The noxious preemptive smugness from the Sam Hinkie acolytes is a bit rich, but the Sixers appear to have set themselves up well. Lottery picks abound: the best point guard prospect since Kyrie Irving, a uniquely talented creative forward, a Rookie of the Year runner-up (if slightly fraudulent), and Construction Paper Hakeem Olajuwon. (And, uh, Jahlil Okafor.) They’ve made a few nice veteran acquisitions—massively (but kind of smartly) overpaying for a year of J.J. Redick, taking on the last year of Amir Johnson’s deal, and locking down two seasons of decent backup point guardery from Jerryd Bayless—so as to ensure they’re a bona fide NBA team rather than a collection of multimillionaire college kids.
The Process was always overblown in terms of its ingenuousness. Philly lost a lot of games and drafted a lot of players who are supposed to be good. We’re still not sure yet, with most of them. But the Sixers are as un-theoretical as they’ve been since the days when Doug Collins was failing to figure out how to get through to Evan Turner. They intend to win this year, which feels like a radical notion at this deep stage of their rebuild. It’s like they’ve been cleaning themselves with dryer sheets for the past four years and now soap and water seems like a weird extravagance.
Despite their pivot toward genuinely competing, the Sixers remain fitfully difficult to discuss because everything about them is conditional. It’s easy to forget—because hype is the opposite of forever—that Ben Simmons was a huge deal coming out of high school. But then he had an underwhelming season on a bad LSU team, then broke his right foot and sat out a year, and now what? It’s totally possible that Simmons’s play at LSU wasn’t indicative of him not being as good as advertised. Even great college players can underwhelm if they have an inept coach and so-so teammates. But what about the foot? He’s six-foot-ten. Foot injuries are dicey stuff with short guys; they’re downright concerning when they happen to Simmons-sized players. And there’s the fact that he can’t shoot yet, or perhaps won’t ever be able to shoot. That has to be dealt with. Until we get sixty-five professional games out of Simmons, he’s the biggest mystery in the league. Predicting him as a flop would be egregiously unfair, but so would assuming that he’s going to be Joel Embiid’s sidekick when the Sixers win the title in 2022. He’s too unusual and, until now, has been too unlucky to be counted on.
There are doubts about Markelle Fultz, too, who is presumably going to be running the offense alongside Simmons, who’s basically a point forward? That’s a dynamic that needs to be worked out. The Celtics leaking to the press that they traded out of the first pick of last year’s draft because they genuinely didn’t like Fultz scans as Danny Ainge-ian PR spin, but it’s true that Fultz isn’t Chris Paul when it comes to commanding a team. He’s a quieter guy, which is probably fine, but if you look at the various franchise players around the league—Paul, LeBron, Durant, Westbrook, Wall, etc.—they’re strong personalities, if not perfect leaders. You don’t need to look everybody straight in the eye when you’re talking to them to score twenty points a game and drop nine assists, but there is a correlation between the two. Fultz is also nineteen. He might become more outgoing as he ages into adulthood.
Really, unless Fultz and Simmons are both face-meltingly awesome, the ultimate success of this venture depends upon Joel Embiid. If you want an indication of how confident Sixers brass are about their incredible-when-he’s-healthy center staying on the court, they have given us a definitive and unambiguous kinda in signing Embiid to a thirty-five page max extension that the team can get out of if Embiid misses twenty-five regular season games in a year or plays fewer than 1,650 minutes due to problems with his feet and/or back. It’s keen accounting—no franchise wants to be stuck in a Brandon Roy situation—but speaks in many commas about how up in the air Embiid’s career is after playing just thirty-one games in three years.
You can play around in your head with whatever combination of scenarios you can fathom to project the Sixers’ future. Maybe Simmons is just the playmaking partner Fultz needs and they’ll play off of each other perfectly. Maybe Fultz has a rough rookie year and a breakout sophomore one. Maybe Embiid doesn’t suffer anything worse than a rolled ankle this season. Or maybe he’s Greg Oden. This is fine barroom philosophy, as far as it goes, and it fills column inches, but there are factors influencing factors influencing factors here, and this is the time of year when the hypotheticals get to be too much and we welcome the blessed sanity actual basketball provides. The Sixers are very nearly about to be real, and not a moment too soon. A little late, to be honest.
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