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How Joel Embiid Is Changing the NBA Without Ever Playing a Game

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistJuly 9, 2015

B/R via Getty Images

Despite having not yet played a single regular-season minute, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid has radically shaken up the NBA landscape.

A month before the 2014 NBA draft, he looked like the clear-cut No. 1 overall pick. The 7-footer from Kansas was drawing comparisons left and right to Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, seemingly positioning the Cleveland Cavaliers—who defied the odds to win the lottery for the third time in four years—to select a future franchise center after passing up Kentucky big man Nerlens Noel the prior season.

Though Embiid suffered a back injury that kept him out of the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments, sources told ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman "that Embiid is the early front-runner for the top pick as long as his back is OK." In mid-June, Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer reported the Cavs found "some concerns, but apparently no red flags" in regard to Embiid's back, adding, "they were very impressed by Embiid's workout, and they were blown away by Embiid, the physical specimen."

Just as Cleveland reportedly zeroed in on the 7-footer, doctors discovered a stress fracture in his right foot only days before the draft. That, in turn, caused Cleveland to select Andrew Wiggins with the first overall pick, while Embiid tumbled to the Philadelphia 76ers at No. 3.

Since that fateful night, a number of NBA franchises have taken unexpected turns—and just like with Kevin Bacon, everything can be tied back to the Cameroonian center.

No Love in Cleveland?

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Without drafting Wiggins, could the Cavaliers still have acquired Kevin Love from Minnesota?
Without drafting Wiggins, could the Cavaliers still have acquired Kevin Love from Minnesota?Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Whether the Cavaliers' reported interest in Embiid was a smoke screen or legitimate, we'll never know. On paper, though, it makes perfect sense for the big-man-needy team—remember, Cleveland signed Andrew Bynum the previous July for frontcourt depth—to have been targeting the 7-footer over Wiggins and Jabari Parker.

Instead, two months after drafting Wiggins, the Cavaliers flipped him to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the three-way trade that netted them Kevin Love. Cleveland also gave up former No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett and the Miami Heat's 2015 first-rounder (which wound up not conveying this year) in the deal.

Would the Wolves have agreed to that same trade with Embiid in place of Wiggins, assuming the big man never suffered his foot fracture? There's reason to be skeptical.

After the trade became official, Minnesota team president Flip Saunders told reporters that he had Wiggins ranked No. 1 on his draft board because of his two-way versatility, according to CBS Sports' James Herbert. Saunders also praised Wiggins' ceiling, saying he could develop into the next face of the franchise:

Usually in this situation, a lot of times in the history of it, people have gotten good players back but maybe not what you consider a guy that has the opportunity to be a superstar-type player. You're talking, in Wiggins, [about] a player that since he was in high school, people thought he was the best player to come out of high school since LeBron James. So he's been compared to those. And he's got phenomenal ability. He's got a lot of work to do, but I know that he's a willing learner.

On the other hand, the Timberwolves had no readily apparent need to take on another young center prospect. They had just signed Nikola Pekovic to a five-year, $60 million extension the previous summer, and though he missed 28 games in the 2013-14 season because of injuries, the big man averaged 17.5 points and 8.7 boards when healthy. Meanwhile, then-rising sophomore Gorgui Dieng showed significant promise toward the end of his rookie campaign, averaging 12.0 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in just 30.2 minutes over Minnesota's final 18 games.

With Pekovic and Dieng on the roster, the Timberwolves had no need for Embiid.
With Pekovic and Dieng on the roster, the Timberwolves had no need for Embiid.David Sherman/Getty Images

At the time, the Wolves had no way of knowing Pekovic would miss 51 games in 2014-15 because of persistent ankle issues and a sprained wrist. Accordingly, rather than accepting a Love deal structured around Embiid, Saunders may have sought other suitors or decided to keep Love on the pre-training camp roster, re-evaluating his options at the February trade deadline.

There's also a 6'8", 250-pound elephant in the room: Had the Cavaliers not been able to acquire Love via trade, would LeBron James still have decided to return as a free agent? In early August, Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported the "precise deal terms [had] been agreed upon for weeks" regarding the Love trade, begging the question of whether LeBron and Love were a de facto package deal.

