The Process That Almost Wasn't

Joel Embiid's arrival marked a crucial step in the Sixers' rise from NBA joke to Finals contender, but it took a twist of fate for Philadelphia to even have the chance to draft him back in 2014.
photo of Yaron WeitzmanYaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2020

    

In this excerpt from Yaron Weitzman's new release, Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports, which is on sale now, the story picks up toward the end of the 2013-2014 season, Year 1 of The Process. Thanks to a teardown orchestrated by first-year general manager Sam Hinkie, the Sixers had finished the previous year 19-63, the second-worst record in the league. They'd dropped a spot during the NBA's draft lottery in May and were now in possession of the draft's third overall pick. There they'd have the opportunity to draft a player who'd wind up altering the trajectory of the franchise. Getting him, though, would require a combination of boldness and luck. 

    

In the months leading up to the 2014 draft, no NBA franchise scouted the basketball team at the University of Kansas more vigorously than the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Cavs were coming off a tumultuous season, their fourth straight missing the playoffs, and still reeling from LeBron James' decision four years earlier to bolt for Miami. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert responded by firing his general manager (Chris Grant) and his head coach (Mike Brown). He then handed the keys to an NBA lifer named David Griffin. Griffin had broken into the NBA 21 years earlier as an intern with the Phoenix Suns. By 2007 he was senior vice president of basketball operations in Phoenix. In 2010 he left for a similar job with the Cavaliers, and now he was running the show. With the Cavaliers miraculously winning the draft lottery, despite entering the evening with just a 1.7 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick, he'd have his choice among three players grouped together at the top of most draft boards: Duke forward Jabari Parker and Kansas teammates Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid.

But first, Griffin needed a head coach. He tried pitching Bill Self, the head coach at Kansas, on the gig. Self declined the offer, but he shared his candid thoughts on his two star prospects. Self believed that Wiggins had All-Star potential. But the 7'1" Embiid, Self said, was the sort of talent that comes around once in a generation, the kind of player who could change a franchise. After spending so much time around Kansas, Griffin and the Cavaliers had come to agree. The only question mark about Embiid was the stress fracture he had suffered in his lower back a few months earlier.

On a Monday night a little less than two weeks before the draft, Embiid arrived in Cleveland to work out for the Cavaliers. He met the team the next morning at its practice facility in Independence, Ohio. Griffin tasked Vitaly Potapenko, a 6'10" assistant coach and former NBA player, to defend the nimble Embiid in the post. The Cavs figured Embiid would have no issue dancing around the older (39) and slower Potapenko. But then he began throwing the 275-pound Potapenko "around like a rag doll," an onlooker said. He powered through him and easily moved him off the block. "The strength he had was mind-numbing," the onlooker said. Any worries about Embiid's back were dispelled.

Courtesy of Grand Central Publishing

The Cavs moved Embiid to the mid-range. His jumper was fluid and smooth. He finished the workout by stepping out behind the three-point line. He splashed his first shot from behind the arc.

"How could you not draft me No. 1?" he shouted at Griffin.

He swished another.

"Look how good I am!"

Another ripped through the net.

"You need me, Griff!"

A fourth make.

"Come on, Griff, you gotta draft me!"

A fifth.

"I'm so good!"

A sixth.

"I gotta be No. 1!"

A seventh.

"How can you not take me?"

Smiles swept across the faces of Griffin and the rest of the Cavaliers brain trust. Griffin would later tell people that it was the best workout he'd ever seen. "He was like the second coming of Hakeem," he'd say. His mind was made. "He told us there he was taking Joel No. 1," said Francois Nyam, one of Embiid's agents at the time.

Kansas coach Bill Self felt that though Joel Embiid wasn't the conventional projection as the draft's No. 1 pick, the Jayhawks big man had the talent to be a generational player.
Kansas coach Bill Self felt that though Joel Embiid wasn't the conventional projection as the draft's No. 1 pick, the Jayhawks big man had the talent to be a generational player.Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

Embiid went to dinner that night with some Cavaliers decision-makers. While devouring three orders of chocolate lava cake, he lobbed all sorts of questions at the executives sitting across from him, from X's and O's to asking why the Cavaliers had retired jerseys hanging above their practice court. He cracked jokes. He was polite. He made eye contact. "He was radically more engaged than most kids who come in for those things," said one attendee. The Cavs were smitten.

The next morning, Embiid awoke in his hotel room with his right foot screaming. "I can't walk," he told Nyam. About a week earlier, Bismack Biyombo, a Hornets forward from the Congo who was repped by the same agency, had landed on the foot during a workout in Santa Monica. Embiid told his agents he "felt something." They had all assumed it was just a sprain or bruise, but now they feared that it was more serious. Embiid pulled himself out of bed, laced up his sneakers and limped into the Cleveland Clinic for his physical. He jogged on a treadmill for a few minutes, but the pain was too much. He underwent an X-ray. A thin stress fracture was discovered in the middle of his right foot.

The news began trickling out the next day. Sixers staffers, watching a draft workout from the sidelines that morning at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, were giddy as they passed the information along to one another. The team hadn't met with Embiid. But a few weeks earlier general manager Sam Hinkie had attended a workout put on by Embiid's agents in Santa Monica. He and his staff had also scouted enough of Embiid's games to recognize what it was that Griffin and the Cavaliers saw.

Later that day, Hinkie visited coach Brett Brown's office. "Embiid got injured in Cleveland today," he said. "He might be available to us (at No. 3)."

On June 20, six days before the draft, a surgeon at the Southern California Orthopedic Institute inserted two screws into Embiid's fractured navicular bone to meld the crack. Embiid's agent, Arn Tellem, released a statement from the operating doctor, Richard Ferkel: "The surgery went very well and I'm confident that after appropriate healing he will be able to return to NBA Basketball."

Former 76ers general manager liked Embiid in the 2014 draft but didn't think he'd have a chance to select him until news filtered out of Cleveland that Embiid had been diagnosed with a broken bone in his foot.
Former 76ers general manager liked Embiid in the 2014 draft but didn't think he'd have a chance to select him until news filtered out of Cleveland that Embiid had been diagnosed with a broken bone in his foot.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

That wasn't good enough for the Cavaliers. Griffin had a mandate from ownership to win and needed a player who could immediately help the team. Even if he wanted to take Embiid, the Cavaliers' doctors wouldn't give him the green light. The Bucks, meanwhile, had locked in on Parker, another Tellem client, at No. 2, and anyway, Embiid had no interest in playing there. "That place is corny," he told Nyam. What he really wanted was to fall to the Lakers at No. 7. He'd been living in Los Angeles and grown comfortable in the city. "Work your magic," he told Tellem. Tellem knew there was no chance of Embiid plunging that far, so instead he and Nyam sold Embiid on Philadelphia. Tellem had grown up there. Nyam had moved there to play high school basketball. It took a bit, but Embiid bought in.

If the Sixers wanted him, he was theirs.

    

Excerpted from Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports by Yaron Weitzman. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.


Yaron Weitzman joins The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss The Process, Sam Hinkie's Philly tenure, Brett Brown's tough gig, the Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons partnership and what their future may look like, as well as Philly's Finals prospects and the fates of Markelle Fultz, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel.

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