The Philadelphia 76ers are at a crossroads. The exact path they go down, from here, has a lot to do with what kind of yield they get from trading the maligned Ben Simmons. But they are not standing still at their impasse. Seemingly having absorbed that their lengthy, fluid super-utility man was gone from them months before the season began, the Sixers are playing some of the most inspired ball of anyone this year—flexing everything they’ve still got, and remaining a fearsome force in the Eastern Conference.
On paper, it doesn’t look amazing. Around Joel Embiid there is a mixed—yet deep—bag of role players. Seth Curry taking yet another sizable step forward in his game (one big enough that the idea of trading Simmons for C.J. McCollum has minor pangs of redundancy) has probably been the highlight among this group. Curry’s creativity within the arc has become more apparent with extra ball-handling opportunities, and he is no longer seen as just the lesser brother of his family, and a mere three-point specialist. Combined with Shake Milton, Danny Green, and Tyrese Maxey, who could bloom into a true co-star over time, Philly has a collection of more traditional scoring guards around their big man, eschewing the odd, high-ceiling-but-middling-reality Simmons-Embiid awkwardness of the era for something that works more simply.
Maxey’s speed, feel, and tenacity are promising, to say the least. Philadelphia has done their best to keep his name out of trade talks involving Simmons, and the idea that he could be untouchable is certainly out there. The second-year guard is gracefully taking on a huge uptick in volume, including way more shots from three. Neither he nor Curry is replacing what Simmons does defensively or as a playmaker, with the Philadelphia offense relying much more on Embiid’s rim protection on defense and on difficult shot-making on offense without their slenderman masher/passer, but again: everything just fits a lot better than it used to. This is especially obvious in closing time, where the extra space on the floor allows Embiid to operate more freely, and for the array of perimeter players to get more straight-forward clear-outs as well. Accordingly, the Sixers’ 15-12 record outruns their barely positive point differential. They operate more sensibly in the clutch.
It will be tough to keep it up, though. Furkan Korkmaz and Georges Niang helped Philly to their big 8-2 start, beginning the season with unsustainable offensive performances that have since cooled. Others have stepped up, Embiid has dominated—and with the rejuvenated Andre Drummond backing him up, there is little question about who has the best 48 minutes of center play in the current NBA. The question remains, though: what’s next?
One hint at where Philly is going comes from the closer look at Tobias Harris that’s been afforded to Sixers-ologists this season. The big wing and/or small ball power forward, maximum salary man has often been lost in the discursive shuffle around Simmons and Embiid, with few noticing how much of the team’s potential lies with Harris. Those other two guys are just so loud in their public existence, and Harris’ nice guy neutrality doesn’t offer a propulsive contrast to the outspoken Embiid or the remote Simmons, for most. And basketball-wise, he isn’t as extreme of a player in any direction either.
Removed from the shadow of the Simmons-Embiid mismatch, though, it’s more and more clear that Harris is in a category with the likes of the aforementioned McCollum, plus Kristaps Porzingis; these are the league’s most prominent underwhelming star-salary producers, on contending teams. They are personified purgatory. Harris, like those two, is too richly paid to easily trade: the easiest route to doing so involves attaching assets you wouldn’t want to sacrifice, or taking back an equally unsavory deal. It would be difficult to get back good talent at a decent price, in any trade involving Harris.
Therein lies the biggest, hidden riddle for the Sixers. Simmons can, and will be, moved for one or a few players who help Philadelphia win games, and who further elevate their contention prospects in the playoffs. But with Simmons’ trade value being lesser than it was, and with Harris’ $35 million salary ascending each of the next two seasons, the Sixers’ route to adding a true Embiid co-star remains stuck with the potential of Maxey, for now. Maybe they don’t need one; maybe Embiid is a different kind of freak, so much a bulldozer that everything around him can just be a really nice shovel.
Embiid’s loudest counting stats are down or static this season, but to my eye he is better than ever; clearly taking initiative to improve his court awareness after his string of decision-making meltdowns in the previous playoffs (a merciful blind spot to many, given their red-faced fixation with the moral composition of Simmons), Embiid’s assists are going up while his turnovers are going down. He is dribbling up and down the floor with more authority as well, and doing his best Simmons and Nikola Jokic impressions as a sometimes runner of his offense. At first, this looked putrid—in the fourth game of the season against the New York Knicks, he was literally falling over trying to read the Knicks’ defense and distribute. But those failures have bred successes.
Outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo, is there anyone with the mix of physicality and skill that can really contend with an Embiid who isn’t so often getting in his own way? Probably not. Whether or not his health becomes an obstacle (it usually does) remains to be seen this season, but for the sake of optimism, let’s say it doesn’t. And let’s say the Sixers roster around him gets ten-to-fifteen percent better with whatever comes back in a Simmons trade; from a B-minus perimeter gang to a B-plus or—dare I say it—A-plus collection. Can anyone actually stop that, aside from Embiid himself?