Considering what unfolded over the next 12 months—Wiggins clearly established himself as the Timberwolves' future after a slow start to the season, while Love grew into a key contributor for a squad that advanced to the NBA Finals and then agreed to a five-year, $110 million extension this summer—Cleveland's decision to draft Wiggins over Embiid significantly reshaped the future of two franchises.

The Warriors' Nuclear Option

Rather than celebrating a title, Klay Thompson and David Lee could have been toiling away in Minnesota.
Rather than celebrating a title, Klay Thompson and David Lee could have been toiling away in Minnesota.Noah Graham/Getty Images

Cleveland wasn't the only team in hot pursuit of Love during the 2014 offseason. The Golden State Warriors—who would go on to win the NBA championship this past June against, ironically, those very same Cavaliers—batted around the idea too.

According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, the Warriors were willing to dangle Klay Thompson in "various trade proposals," which "greatly increased their chances of winning the Love sweepstakes." Mychal Thompson, Klay's father, told ESPN LA 710 AM that the teams were discussing a deal that would have sent Love and sharpshooter Kevin Martin to Golden State in exchange for Thompson, David Lee and a future first-round pick, per Stein.

Ultimately, the Warriors decided against moving Thompson in any prospective Love deal, in part thanks to executive board member Jerry West. The Logo was adamantly opposed to flipping Thompson, even for a three-time All-Star like Love, according to Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated:

West argued that trading Thompson would be an enormous mistake. The Warriors were built on defense and Love, while a skilled offensive player, was a subpar defender. What’s more, West was certain Thompson would continue to improve, giving the Warriors a potential Hall of Fame backcourt for the next decade.

West felt so strongly that, according to one person close to the negotiations, he threatened to resign if the team made the trade.

The decision to hold onto both Thompson and Lee paid dividends, as both played integral roles in the Warriors' first NBA championship in four decades. The former averaged a career-high 18.6 points per game on 44.6 percent shooting during Golden State's title run, while the latter helped change the course of the Finals with inspired stints in Games 3 and 4.

Jerry West's scuttling of a Love deal helped the Warriors win the title.
Jerry West's scuttling of a Love deal helped the Warriors win the title.Rocky Widner/Getty Images

By mid-July, the Warriors were committed to keeping Thompson out of any Love deals, per USA Today's Sam Amick. If team owner Joe Lacob is to be believed, however, trading Stephen Curry's fellow Splash Brother was never an option.

"There was never, ever a time when we were going to consider trading Klay in that deal," Lacob told Ballard. "Jerry was strong on that, but so was everybody else."

However, "a source with knowledge of the negotiations" offered a different take to Ballard: "The deal was done. And Jerry put his foot down."

Had Cleveland not been in position to offer Wiggins to Minnesota for Love, would Saunders have spent more time exploring deals with Golden State? According to Stein, the Wolves also "expressed interest" in Warriors swingman Harrison Barnes, which, had the deal gone through, could have been equally detrimental to the Dubs' title chances.

Without Barnes and Lee, Golden State likely would have started Curry, Martin, Andre Iguodala, Love and Bogut—hardly the two-way nightmare of a starting five that the Warriors ultimately settled upon. Likewise, Draymond Green may have never had the chance to establish himself as the versatile two-way key to Golden State's dominance.

Would this scene have unfolded had the Warriors traded for Love?
Would this scene have unfolded had the Warriors traded for Love?Noah Graham/Getty Images

Grantland's Zach Lowe reported the Warriors "might have offered David Lee, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green for Love—there is some debate about that now—but talks never got that far, since everyone involved understood that Saunders wouldn’t listen to any deal that didn’t include Thompson."

Had the Cavs drafted Embiid rather than Wiggins, would Minnesota have ultimately relented and accepted a Love deal structured around Barnes, Green and Lee? If so, the Warriors almost assuredly would not be sitting here today as reigning NBA champions.

"It’s an easy thing to say now, three wins from the championship, but no one on the Warriors would trade Green for Love straight up," Lowe wrote during this year's Finals.

Sam Hinkie's Grand Plan

Thanks to Embiid's unexpected fall, the Sixers find themselves overloaded with centers.
Thanks to Embiid's unexpected fall, the Sixers find themselves overloaded with centers.Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

When Cleveland decided to select Wiggins over Embiid in 2014, it sent the Philadelphia 76ers' ongoing rebuild veering off course.

