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Joel Embiid, Cavs

What if the Cavs drafted Joel Embiid?

Cavs fans might know this: With three All-Star appearances and two All-NBA Second Team selections, Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid has established himself as one of the league’s best young players since being selected with the third overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. 

Despite his struggles with injuries which have persisted throughout his career, the 26-year old Cameroonian has proven to be a force on both ends once he is healthy and on the court. Alongside fellow All Star Ben Simmons, Embiid has helped the Sixers to three straight postseason appearances after Philadelphia missed the playoffs for five straight seasons. Even though former General Manager Sam Hinkie’s “process” had its detractors, the Sixers front office’s decision to select Embiid out of Kansas six years ago proved to be the right one. 

To date, Embiid and Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, who was selected in the second round with the 41st overall pick, are the only players from the 2014 draft class to be named as All Stars. It’s hard to imagine the man who calls himself “The Process” on a team other than the Sixers, whose fans have embraced the seven-foot big man. But there was a time when Embiid could have played for a team such as the Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks, or the Minnesota Timberwolves, which could have drastically altered his career and the fortunes of those franchises. 

In the 2014 NBA Draft, the Cavaliers had the first overall pick, which they used to select Embiid’s Kansas teammate Andrew Wiggins. The Bucks, meanwhile, used the second overall pick to select Jabari Parker out of Duke. At the time, the Cavaliers were reeling from the departure of LeBron James, who took his talents to South Beach and had won two titles with the Miami Heat. But Cleveland had an incredible stroke of luck, winning the first overall pick in the three of the next four drafts since James’ departure.

The Cavaliers first selected Kyrie Irving out of Duke in the 2011 Draft, and then used their first overall pick to select Anthony Bennett out of UNLV two years later. With Irving, Bennett, and fellow draftees Tristan Thompson, and Dion Waiters, the Cavaliers had a crop of young players that showed promise. With their latest first overall pick, they hoped to add Wiggins to that young core. It would take time and patience before they returned to their former status as contenders, but the team at least seemed to be headed in the right direction.

But everything changed on July 11, 2014, when James announced that he was returning to the Cavs. From exercising patience and focusing on the development of their young players, the goal was now to win a championship and maximize the four-time MVP’s prime years. A month after his return to Cleveland, Wiggins, Bennett, and a 2015 first round pick  were traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for forward Kevin Love, forming a Big Three between James, Irving, and Love. 

The Cavs would immediately return to contention after the trade, winning 53 games after a 33-win season. The team reached the 2015 NBA Finals, where they would lose to the Golden State Warriors before winning a championship and ending Cleveland’s 52-year sports title drought the following season.

The fact that the Cavs took home the Larry O’Brien Trophy just two years after James’ return justifies the move to trade Wiggins for Love. But would the trade still have happened if they had drafted Embiid instead?

Would the Cavs be willing to part ways with the big man, and would the Timberwolves still make the trade despite his injury history?

The Cavs actually came close to drafting the Cameroonian big man, as he emerged as the top pick in several reports and mock drafts in the weeks before the 2014 NBA Draft. Just days before the draft, Fear The Sword even referred to Embiid as the “best prospect available” in the draft and a “generational big man” with a higher ceiling than Wiggins and Parker. However, the main concern with Embiid is the one that has followed him from his days as a Jayhawk up until now, as he enters his fifth season of action as a Sixer: his health.

Then-Cavs General Manager David Griffin revealed years after the draft that it was injury concerns that ultimately prevented them from going first overall. A chapter from author Yaron Weitzman’s book Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports revealed that Embiid, in a show of confidence that fans have come to know and love, tried to convince Griffin to select him with the first overall pick after an impressive workout.

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.

Embiid, however, suffered a fractured navicular bone the day after his workout, and the Cavs’ doctors would not give them the green light to select the Kansas big man, and they instead went with Wiggins. While he was impressive in his first couple of seasons in the NBA, even bagging the Rookie of the Year Award after his first season, Embiid is now clearly a better player than his college teammate.

However, the navicular bone injury that he suffered before the draft also prevented Embiid from playing in his first two seasons. By the time Embiid made his NBA debut on October 26, 2016, the Cavs had already won a title with James, Irving, and Love, and it’s unlikely that his injury-plagued early seasons would have fit their win-now mode. Two years after he was drafted by the Sixers and Embiid was able to play 31 games, putting up an impressive 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 2.5 blocks, shooting 46.6% from the field and 36.7% from beyond the arc.

From there, the big man would only improve, becoming an All Star and helping Philadelphia to playoff appearances in the next three seasons. Drafting and keeping Embiid would have required the Cavs to exercise patience that the Sixers had more of, but it would have also given them a player who is younger and had a higher ceiling than Love, who, despite remaining productive, is six years older than Embiid. 

Joel Embiid would have also fit well alongside James and Irving, as he is a big man who can score inside and space the floor like Love while also giving the Cavs a rim protector, averaging 1.8 blocks per game in his career.

But ultimately, Griffin and the Cavs’ front office went with a player with less injury concerns and traded him to get an established star on that fateful night six years ago. Winning a title justifies their trade for Love a month after James’ return to Cleveland, but the possibility of taking a generational big man in Embiid and developing him alongside Irving remains a fascinating possibility that could have altered the futures of different teams and reshaped the Eastern Conference.