Come the early summer of 2012, 76ers coach Brett Brown could have been forgiven for thinking he had borne witness to the dawn of a new NBA dynasty. He was an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs then, and the league's model of long-term excellence was up two games on the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Final and seemingly cruising to a matchup with the LeBron James-led Miami Heat. Over the series' next four games, though, the Thunder's core trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden left the Spurs looking slow and old, as if Tim Duncan's and Tony Parker's time had passed. Four games, four OKC wins, and even after the Thunder's five-game loss to the Heat, this had the feeling of a changing of the guard in the West.
The feeling didn't last. Reluctant to sign Harden to a lengthy contract extension, the Thunder traded him that off-season to the Rockets. Four years later, still desperate to be fitted for his first championship ring, Durant signed with the Warriors, and sure enough, he got his Jostens moment. The last man standing was Westbrook, the reigning NBA MVP, and the Thunder's attempt to find another "big three" to ride to a title hasn't exactly gone according to plan so far this season. OKC traded for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, yet its record ahead of Friday's game against the Sixers is a blah 13-14.
The Thunder's lineup, with two ball-dominant players in Westbrook and Anthony, seems ill-fitting, the style of play clunky, when the trio are on the floor together. Whatever designs OKC had on challenging the Warriors for supremacy in the West appear a pipe dream, especially with the way Harden, Chris Paul, and the Rockets have elevated themselves. These grand goals and underwhelming results should, if nothing else, serve as a reminder to the Sixers of how tricky it can be to construct the core of a championship-caliber team.
The Thunder tried to build one organically, drafting Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. Now, OKC has gone the mercenary route, trading for establish superstars in George and Anthony. The Sixers have used that first template: Joel Embiid in 2014, Ben Simmons in 2016, Markelle Fultz this year. The question isn't whether the former method is better than the latter, or vice versa. It's, have you found three players who can cohere among themselves and with a decent supporting cast?
"It always comes back, like everything else in life, to people," Brown said after the Sixers practiced Thursday. "It's people. Can you coexist? Can you find some selfless way to truly want something that's bigger than yourself? There's no book that tells you how to do that, and I think it comes with stages of people's lives at times, and some of it, you have to grow like we're trying. But you blink, and in two or three years, we're still going to say it's about people. Does Markelle want to share the limelight with Joel? Does Joel want to share the limelight with Ben? How do people live with each other and coexist?"
These are the questions that will define the Sixers and their fortunes for the next several years, and the answers, at the moment, are unknown, mostly for one reason: Fultz's absence. Even with Embiid's injury history, even with Simmons' aversion to shooting from beyond 10 feet, the talent and promise in those two players is obvious. If they remain healthy, they will be great.
The wild card is Fultz. His mysterious shoulder ailment has limited him to four games and, from his reluctance to take a jump shot to his Erector-set free-throw-shooting motions, has everyone wondering what sort of player he'll be when he returns.
"It's always on my mind," Brown said. "At some point, we hope soon, we're going to absorb him back into the program. So I walk two lines. One is getting stuff done now, taking the group we have now, and growing Ben and Joel, and when we get Markelle back, continuing to absorb him into the fabric of growing those three guys together."
Fultz hasn't appeared in a game in nearly two months, and part of Brown's charge – and really, a responsibility of the Sixers' entire roster and coaching staff – is to make sure that the time away doesn't cause him to drift into bad habits. He is, by all accounts, an earnest kid with a fine work ethic, but he's still just 19, still in need of structure as a young pro athlete. It wasn't long ago, remember, that Embiid was sucking down gallons of Shirley Temples and getting sent home from road trips, inspiring concerns about his maturity and his future in the league.
"My first year was a little complicated; we corrected that my second year," Embiid said. "The main thing I can teach him is just being patient. In the beginning, when he wasn't able to play, was really hard on him, but he started to understand that. … Everything's going to come together as long as you put in the work and stay patient."