Just a few weeks ago, it wasn’t even a question that the Cleveland Cavaliers had begun to consider. Now, it is of central importance to a decision that can transform the franchise for the next decade.
What impact does Joel Embiid‘s back injury have on the Cavaliers’ decision to draft him with the first overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft?
In fact, every team near the top of the draft is asking themselves this exact question. But with each pick that goes by on June 26, the issue shrinks a little. There seems to be a consensus top three players on most teams’ draft boards (Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, and Jabari Parker), with the order of their selections still to be decided, and if Wiggins and Parker are the top two selections, the risk of selecting Embiid would lower for the Philadelphia 76ers.
But for Cleveland, everything hinges on Embiid’s medical evaluation. Embiid, a former volleyball player who took up the sport of basketball in 2010, missed the Big 12 Tournament and March Madness due to a stress fracture in his back. But if he is physically healthy, and likely to remain that way, it would be hard for any team to pass on the opportunity to draft the high-character, hard-working, incredibly talented, legitimate 7-footer with quick feet and the potential to be a franchise player on both ends of the floor.
For a lesson from history, Cleveland fans can look back at the 2007 NBA Draft for a glimpse of the decision that the team is about to make. Just seven years ago, the Portland Trail Blazers were put in an almost identical situation, having to choose between a potential franchise center with some health concerns, and a potential franchise small forward.
The Trail Blazers went ahead and selected Greg Oden despite his previous injuries and the fact that his one leg was shorter than the other. Oden went on to play just 82 games for Portland, and after three years away from basketball is now attempting to resurrect his career on the bench of Miami.
His counterpart just won the MVP, is a perennial scoring champion, and has consistently led his team deep into the playoffs. How badly do Portland fans wish for Kevin Durant?
That being said, it’s not likely that Embiid will have a career like Oden, just as it is not likely that Wiggins or Parker will ever reach the level of brilliance that Durant has. But this is still the same basic decision that the Cavaliers have set before them: What is an appropriate risk factor when dealing with the subject of health?
Leading up to the draft lottery, many were anticipating that Embiid’s representatives would not allow individual team doctors to perform their own physical examination. Rather, they would give the teams at the top of the draft copies of an independent medical evaluation. If this ends up being the case, Embiid is simply not an option for the Cavaliers. It’s far too big of a risk to draft a player who has medical concern without having your own doctors perform a physical.
Embiid will have to undergo extensive evaluation by #Cavs, sources say. Team will not rely on independent evaluation.
— Sam Amico (@SamAmicoFSO) May 23, 2014
ESPN reported on Wednesday that Cleveland is in the process of arranging a workout with Embiid, and are rumored to be conducting their own physical. If a red flag is raised during the physical, it will be an easy decision to move on to Wiggins or Parker. But if Embiid checks out as physically healthy, he could have a much larger impact than the type that Cleveland hoped to receive when signing Andrew Bynum.
Embiid could be a foundational defensive player (90.9 Defensive Rating last year) for a team that struggles on that side of the ball; and is offensively skilled enough to score easily (shot 63.9 percent during his year at Kansas), draw double teams, and open up shooting and slashing lanes for the likes of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters … and that doesn’t even mention his rebounding (20.5 percent total rebounding … similar to Dwight Howard‘s 20.1 percent this year in Houston) and shot blocking (2.6 blocks in 23.1 minutes a game) abilities.
Almost any way you slice it, it feels as if the Cavaliers’ backs are against the wall (injury pun!), and that they will either sink or swim (cliche alert!) as a franchise based on this one decision.