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Should the Rockets trade for Joel Embiid?

Could The Process be the cultivation of the Rockets’ process?

Houston Rockets v Philadelphia 76ers
Could Embiid be the next great Rockets big man?
Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets and the Philadelphia 76ers. Star-crossed lovers? Two vessels lost at sea, careening gradually to the same port to arrive at different times? Or two NBA teams who just have a lot of odd linkage to one another?

Morey. Harden. Tucker, House. Embiid.


Tanking. That’s what clinches it. It’s strange enough that Morey got the band back together. What’s especially fortuitous is that he did so on a team that had tanked to get to contention. The Rockets just underwent the biggest tank job since... the Sixers. In simple terms, the Sixers tanked for Joel Embiid.

Did the Rockets as well?

Rockets linked to Joel Embiid in rumors

In all likelihood, it’s much ado about nothing. Still, it’s officially in the rumor mill. Harden wants to be traded — that’s a fact. What follows is purely speculative. Still, it’s not hard to connect the dots. Harden’s trade value is in the toilet. The Sixers will probably trade him for Norman Powell and Marcus Morris Sr. Embiid isn't going to be happy about it.

He’ll probably be a New York Knick. Let’s be honest. Embiid probably wants to play in New York. He’s a showman, and the Garden is the biggest stage in the league. Unlike the Rockets, the Knicks control their draft into the immediate future. They can offer more draft capital, and draft capital reigns supreme.

Unless the Rockets make a Godfather offer. What would that look like?

What would the Rockets give up for Embiid?

A lot. Let’s try to be realistic here. This is the MVP. The Rockets would give up the farm.

Alperen Sengun is gone. So is Amen Thompson. Sengun’s fit with Embiid is obviously poor — it’s pure positional overlap. With that said, there’s proof of concept regarding Embiid and Thompson. Embiid spent the first several years of his career alongside Thompson’s most-used comparison. If he couldn’t play with Ben Simmons, why would he succeed with Thompson?

Sure, the comparison is imprecise. Thompson will likely be a better shooter than Simmons. He’s starting from a higher baseline, and in stark contrast to Simmons’ indifference, Thompson is obsessed with basketball. Still, the point holds — Thompson will likely always look to score inside first. So will Embiid. The dunker’s spot would be too crowded. It’s not a good fit.

So Sengun and Thompson. That’s not enough. The Rockets would have to send out one of Jabari Smith Jr. or Tari Eason as well. Smith Jr. probably makes more sense for both sides. If the Rockets trade for Embiid, they’re shifting into contention. At this moment, Eason is a more impactful NBA player than Smith Jr. Meanwhile, Smith Jr. may have more upside, which will matter more to the suddenly rebuilding Sixers.

OK. Sengun, Thompson, and Smith Jr. Kevin Porter Jr. has to go as well for salary matching purposes. Then, of course, the Rockets would have to send out every pick that they legally can with the Stepien rule in mind. So the deal probably looks something like this:

Philadelphia 76ers receive: G/F Kevin Porter Jr., F/C Jabari Smith Jr., G/F Amen Thompson, C Alperen Sengun, 2024 First-Round Pick (BKN via HOU), 2026 First-Round PIck (BKN via HOU), 2028 First-Round PIck (HOU)

Houston Rockets receive: C Joel Embiid

The Rockets may even have to send their 2030 first or swap rights in 2029. That’s a lot. I’m pretty much having a panic attack.

For me, moving Thompson is heartbreak. I love this kid. He’s a basketball genius with godly athleticism. Meanwhile, my reservations about building around Sengun are well-documented, but it’ll be extremely hard for large portions of the fanbase to say goodbye to him.

Is it worth it?

Should the Rockets trade for Embiid?

Full transparency: I’m leaning no, but it’s a soft no.

What are the Rockets left with? The starting lineup would likely be Embiid, Eason, Dillon Brooks, Green and VanVleet. The bench depth is weak — Cam Whitmore’s development is suddenly crucial. What about the starting lineup? Does that group contend for the NBA title?

Not without a huge leap from Green. With that said, I’m expecting a huge leap from Green. Count me among the faithful. If Green is an efficient 25-a-night guy, that should be a 50+ win team. It’s probably a contending team. By the same token, it’s probably not a championship team, either.

More than anything, the defense would be dramatically improved. Embiid is an elite rim protector — wait, what’s that? He may not be? (editor’s note: Embiid’s defense has always been overrated, which is why Olajuwon comparisons drive me nuts)

Look at that. Alperen Sengun and Joel Embiid — best friends forever. Side by side. Is Embiid even a better rim protector than Sengun?

Yes. C’mon. There are a couple of explanatory factors here. Firstly, P.J. Tucker lost his battle with Father Time this year. Embiid was defending alongside the corpse of a 6’4” power forward. More broadly, this feels like a case of energy conservation. Embiid is playing in the regular season with the postseason in mind.

Still, this is meaningful data. It tells us that Sengun is better at protecting the rim than — ahem — some of us might have thought. It may also tell us that Embiid is be a sub-elite rim protector. With that said, it’s a bit of a moot point anyway.

Stationary rim protectors get solved in the playoffs. Even Rudy Gobert gets solved. If you’re looking to build a playoff-proof defense, you need a switch big. Embiid is barbequed chicken with a twice-baked potato on the side when he’s defending in space. That’s a large part of why he hasn't made it out of the second round of the NBA playoffs yet.

Never mind all of that. We’re getting too granular. Is this how title teams are typically built?

Should the Rockets stay the course?

If you’ll pardon the most disgusting idiom in the English language, there are plenty of ways to skin a cat.

There’s no “way to build a champion”. If there was an infallible blueprint, everyone would follow it. With that said, this doesn't feel like the best model, does it?

Look at the Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors. These teams were built, not bought. The Los Angeles Lakers are an exception, but they rostered LeBron “The Exception” James. As a general rule, the best approach is to draft a core, see what works and who your best players are, and then start engineering trades around the vision that reveals itself.

That’s probably what the Rockets should do. That’s not to rule out the possibility of trading for a superstar down the line. Suppose that, in a few years, the Rockets are stuck around 40-45 wins. That would likely mean that a few of these guys look very good, but none of them look like a franchise player.

That’s the time to trade for a franchise player. Moreover, the Thunder picks will have conveyed. The Rockets will control their own draft again. That could allow them to hang onto more of their best players. Who knows? The Rockets could trade Jalen Green and five unprotected firsts for a disgruntled MVP winner in a few years. They don’t have five picks to trade at the moment, so to land Embiid, they’ve got to move several potential core players.

You can make the other case. Embiid just won MVP. He’s likely the best interior scorer in the NBA, and if nothing else, he’s a plus rim protector if you take a broader range of data than this one isolated season. He’ll make the Rockets instantly relevant again. I think the Rockets should pass, but if they do trade for Embiid this summer, I won’t bemoan a tragedy either.

At the end of the day, it’s all part of the Process.