Embiid shows why he remains the ‘crown jewel’
PHILADELPHIA >> It had been less than 48 hours since the 76ers had become newer, better and more complete, and Brett Brown was already prepared to call the most important play in his headcoaching career. Finally fit with a starting five capable of matching up with any in the sport, he knew it would work only with one stipulation. So it would be, essentially voluntarily, out loud and on TV that Brown ordered this entry pass: “Joel Embiid is still the crown jewel. Everybody should hear that.”
Everybody had to, including Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler, including Ben Simmons and JJ Redick, all of whom lack the one thing that Embiid has and more: A long-term financial commitment from the Sixers. The contracts of Butler, Harris and Redick will expire at the end of this season. Simmons is signed through
2021, at which point he will be a restricted free agent in search of generational wealth.
That means that, for the next couple of months, Brown will be called to do the one task that separates the NBA requirements from the rest of those in the coaching profession. He will be made to find shots for star-level players who know, and whose agents remind them daily, that scoring is the only sure way to the elusive
$190,000,000 contract. For days, Brown has been reciting the expected script, encouraging his newer lineup to maximize the sudden opportunity to work together and win a championship. There is some of that in play. Winning is a nice fringe benefit of the job, and the way the NBA has been allowed to rot, only a certain few teams will have that opportunity. But when he made it clear that Embiid is already in the $33 million a year club and is committed to the Sixers
On the schedule
through 2023, it seemed to be directed right into the belly of the locker room. It’s Embiid’s team. Any confusion?
“It’s a good dilemma,” Brown said Sunday, before a 143-120 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. “When you’ve got talent, and you’ve got multiple targets, everybody rightfully says, ‘How’s this going to work? How is everybody going to eat?’ Some of that is on the team, figuring each other out. And a lot of it is on me, declaring roles, and how I see the design of the team. And I see it through that lens: Joel Embiid is still our crown jewel.
“I said it because I mean it,” he added. “It’s not any sort of off-sided message to the room or to you (the press). It is what it is within this topic. So I said it for those reasons.”
It was his best play. It was his only play. Already, Butler has been known to have challenged some of his offensive philosophies in private. He will want to be paid at the end of the season, and the Sixers have to consider that strongly if only to recover their investment of Robert Covington and Dario Saric for his rights. One reason Harris was available is because he soon can go free. His camp, it has been reputed, is ever aware of his shot volume. Redick, who will be 35 next season, already is at the one-yearat-a-time stage of his career. But he is shooting at a level where he will rate another $10,000,000-plus deal somewhere. And Simmons, who long has been known to favor what is best for Simmons, absolutely will receive a max contract soon, if not in Philadelphia, then somewhere of his camp’s choosing.
And what was he doing, anyway, asking Magic Johnson for point-guard advice?
Sunday, everything meshed for the Sixers, delighting a crowd eager to heckle LeBron James, who barely sniffed at Josh Harris’ generous offer to make the Sixers his team. For that, as Brown has made it clear, the team belongs to Embiid, whose MVP candidacy was boosted with his 37 point, 14-rebound performance in a nationally telecast showpiece event.
He was the crown jewel, even if he was not real quick afterward to embrace the notion.
“Our culture was built on sharing the ball, and making sure the ball gets through everybody’s hands,” Embiid said. “If they need me, or if the play is broken down, that’s where I come in. But really my job is to make sure that we are sharing the ball.”
That’s the plan. But what happens when the new-car smell is gone? What happens when so many unsigned stars begin to sense that a fourstar, one-basketball lineup can affect their numbers … those in the box scores, those in the bank accounts? What happens after the first two-game losing streak? What happens the first time another star demands to be the franchise gem?
“I think there’s no mystery any more about whether Jimmy Butler can score, or if Tobias can score, or if JJ can shoot,” Brown said. “They can do it. Their runs are on the board. And so the intellect, the character of this team that can buy into this notion is everything. And when you win, those things take care of themselves, I have learned and completely believe.”
There are examples of that. The Golden State Warriors have been known to lob a complaint or two toward Steve Kerr. And they win. But Brown faces a tough situation with so much star-power looking not just to win on the court, but in the freeagency race. For that, he has set one rule: There is one crown jewel. Not two. Not five.
Joel Embiid, left, the one and only crown jewel of the talented Sixers according to head coach Brett Brown, bodies up Sunday on the Lakers’ Brandon Ingram, center, with some help from Jimmy Butler.