Sixers taking risk with Embiid; letting him leave would've been riskier

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Joel Embiid has a once-in-a-generation combination of body type and skill.

If you’re wondering how a team can justify giving $148 million over five years to a player who has been healthy enough to play just 31 games in the three years since they drafted him, remind yourself of the following:

When Joel Embiid was on the court last season, the Sixers outscored their opponents by an average of 3.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s the same point differential that the Cavaliers posted, and a better one than the Celtics. In fact, only six teams outscored their opponents by more points than the Sixers did when Embiid was on the court.

The contract extension the two sides agreed to on Monday might be unprecedented, but the player has a chance to be unprecedented as well. It might seem silly to think that a guy who can’t stay healthy in his early 20s is going to age well enough to warrant the kind of salary-cap space that the Sixers will be devoting to Embiid. But when the guy in question has a once-in-a-generation combination of body type and skill, when he has the potential to make you a contender in whatever minutes he does log, then not signing him comes with considerable risks as well.

This was the logic that Bryan Colangelo’s predecessor used when he decided to select Embiid at No. 3 overall in 2014. Yes, Embiid was probably going to miss his rookie season while recovering from a foot injury. Yes, he’d already missed the end of his lone college season with a back injury. And, yes, the Sixers had drafted a big man in the first round the year before. But Sam Hinkie decided that Embiid possessed the kind of talent whose potential eclipsed whatever increase in certainty the Sixers would have gained by passing on him for a better known commodity.

It took three years, and it lasted less than half of a season, but in 2016-17, Embiid showed us why he was worth the risk on draft day. Despite averaging just 25.4 minutes per night, Embiid scored 20.2 points and grabbed 7.8 rebounds and shot nearly 37 percent from three-point range. He blocked 2.5 shots and turned the Sixers into an elite defensive unit whenever he was on the court.

Right, that phrase again: when he was on the court.

There’s no getting around it. The Sixers have just saddled themselves with a considerable amount of risk. Whatever the injury protections built into the contract — there was no immediate word on how much of the $148 million is guaranteed, or the thresholds that trigger the rest of the money  — the Sixers will still end up wagering a considerable amount of future payroll flexibility that Embiid can stay healthy enough for his prodigious talent to matter.

Keep in mind, though, the NBA is a league where centers like Timofey Mozgov and Ian Mahimini sign four-year, $64 million deals. Steven Adams signed for four years and $100 million this offseason. Let Embiid’s contract situation linger and there’s a potential future in which the Sixers not only have to watch him play for another team, but also pay considerable money to a far lesser player to replace him.

Nothing about the situation is easy. One of the pillars of wisdom upon which the Sixers have based their rebuilding process is that there is a radical scarcity of the kind of elite talent it takes to win an NBA title, and that a team must do its utmost to maximize its opportunities to acquire that talent. In Embiid, they have in their possession that rarest of players. It would’ve seemed at odds with the mission to risk letting him walk away.

Yet it will take more than the Sixers got from Embiid last year to make this thing work. In many ways, he was the original piece of the process, as well as its self-appointed spokesman. If nothing else, the new contract makes it clear where the Sixers feel their wagon is hitched. Whether that’s exciting or scary depends on your perspective. There’s no reason it can’t be a little of both.