on his way to becoming a fine player, the other is in jeopardy of missing a second straight season. So does the idea behind drafting the best player available always make sense?
When the Sixers took Noel in ’13, the franchise was embarking on a new, modernized direction with little-to-no talent on the roster. There was nothing to fit together regardless, so in the case of Noel, taking the best player available made sense. They literally had nowhere to go but up. You could at least rationalize the pick in that way, and now with the benefit of hindsight, it looks like Noel is going to be a player someday, which is great.
But in ’14 with Embiid, the team had already flirted with danger once, so why chance it again? Was the proposition of a Noel-Embiid frontcourt too enticing to pass on? The red flags for both players clearly existed. And yes, while the rest of the ’14 draft class hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, taking Noel and Embiid back-to-back seemed so uncalculated. (Not to mention Philly also nabbed Dario Saric in that draft, who may not come over until 2017.) And again, I get going best available player when you’re starting from the bottom, but drafting in basketball doesn’t usually work like drafting in baseball or football.
Basketball is a very precious game in terms of fitting the right parts with the right pieces. In baseball and football, you can draft for certain groups. Draft cornerbacks or lineman. Draft left-handed bats or outfielders. Basketball isn’t afforded the luxury of multiples. The drafting process is much more select.
Look, I hope Joel Embiid is able to have a career. Hopefully this most recent scare is a minor setback and he’ll be playing basketball again soon. To use a cross-sport analogy again, I look at what the Chicago Cubs have done and think that what the 76ers are doing is fairly similar. If you’re going to lose now to win tomorrow, at least do it with winning big as the goal in mind.
And in Philly’s case, if the plan were to work, the repercussions might be large enough to force the NBA to fix the lottery system. I do like that Sam Hinkie and the Sixers are taking an interesting approach towards manipulating a flawed system, but I just don’t think drafting the best available player every single year is the optimal strategy. By doing so, it appears the Sixers are mistaking the idea of an asset for its actual worth.
I get you want the best players, but sometimes the best players are the ones who are right for each other. And in my opinion, there’s greater incentive to play team basketball than ever before. The evidence is piling up thanks to the Golden State’s and Atlanta’s of the world. San Antonio is no longer the monolith. Maybe the Sixers are onto something, and it would certainly be shortsighted to say what they’ve done to this point has been a complete bust.
But they’ve gotta ditch the best player available philosophy. That’s the beauty of basketball. You don’t necessarily have to have the best player to win a championship anymore.