Courtside at the Toyota Center in Houston, the 76ers about to match an NBA record for futility with their 26th consecutive loss, Sam Hinkie remembered the moment that crystallized his mission as the team’s president and general manager – and that defines his mentor’s mission now. He was with the Rockets, working under Daryl Morey, when the team won 22 straight games in the winter of 2008. And he and Morey were still together the following year, when Houston lost in seven games in the conference semifinals to the Lakers, and the two of them knew they’d have to break up the team because their star center, Yao Ming, had broken his left foot.
“I remember where I was exactly in this building when I learned that,” Hinkie, scanning the arena, said that night in March 2014. “And since that moment, the most interesting topic in the world to me is how to go from zero stars to one. It was the most important challenge available in my last job, and in this one. …
“This game is star driven. Get one.”
Two months later, he did. He drafted Joel Embiid and, though it would be another two-plus years before Embiid suited up for the Sixers, Hinkie had checked that all-important box. The problem, for him and his successors and the Sixers as a whole, is that they haven’t checked all that many since. Seven years since Hinkie made that declaration and followed through on it, Embiid remains the most valuable product of The Process, and, if possible, he matters more to them now than he ever did.
Through a No. 3 overall pick in 2015, through back-to-back No. 1 picks in 2016 and 2017, through trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, the Sixers haven’t settled on a surrounding cast and maximized Embiid’s prime. They haven’t advanced past the playoffs’ second round with him, which tells you everything you need to know about the team they are, have been, and would be without him.
» READ MORE: Sixers meet with Ben Simmons’ agent about his future
Get one star? One star seems not enough now. Not when injury, exhaustion, or both strike Embiid every season. Not when the Sixers end up using those consecutive No. 1 picks on Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, who turned out not merely to be poor shooters but players for whom the prospect of sending a leather ball through a metal hoop brought on symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Not when Butler alpha-dogs his way out of town, when Al Horford proves a decaying square peg on a team trying to fill several round holes, when Harris demonstrates that he is a very good player but not a great one.
It’s easy to argue that Morey’s offseason agenda should be obvious: Move on from Simmons, even if his terrible series against the Hawks has lowered his trade value, and reshape the roster around Embiid. Easy to argue, harder to pull off, and it’s difficult to tell now what would be more damaging: trading Simmons and not recouping a worthy return, or keeping him.
Remember something: As an offensive player, Simmons regressed in just about every regard under Doc Rivers. His overall field-goal percentage dropped. The number of shots he took per game dropped. His assists dropped. His two-point shooting percentage dropped. His free-throw percentage dropped, and that was before his postseason humiliations began. And as long as his fear of going to the foul line causes him to abdicate his role on offense, to dash to the dunker’s spot and hope like hell that no one passes him the ball, it does not and will not matter if he is the best defensive player in the NBA. The opponent guarding him will always be better, by Simmons’ choice.
But none of those scenarios – trading Simmons, not trading Simmons, trying to acquire a new point guard or perimeter scorer, having Simmons straighten himself out and flourish with another team – is the worst-case one for the Sixers. When Morey, on a video availability with reporters the other day, said that “really 25 or 26 teams in this league would love to be in our situation,” he was technically correct. There are 30 teams in the NBA, and 25 of them saw their seasons end before the Sixers’ did. What Morey omitted or elided was how tenuous the Sixers’ standing among those teams really is, because right now it still depends entirely on Embiid’s health, and that’s a thin wire to support so much weight.
Embiid, Simmons, Harris: The Sixers have three max-contract players but just one superstar. Their postseason fortunes didn’t turn in Game 4 in Atlanta, when they forged that 18-point lead late in the first half then squandered it and eventually the series. Their fortunes turned in Game 4 in Washington, when Embiid tore the meniscus in his right knee. Any dominance he delivered from that moment on should have been regarded as a gift, and as Embiid ages, as these tears and breaks and strains pile up and take their toll on his body, the more likely it becomes that he suffers another devastating injury and that the Sixers, in turn, suffer for his absence.
That potential reality should terrify Morey, because it’s the same reality he and Hinkie faced in May 2009. Embiid is 27. Yao was 28 when he limped off the Toyota Center court in Game 3 against the Lakers. Houston had lost Tracy McGrady to knee surgery that February. Now Yao was gone, too – he played just five more games in his career before retiring – and the following season the Rockets were back to being a 42-win team and starting from scratch in their attempt to win a championship. It took five more years before they were close again, and they never did win one.
Get one star? The Sixers should worry most about the ramifications of losing the one they already have.