- Despite falling to the Wizards in the season opener, it was a positive sign to see the 76ers core finally on the court together.
We the people have pined a rather long time for the Philadelphia 76ers, and, well, here we are. With the sheer force of a million fiery takes at their backs, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz stepped onto a basketball court together for the first time, appreciably in decent health as the Process, well, processed. A baby’s first steps only mean something if someone is watching, and the Sixers were gifted a golden opportunity to make them count, making the short trip down to D.C. to take a shot at a very tough Wizards team on opening night.
And it wasn’t bad! The Sixers looked like a team put together with purpose, playing the Wiz acceptably close until John Wall happened in the third quarter. They made another run in the fourth with Embiid resting, and then John Wall happened again. After cutting the lead to two with a minute left, and J.J. Redick missing a game-tying three on the last big possession, the final score was 120–115, Wizards. Also, the game’s leading scorer was…Robert Covington, who had 29, and made seven threes. At long last, we have an idea of what this looks like, and it looks like fun.
To the benefit of all involved, it’s already become clear that Joel Embiid needs to be the big dog here. That said, for a guy who thinks his minutes limit is f—ing bull, he didn’t look all that ready to get up and down. Although there were some very mixed jumper results, the overall offensive flashes make it obvious that Embiid’s talent is completely real—after all, he managed 18 points and 13 rebounds in 27 minutes (a great outcome).
He started the game by almost doing this:
And can make plays like this:
And, he’s also enormous on defense like this:
And these good things all happened somewhat in spite of the fact that the Sixers didn’t run a whole lot of anything for him. As Embiid’s conditioning improves and everyone grows more secure with the state of his fragile health, you figure he’ll operate more around the basket and less as a pick-and-pop guy, a role he can capably play, but which devalues a lot of the physical gifts that should make him great. He’ll get there.
It’s also worth noting how much the offense opened up without Embiid on the floor enabling more versatile looks and helping the Sixers cut the game close in the fourth. Covington’s two-way ability is for real, J.J. Redick spaces the floor as well as anyone, and Dario Saric is an opportunistic secondary playmaker who keeps the ball moving and should grow into that role well. There’s plenty of potential for Philly to play effective small-ball during the large chunks of time when Embiid rests. It’s due almost entirely to Ben Simmons.
The scouting report on the large, playmaking Australian is well-known and looked pretty damn accurate as he made his debut to the tune of 18 points, 10 boards and five assists. Simmons is too much for most teams to handle whenever he gets a full head of steam, which mostly comes in transition. He’ll almost always be the one initiating offense when he’s in the game, his size and strength as a ball-handler are immediately apparent.
When he grabs the ball and pushes in transition, defenses naturally collapse. The Sixers have smartly surrounded him with canny passers and three-point threats (the team made 15 threes at a nearly 43% clip) and should be able to derive offense out of his freelancing all season. Although Simmons is no threat as a jump shooter and has been largely unwilling to even try it, relying on floaters and hook shots when attacking in the half-court, get him a step toward the basket and he’s still a lot to deal with.
It’s inevitable defenses will start hedging even harder beneath Simmons ball screens, but when you have the 7-foot Embiid screening for him, there’s not a ton anyone can do. Rookie of the Year is well within reach here, and Lonzo notwithstanding, it might not end up that close of a race. Perhaps most impressively, he only had one turnover.
While we’re talking rookies, Markelle Fultz came off the bench and had some nice moments, improving as the game went on and making nifty plays in traffic. Like Simmons, he needs to attack downhill with the ball to get comfortable, and Philly’s decision to stagger a lot of their minutes and let both of them handle it makes a lot of sense. It also makes sense because neither of them seems particularly into the idea of taking jumpers.
If Fultz is a reserve all year, that’s perfectly okay for everyone’s development — it’s probably to his benefit that he can be the third guy this season. Embiid’s already a serious topic of discussion, the top-pick spotlight will fall on Simmons, and Fultz should be able to figure things out with relatively minimal pressure for a guy who went first overall. We will hope his injured shoulder isn’t serious, and that he fixes this not-so-great free throw motion.
Even in the desolate East, it’s foolhardy to think as far ahead as the playoffs, but development phases for promising teams are about living in the moment. Philly’s defense remains under construction, at times the floor was imbalanced and the spacing awkward, but credit Brett Brown for fielding a very young, very new team that seems to have a strong understanding of how its pieces fit into roles.
There are a billion variables here and it’s day one of the season, but the tantalizing wave of what the Sixers might become will be worth riding out pass or fail. The shape of their arc isn’t clear yet, but the present appears sunny and validating. After one night, that’s all anyone can really ask for.