Had the Cavaliers selected Embiid first and the Milwaukee Bucks stuck with Jabari Parker second, Wiggins would have slipped to Philadelphia at No. 3 overall. In Wiggins, then-reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams and Noel, the Sixers would seemingly have three-fifths of their long-term starting lineup in place.

Instead, the Sixers grabbed Embiid third despite his health concerns and then proceeded to hold him out for the entirety of the 2014-15 season—similar to what they did with Noel one year prior—to maximize recovery from his foot fracture. In the meantime, general manager Sam Hinkie flipped Carter-Williams to the Milwaukee Bucks at the trade deadline in a deal that netted the Los Angeles Lakers' top-five-protected first-round pick.

Would MCW still be a Sixer if Andrew Wiggins was on the team?
Would MCW still be a Sixer if Andrew Wiggins was on the team?Michael Perez/Associated Press

Had Philadelphia fallen into Wiggins, the Kansas swingman would have significantly accelerated the team's rebuild. The Sixers almost assuredly still would have missed the 2015 playoffs—after all, undrafted free agents Henry Sims and Hollis Thompson started a combined 55 games for them—but they realistically could have finished in the neighborhood of 25-30 wins, leapfrogging at least the Lakers and Orlando Magic in the lottery standings.

Armed with just the fifth- or sixth-best odds in the lottery (rather than the third-best), the Sixers would have been overwhelmingly favored to wind up with the No. 5, 6 or 7 pick instead of the third. Goodbye, Jahlil Okafor; hello, Mario Hezonja, Justise Winslow or Emmanuel Mudiay.

Does a core of Carter-Williams, Wiggins, Hezonja and Noel possess greater upside than the Okafor-Embiid-Noel trio? Until we see how Sixers head coach Brett Brown deploys his big men, it's impossible to say. Likewise, that Lakers first-rounder—which is only top-three protected in 2016—could net a significant member of the team's long-term core, particularly considering how L.A. struck out in free agency.

With Wiggins in tow, the Sixers would have looked far more like a complete team. They'd likely be armed with back-to-back Rookies of the Year along with a defensive anchor in the middle, and they could have rounded out their rotation with a mid-lottery pick this past June.

Instead, they're left with more questions than answers, particularly regarding Embiid's long-term health and how the three big men will best complement one another.

Collateral Damage

Could the New York Knicks have been in position to draft Jahlil Okafor if not for Embiid's foot injury?
Could the New York Knicks have been in position to draft Jahlil Okafor if not for Embiid's foot injury?Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Though Embiid had the greatest direct impact on the Cavaliers, Timberwolves, Warriors and 76ers, there's plenty of additional collateral damage from Cleveland's decision to draft Wiggins over the 7-footer.

For instance: Had the Sixers finished with, say, 28 wins this past season, would the New York Knicks have been in position to draft Okafor or D'Angelo Russell rather than Kristaps Porzingis? If they selected Okafor, where would former Portland Trail Blazers center Robin Lopez have wound up in free agency?

Next, try this hypothetical on for size: Had the Cavaliers successfully convinced Minnesota to take Embiid in the Love trade, do the Timberwolves still draft Karl-Anthony Towns with the No. 1 overall pick this past June? Or, assuming Embiid's foot injury isn't a long-term concern, would they be more willing to trade down for a prospect such as Hezonja or Winslow to fill out their wing rotation? Do the Lakers stumble into Towns at No. 2, negating the need for a Roy Hibbert trade?

Constructing such scenarios takes very little effort, speaking to the widespread effect Embiid's injury had on the league. Depending on what happens with the big man's right foot from this point forward—Hinkie said in mid-June that a CT scan "revealed less healing than anticipated at this point"—the series of Embiid-related dominoes could continue falling.

If his foot ultimately heals correctly, with minimal long-term risk of another flare-up, the Sixers will likely be forced to trade one of their trio of bigs, especially with Dario Saric eventually headed stateside.

With Noel only two years away from restricted free agency and just 12 months away from being eligible for an extension, he may be the most likely candidate to be moved, given the timetable on the team's rebuild.

Beyond all of the hypotheticals, one thing is certain: The doctors who discovered Embiid's foot fracture irrevocably changed the course of multiple NBA franchises.

All statistics via NBA.com or Basketball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.

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