I would like to take as my text the following message from a Sports Illustrated article: “76ers center Joel Embiid spoke to reporters in the aftermath of the team’s playoff exit on Sunday, and the league’s MVP appeared to have a message for his supporting cast. After criticizing his own play, Embiid urged his teammates to provide more help for himself and James Harden, saying that Philadelphia’s star tandem “can’t win alone.” “It’s going to take more than us. We all got to look at ourselves. I’ve got to be better and I will be better. That’s what I’m focused on. All of us, we’ve got to come back and find ways to just keep improving and help the team,” said Embiid. “Me and James, we just can’t win alone. That’s why basketball is played five-on-five. We just need everybody to try to keep finding ways to get better, and we’ll be fine.””
Is this a reasonable answer to a frustrating situation? On the one hand, it is obvious that basketball is a 5 on 5 game. Without ever having been particularly good at basketball, I have played a fair amount of it myself, especially in my late preteen and early teen years and in my early adulthood, where I played as a backup point guard and small forward for some pretty terrible teams. Without ever crowning myself with glory as a basketball player–I once played an entire season of basketball where I scored exactly two points on a single made basket on a play where I made an uncontested short jump shot in one of the games–I am at least somewhat familiar with the reality that there are five players on a court at a time and that winning requires that one group of players score more points during the game than the other group of players. That much is obvious. But is it fair that Joel Embiid say this?
Let us tackle this question in various ways. First, let me point out my own modest experience when it comes to playing on basketball teams. During that year where I made a single basket during the entire season of playing, in which I regularly played on the court and only attempted about five shots or so in total, our team was dominated by two players who were obviously the best players on our team and made the vast majority of shots between the two. Everyone else attempted (and made) very few shots and generally passed it around to try to draw the defense off of our two superstars, who were pretty mean-spirited about the rest of us and not at all appreciative of our modest athletic efforts. Needless to say, our team did not win a lot of games, but we did win sometimes, even with many of the games being 5 on 2 as opposed to the ideal 5 of 5 except for defense and passing. Had one of those two superstars said statements like, “we need everyone to try to keep finding ways to get better” to us, I know I for one would have replied that I would love to get better, but that means that we are going to need to take the time to develop some of the skills for the rest of us and not have two people hog the ball all of the time in practice and games and keep the rest of us from even being able to develop our shooting and ball-handling abilities.
Let us examine the salaries of the players of the Philadelphia 76ers to see if that team is in the same situation as my own teenage church league basketball squad, and thus whether it is just for Embiid to single out his teammates as needing to step up and get better. There are 11 players for the Philadelphia 76ers who are, as of right now, on contract for the team next season. Among these 11 players, three of them have player options, two of them have team options, and two have salaries that are not fully guaranteed. Among these salaries, Joel Embiid leads with $46.9M in guaranteed salary, followed by Tobias Harris with a bit over 39M guaranteed and James Harden with a player option for 35.64M. Together, the three of these players make almost 3/4 of the team’s salary, with the next most salary going to P.J. Tucker at 11M and backup guard De’Anthony Melton at 8 million not fully guaranteed. In such a light, it is not particularly just for Embiid to call out his teammates for their poor quality of play when he is being paid so much money to take the team on his back and lead them to championship contention. If he wanted to be surrounded by better teammates than the ones he has, he could certainly have offered his services at a bit of a discount so that the team could spend an extra few million dollars in salary space to get better role players, or he could encourage his team to get rid of that terribly unwise and massive salary to Tobias Harris, who really deserves to be called out for not pulling his weight given his massive salary, which comes off the books after next year. Calling out teammates who make 10% or less of what he makes seems particularly unjust, though.
What is one to do if one is a teammate of Embiid being called out for not being good enough to win? Does one keep quite and swallow one’s pride and chalk it up to Embiid just being frustrated after a difficult playoff loss? After all, anyone on the team who speaks up about Embiid being a bad teammate for calling out much lower paid teammates when he should be pulling his own weight is likely going to be cut or traded, and that is obviously not a step to be taken lightly. Are such statements where someone seeks to dominate a team when it comes to salary as well as gameplay the sort of thing that helps to poison a locker room or brand someone as being an out of touch, entitled superstar who demands to be paid as if they are the only people who matter on a team but then demand that everyone else play as well as they do? It is unlikely, of course, that anyone on a professional team is going to intentionally tank–such interests do not belong to players and coaches who want to win, but rather to owners and general managers who are more interested in the team making money and winning in the long term than putting the best team on the court or field every game or even every season. What do you all think about it?