Joel Embiid eyes championship run with 76ers' new big three

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Monday, July 8, 2024

LAS VEGAS -- At this time a year ago, the Philadelphia 76ers were staring at a very uncertain future.

James Harden had demanded a trade. Tyrese Maxey had yet to establish himself as a full-fledged All-Star. And both the 76ers and Joel Embiid -- the NBA's reigning Most Valuable Player at the time -- were coming off yet another disappointing second-round playoff exit.

The message from the franchise -- specifically 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey -- to its star, back then, was a clear and consistent one: Be patient, and we'll provide you with a championship-level team. But while Morey and the 76ers landed Paul George in free agency this offseason -- something Philadelphia could only do by being judicious with its resources over the past year to create the max cap space necessary to sign the nine-time All-Star -- Embiid admitted to ESPN he wasn't always sure that plan would work out.

"I'd be lying to say that patience wasn't tested," Embiid told ESPN. "Because I'm at the point where there's no awards, there's no regular season or no All-NBA or All-Stars is going to change the way my legacy is. Well, there's a few things that can change it, but the main one is the championship. So when you start thinking about what you want to be remembered as, you want to be remembered as someone that's won.

"When you are presented with a plan, sometimes it goes wrong, sometimes it goes right. We've still got long way to go. On paper it looks great. But we still got to go on the court and make it work."

The plan Morey presented Embiid was straightforward: The 76ers would eventually acquiesce to Harden's trade demand, but only if it either brought back a star player in return or left Philadelphia with the resources necessary to get one. The 76ers eventually sent Harden to the LA Clippers, along with P.J. Tucker, and got back expiring contracts and draft capital in return, opening up the cap space necessary to sign a max free agent.

And while Embiid says he's leaving it up to the media to decide whether he, George and Maxey -- all All-Stars a year ago -- had formed the NBA's best "Big Three," he wasn't shy about how well he feels the three of them will work together on the court with the 76ers.

"Yeah, I think as far as the fit, it looks amazing," Embiid told ESPN. "It is great, especially when you got a big ... I don't like to call myself a big, but when you got a player that posts up and that isos quite a bit, you need to have willing shooters and guys that are not afraid to pull the trigger. PG, great shooter, 40%, 45 catch and shoot; Tyrese, we know great shooter, off the dribble, catch-and-shoot.

"On paper, and as far as the fit, it looks fantastic because you got both guys that can play off the ball, and they can play on ball and they're great shooters and they can handle the ball, and then you also got me," he added with a smile.

"So, yeah, it looks great."

Embiid used the phrase "on paper" a few times during the interview before describing the way the 76ers look at the moment, including praising the retention ofKelly Oubre Jr.and the signings of Caleb Martin, Andre Drummond and Eric Gordon.

But the same phrase has been used frequently in discussions around the league, and in the media, about the 76ers since Embiid signed because of both Embiid's and George's lengthy injury histories over the course of their careers.

What has Embiid especially excited about this team, however, is that he believes the addition of George, and the emergence of Maxey, can take some pressure off of him needing to dominate in the same way on a nightly basis.

Embiid is coming off a season where he averaged 34.7 points in 39 games, missing a large chunk of the season with a knee injury, and was on pace to become the second player -- along with Wilt Chamberlain -- to average more points than minutes played over the course of a season.

"It makes me excited, because I think that actually might keep me healthy," Embiid said. "I don't have to exert myself and make sure I have to have 30, 40 every single night for us to win, and I can let them do their thing.

"There will be some nights where they got it going and that's OK ... but if I have 10 or 15 [points], yeah that's fine. But there's going to be some nights like that, and then there's also going to be some nights where I got it going. So it all evens out at the end of the day. But I think the goal is just to allow those guys to just be themselves so I don't have to ... in the playoffs, that's another story. Now we can get going. But in a regular season, just allow them to feel good about themselves and just play well."

Only time will tell if Embiid, and the 76ers, will finally get a playoff run with him fully healthy and ready to go. In between, though, Embiid and his teammates will begin preparing for another season with a vastly different roster around him -- albeit a very talented one. And while he's excited about the fit, he admitted it's going to take some time for things to come together.

"It feels like you're starting from scratch," he said. "And I know there's going to be a lot of growing pains. But you just got to stick it together.

"The goal is always to win a championship, but it just doesn't happen overnight. And hopefully, it doesn't take us as much time as it should when you're trying to bring up everybody on the same page and making sure everybody knows their role and what they got to do to make sure that we achieve that goal.

"But we're going to do the best job possible."

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