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Joel Embiid may be playing too well for Philadelphia’s own good

Nov 22, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) goes up for a shot during the fourth quarter of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Wells Fargo Center. The Philadelphia 76ers won the game 101-81. Mandatory Credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports
John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid is playing more than anyone expected; the Philadelphia 76ers must be thrilled.

Joel Embiid is playing more than anyone expected; the Philadelphia 76ers may have a problem.

Heading into Saturday’s game against Orlando, Embiid is averaging 29.3 minutes per game, up from 25.4 in his rookie season. After never reaching 30 minutes in a game last season, he has already surpassed the mark six times this year, including five of his past seven games, as the 76ers’ staff feels more confident in his conditioning and overall health.

Most encouragingly, the big man has appeared in 15 of Philadelphia’s 17 games this season. Following a rookie year when Embiid’s lack of availability led to Malcolm Brogdon and his 10.2 points and 4.2 assists per game backing into the Rookie of the Year Award, Joel being on the court as much as possible is cause for celebration for both NBA fans and the 76ers.

With one important caveat.

Embiid’s historically unique five-year extension, signed in October, included the super-max provision. As a result, Embiid would receive an additional $30 million (approximately $6 million per season) if he won MVP or was selected to one of the three All-NBA teams this season. Even the most Process-trusting 76ers fan wouldn’t make an MVP argument for Embiid, but with All-NBA teams still including a center designation, one of those three slots is within the realm of possibility for him.

Embiid’s increased playing time has shifted the way 76ers fans talk about his production; rather than using per-36 numbers, they can simply reference his per-game figures. Among players designated as a center by NBA.com, Embiid is currently fourth in points per game (22.7), 10th in rebounding (11.0), and 4th in blocks (1.9). The 76ers have always been dramatically better defensively with Embiid on the court, and the advanced statistics this season help paint a picture as to why. He has the second-most defensive win shares among centers, trailing only Al Horford, and opponents are shooting 8.7 percent worse against Embiid, the fourth-best mark among centers.

While Embiid playing well enough (and staying healthy enough) to garner an All-NBA selection would obviously be a tremendous development for the franchise, that extra $6 million per year could throw a monkey wrench into a salary cap situation that has been carefully mentioned by the organization.

General manager Bryan Colangelo reached terms earlier this month on a creative contract extension with Robert Covington, leaving the team with enough cap space to sign a free agent at the 25 percent max level (someone with 0-6 years experience). The 76ers could also move Jerryd Bayless, who will be making $8.5M next season in the final year of his deal, and go after a 30 percent max-level player (7-9 years experience); Avery Bradley has been often linked to the 76ers in this range.

Finally, if the team made some hard choices to move Richaun Holmes, T.J. McConnell, Furkan Korkmaz, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, they could scrape together just enough space to make the pie-in-the-sky vision of bringing Ben Simmons’ Klutch Sports mentor, LeBron James, to Philadelphia a reality.

All of those options would be severely hindered by Embiid having an additional $30 million tacked onto his deal. However, even with his strong play thus far (46 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, and seven blocks, anyone?), there is still plenty of competition for those three All-NBA center slots.

Al Horford is the defensive fulcrum of a Boston team with the league’s best record. DeMarcus Cousins is putting up video game numbers; he and Anthony Davis have the Pelicans in position for a playoff berth in a crowded Western Conference. Marc Gasol has been a steady presence for a Memphis Grizzlies team where everything else is falling apart around him. Nikola Jokic remains an analytics darling.

A nebulous power forward/center — Davis, Kristaps Porzingis, or Draymond Green — could slide into one of those spots. In the end, there is still about 80 percent of the season remaining and any number of injuries, breakouts, and slumps are bound to happen.

Joel Embiid making an All-NBA team could cost the 76ers a max-level free agent.

Joel Embiid making an All-NBA team means the 76ers would have an All-NBA center.

There are worse problems.

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