There’s a case to be made that the Sixers are a better bet to win a championship within the next five years than any team in the Eastern Conference. I’m not bold enough to go on record in favor of that case. But I’m also not bold enough to go on record against it.
And if you think that sounds like a hedge, wait until you hear what I actually suspect. The Sixers just might have the most talent in the Eastern Conference. Currently.
I know, it sounds absurd, which is why I backed up into it like this was an early-2000s hip-hop video. But maybe the only reason it sounds that way is a little thing that the psychologists call recency bias.
The year 2020 was an eventful one on the court. Some would argue it was an eventful one off it. Combine the two, and it’s easy to forget where things stood in previous years.
According to Process Theory, Joel Embiid was supposed to be the type of generational talent who enabled Sixers management to approach their team in the exact mode they’ve inhabited this offseason. According to the numbers, he has been that talent.
When Embiid was on the court over the last three seasons, the Sixers outscored opponents by an average of 8.3 points per 100 possessions. Only eight players in the NBA had a better plus-minus during that span. The only two players among those nine who do not have a current or former teammate in the group are Giannis Antetokounmpo and Embiid (for example, Steph Curry played with Kevin Durant, and Pascal Siakam played with Kyle Lowry, et al.).
There is a lot of noise in plus-minus stats. But there is at least some signal. The top 15 over the last three seasons consists exclusively of players who have played for one of six teams: the Warriors, the Raptors, the Bucks, the Rockets, the Celtics, and the Sixers. Conventional wisdom currently holds the Sixers to be the least of that bunch. Which would seem to support an argument for Embiid’s singularity. Because he is the only Sixer in the bunch.
Anyway, back to where we started. When Daryl Morey agreed to take the helm of this heretofore rudderless front office, everybody assumed that the Sixers’ championship hopes would depend on some blockbuster move that the notorious free-wheeler would inevitably dream up. In doing so, we seemed to forget the viability of the foundation that was already in place.
The more time you spend around anybody, the more you become aware of their flaws. With Embiid, those flaws feel so glaring precisely because of how glaring his abilities are. Again, the Sixers outscore their opponents by eight points every 100 possessions that he is on the court. That’s more than twice the amount by which they outscore their opponents when Ben Simmons is on the court (plus-3.8, 62nd in the NBA over the last three years, minimum 3,000 minutes). Embiid has singular physicality, singular ability, and singular impact. Despite the flaws.
The biggest question for the Sixers is the same as it always has been: What is the best way to build a team around him? Within this framework, Simmons is almost a bonus. At the very least, he is a championship-caliber starter who is versatile enough to have a role on virtually any team you can dream up. If he didn’t care about playing defense, that would be one thing. But his chief flaws, passivity and a lack of confidence in his jump shot, are the same things that make him a universal fit. And, keep in mind, that is his floor. Simmons just finished his third NBA season. In Giannis’ third season, he averaged 16.9 points per game and shot 28-of-109 from three-point range. We probably shouldn’t expect Simmons to undergo the transformation that Giannis did. Point is, it’s early.
More so, the point is that it is early enough that the Sixers might be in the best position of any team in the East. The Bucks might have been that team if their sign-and-trade for Bogdan Bogdanovic had panned out. But if they can’t guarantee that Giannis will be in the fold beyond this season, what can they guarantee?
The Celtics can make a strong case. But would you trade Embiid and Simmons for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown? If you would, you don’t have a strong enough understanding of the caliber of star it takes to win a championship. Pound-for-pound, top to bottom, the Raptors and the Heat might have the two best rosters in the conference. But Toronto has a limited ability to attract star power.
All of which leaves the Sixers in as good of a position as any team in the conference. In swapping out Josh Richardson and Al Horford for Seth Curry and Danny Green, they’ve added three plus skills – Curry’s shot, Green’s shot, and Green’s defense – where previously none existed.
No doubt, they have a couple of glaring needs that will need to be addressed before the playoffs. They need someone who can guard the four while sharing the court with a big, and they need someone who can create off the dribble. If neither one of those players can consistently knock down an open three, they’ll need someone who can do so while also playing defense.
But none of those things will prevent them from being in contention for a top-four seed at the trade deadline. At the moment, they are poised to get there with all the optionality they need. They have the midlevel exception. They have enough of a variety of contracts to facilitate a trade for a contract of any size. In an ideal world, Matisse Thybulle, Tyrese Maxey, and Shake Milton will establish themselves as viable trade assets. There are certainly enough minutes to afford them the opportunity to do so.
“If we use the bullets now,” Morey said on WPEN-FM (97.5), “we’re going to use them on the wrong ones [instead of] when the information is more clear as we get closer to the trade deadline and places like that.”
The most important variables are still Embiid and Simmons. But then, that was always going to be the case.