The Long Two: The 76ers win big with Joel Embiid, Grizzlies take another swing

Memphis Grizzlies, NBA, Philadelphia 76ers

This week on The Long Two, the Grizzlies take low-risk fliers on two potential reclamation projects and Joel Embiid continues a superstar trend.

While most of the NBA spent the last month working at a frenetic pace, the Memphis Grizzlies operated slowly and under the radar. Over the course of the last four days, Memphis used two subsequent trades to effectively turn Eric Bledsoe, whom it took on last month in the deal that sent Jonas Valanciunas to New Orleans for Steven Adams and a 2022 first-round pick, into Jarrett Culver, Juan Hernangomez, Daniel Oturu, Rajon Rondo (who seems unlikely to start next season in Memphis).

None of their moves this offseason drastically changed the Grizzlies’ immediate or long-term trajectory, but progress is often made on the margins, and with a franchise cornerstone already in place, Memphis has turned its focus to taking as many swings as possible on potential rotation players to place around Ja Morant.

The Memphis Grizzlies are looking for wins around the margins

When judged on their upside, none of Memphis’ new acquisitions were particularly inspiring, but given their minimal downside risk involved, these were smart fliers to take on potential rotation players. Culver and Hernangomez each flatlined in their previous stops and were both reportedly disgruntled by the end of their time in Minnesota. For virtually no cost the Grizzlies took on the opportunity to revitalize two young careers without compromising future flexibility or short-term success. In a best-case scenario, Memphis will have added adequate shooting and secondary playmaking on affordable contracts; if Culver and Hernangomez don’t pan out, it will be no more or less consequential to their long-term outlook than if the Grizzlies had simply kept Bledsoe around.

Though his shot has waxed and waned throughout his five-year career, the 25-year-old Hernangomez has, at times, been a valuable floor spacer in the frontcourt. At 6-foot-9, he has a high, quick release, and if his accuracy rebounds after a down year, his ability to shoot on the move could help replace some of what Grayson Allen provided off the bench last season. Culver, whom the Timberwolves drafted sixth overall in 2019, is likely to be more of a long-term project. The 22-year-old struggled to find any kind of offensive rhythm in Minnesota and was arguably worse in his second season than he was as a rookie. Still, a player with Culver’s length and ball skills offers at least the possibility of solid two-way play, and Memphis should prove a better environment for him to develop as a shooter, defender and decision-maker.

The Wolves, meanwhile, are stuck somewhere between a rebuild and win-now mode. They have a star under contract, and thus pressure to win right away, but no clear pathway toward meaningful improvement. The team’s failure to surround Karl-Anthony Towns with sufficient offensive personnel, combined with Towns’ own defensive limitations and a lack of coaching or player continuity, has kept Minnesota at or near the bottom of the Western Conference for the last three seasons, and the Wolves have effectively tied themselves to Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards as the team’s nucleus.

If the goal is to win more games next season, Beverley is undoubtedly more useful than Culver or Hernangomez, but still not the kind of player who drastically changes a team’s outlook. He’ll help shore up Minnesota’s point of attack defense — a needed addition after Ricky Rubio was traded to Cleveland — but how much is that worth without adequate defensive infrastructure behind him? He should improve the Wolves’ floor spacing but still leaves them wanting for a high-end primary ball-handler.

Joel Embiid continues trend of superstar extensions

Joel Embiid’s monster four-year, $196 million extension this week made him, conservatively, the fourth top-10 player in the NBA to commit multiple years to his incumbent team this offseason. He joins Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard in signing massive new agreements (not to mention Jimmy Butler, a player just a cut below the superstar tier whose four-year, $184 million extension may not be so team-friendly by the time it expires), and marks another step in a trend of the NBA’s best players largely bypassing free agency and signing extensions before they hit the open market.

Superstars have never had more reason to sign these kinds of deals; the NBA’s upper class is making more money than ever before, yet still have the leverage to request (or demand) trade if they’d rather be in better situations. Because their incumbent franchises can offer more than any other team, it makes perfect sense that a superstar would lock in the maximum allowable sum of money, then decide where they’d like to play out that contract. That isn’t to say any of these players are bound for other teams, only that they can always keep the option on the table without sacrificing their earning power.

Yet despite stars having the upper hand in today’s transactional landscape, these sorts of deals still make perfect sense for the teams, who not only retain the best players in the world at artificially capped rates but gain directional clarity. A team constructed around Embiid, or Curry, or any other elite player, has a certain identity that isn’t replicable without that player. With a superstar on your roster, it becomes far easier to identify other needs and assess how complementary players might fit into a system around him.

Though his teams haven’t reached quite the heights Curry, Durant and Leonard’s have, Embiid clearly falls into that superstar category, having ascended to a level of dominance only a handful of centers have ever touched. He’s perhaps the most devastating two-way force in the league right now — at once a prolific scorer and an All-Defense-caliber rim protector — and has sustained a high level of play through multiple postseasons. Throughout his career, no matter what the personnel around him, the Sixers have consistently destroyed teams with Embiid on the floor and fallen into the abyss without him.

Even when considering his injury history and risk of future ailments, that’s a player worth keeping around at any cost (unlike his 2017 rookie extension, Embiid’s new deal is fully guaranteed and contains no protections against future injuries). The Sixers still have business left to resolve this offseason, but retaining Embiid alone constitutes a successful offseason. Like the Warriors, Nets and Clippers, their biggest move of the summer was simply keeping their superstar around, fully confident in where he can lead them.

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