It’s telling that the Philadelphia 76ers—whose 28 wins last season represented a four-year high—pop up so frequently on the NBA’s calendar of marquee games for next seasons. On opening week, the Sixers will take to ESPN to play the Washington Wizards, a gauge of Philly’s playoff hopes. Come Christmas Day, Joel Embiid will go toe to toe with Kristaps Porzingis as the Sixers help launch one of the biggest events on the NBA schedule. Philadelphia is now seen, quite fairly, as a team of consequence—not just one good enough to warrant a showcase among the league’s better teams, but one with the star power necessary to entertain a national audience.
Embiid, by and large, is the man responsible. There would be plenty of excitement around the Sixers were they headlined by back-to-back No. 1 picks Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons. That they’ll play with Embiid sends Philadelphia to a different level entirely. The sample for Embiid last season was limited but conclusive. This is a star. A without-a-doubt centerpiece when he takes the court; a prolific scorer despite double and triple-teams; a monster defender who rated as one of the league’s best rim protectors; and a new-order revelation with ball skills beyond what should be possible for a seven-footer. The entire philosophy behind the Sixers’ long game under Sam Hinkie was to secure a franchise-altering talent. Embiid looks to be one, so long as he’s able to play consistently.
That will always be the catch with Embiid until he proves otherwise. So it goes with players who play 31 games in three years, even if that total might be somewhat deflated from some end-of-season “rest” on Embiid’s way back from injury. Still, it’s the momentum of the Sixers that made them intriguing to a coveted free agent like J.J. Redick. It’s his presence that vaults a young team into plausible contention for a solid seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Philadelphia has turned over its roster almost completely since its worst tanking days, returning just five players who logged a minute for the team even two years ago. This is a fresh start. It did not come without cost, but in time all those high draft picks and opportunistic trades delivered just the sort of core Philly needed.
Next comes the practical reality. It’s one thing to evaluate these players conceptually, but quite another to fit together how they might play winning basketball this season. Embiid dominated the ball in the post last season, largely out of necessity. That will have to change; initiation of the offense will largely fall to Simmons and Fultz, though in what proportion remains an open question. Sixers coach Brett Brown has made clear that he sees Simmons as a literal point guard. “When I say ‘point guard,’ I mean ‘point guard,’” Brown told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski back in April. “You know, who takes the ball out of bounds, who receives the ball when the ball goes in the basket, who brings it up the floor after a free throw. I’m not talking about Draymond, I’m not talking about LeBron, you know, I’m talking about a point guard.”
Fultz could pop playing off of that kind of creator, though doing so will demand adjustment. Same for Embiid; there is simply no room for Embiid to replicate his 36% usage—a Westbrookian figure—with next year’s roster. Simmons may be a pass-first player, but he does not share in T.J. McConnell’s almost comical shot-aversion. Philadelphia’s point guard rotation will have evolved for the better, but not without thrusting Embiid into a completely different dynamic from what he grew accustomed to last season. It took time for Embiid, who is still relatively green to basketball in general, to feel out team concepts last season. He has the moves, clearly; Embiid relishes nothing more than going from move to counter to counter as his defender flails toward every fake. Yet part of being a star is reading the floor like one, down to understanding how nine other players interact in their constant state of flux.
Embiid is still getting there. At times last season he was still a bit reluctant to pass, though between his teammates’ poor shooting and his immediate success, who could blame him? What’s more important is that any changes to Embiid’s usage and role at this point could be material to his understanding of the game. The geometry of his spots should change radically as the Sixers flank Embiid with more capable players—including, for the first time in his career, those who can actually draw attention away from him.
The dividends of this could be profound, but not without the work of making them so. Fultz and Simmons will need to figure out who they are as NBA players while they determine who they are to the Sixers. Redick, who played his last four seasons with the same core in Los Angeles, will need to learn the tendencies of a younger (and fundamentally different) group of teammates. Gone are the Blake Griffin hand-offs and Chris Paul bullseyes. In are the kick-outs from Embiid post-ups and Simmons’s whirling drives to the rim.
All of which is to say that for however exciting the Sixers might seem, they first must flesh out their chemistry and approach. That takes time, as does the education of two big-minute rookies and the synthesis of what is a young team, through and through. Beyond the starters, Philadelphia will rely on Dario Saric, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Justin Anderson, Richaun Holmes, and Nik Stauskas—none of whom have more than three years of NBA experience. Veterans can adapt quickly to their changing circumstances because of their experience playing in different contexts. Not so for many of the Sixers, who will be playing for a fully functional team for the first time in their NBA careers.
Give the Sixers time. This season is a payoff for years of losing and, before that, years of mediocrity. It has been nearly two decades since Philadelphia put together a product this compelling. Any fulfillment of that promise, still, can only come gradually. The East is so accommodating at present that it allows the Sixers to vie for a playoff spot even as they take critical steps toward establishing the foundation of their team.
Do not mistake that opening for anything other than what it is. Philadelphia remains on a longer path, one with allowance of the fact that teams this young almost never defend well. It is understood that the Sixers’ rookies might at some point hit a wall. Minutes at this stage can be invested in players like Luwawu-Cabarrot or Anderson strictly in the hope of what they might become. All caution can be taken with Embiid’s health—whether through when or how much he plays—because the Sixers can afford to take it slow. Rare are these cases when a franchise has transformational talent in hand but no actual cause for pressure. The only real stakes for the Sixers this season are those they decide for themselves.