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No team whose season ended before the conference finals entered this summer with more promise than the Philadelphia 76ers, a franchise that had finally reached the fun side of the process and was suddenly focused on domination. But with most of the major offseason moves already settled — and the gap between the dynastic Golden State Warriors and the rest of the league growing increasingly wider — no team can look back on the past few months as more of a lost opportunity.
Bryan Colangelo became the first NBA general manager to ever lose his job over burner Twitter accounts. Coach and interim general manager Brett Brown’s “star hunting” quest came up empty, although the 76ers had the potential superstar foundation in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the money and the trade chips to make a dynamic move. LeBron James said he “thought long and hard” about joining Philadelphia but only gave the organization a perfunctory free-agent meeting with his agent, Rich Paul, before choosing the Lakers. Paul George didn’t bother engaging with the 76ers, making his announcement to stay in Oklahoma City under a cloud of cigar smoke before teams were allowed to even start wooing him. Kawhi Leonard was there to be had for almost a month, but the 76ers whiffed and watched him land in Toronto, a division rival whose ceiling appears much higher if the 2014 Finals MVP can return to full health.
An offseason haul of Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala in salary dumps and re-signing J.J. Redick is far from inspiring, but Embiid won’t wallow in what the 76ers didn’t do this offseason. He still has domination on his mind. “I don’t think it matters, big free agent or not. My goal going into the offseason was to get better. I want to win the MVP,” Embiid said Wednesday in a conference call from NBA Africa 2018. “I feel like at the end of the day it might be an individual award, but when I play better, the team also does. I feel like if I’m an MVP candidate or if I win the MVP, that means we are on another level.”
Embiid is coming off the first mostly healthy season of his career — a season in which he was an imposing presence on both ends, made his first All-Star appearance, was a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year, played in back-to-back games for the first time and more than doubled his career games played from his first three injury-plagued seasons. If not for a frightful, late-season collision with rookie Markelle Fultz that resulted in him fracturing his left orbital bone, Embiid possibly would’ve been able to contribute even more and been better conditioned for a deeper playoff run. The 76ers’ second-round exit against the Boston Celtics exposed some areas in which Embiid will have to improve and left him salivating for more.
“When my season ended, there was a lot of talk about adding guys. I literally did not really care because I want to get better,” Embiid said. “I want to be better than those guys that were mentioned, if I’m not already better than them. That was my message, just going into the offseason, finally the first one healthy and able to do whatever I want. That was my goal regardless.”
With his winning personality and witty Twitter fingers, Embiid emerged as a star off the court as well, posting hilarious comments on situations that were both silly (J.R. Smith’s blunder in Game 1 of the Finals) and serious (Colangelo’s social media embarrassment) in nature. Immediately after the Warriors completed a sweep of Cleveland in the NBA Finals, Embiid wrote, “Trust The Process!!!! Find a new slant @KingJames.” But Embiid stressed that his recruiting pitch to the best player of this generation didn’t extend much beyond social media.
“I thought we had a chance,” Embiid said. “I’m a player. I always felt like it’s not my job to be in the middle of all that. I don’t like to be involved in front-office stuff. I always felt like [LeBron] didn’t need my help if he was going to do it. It is whatever. We have a great group of guys. A lot of guys coming back. Last year, we won 52 games. This next year is going to be even much better with the addition of Wilson Chandler. I expect Markelle to be back to himself.”
Fultz has been working on restoring his fractured jump shot and confidence with Embiid’s longtime trainer, Drew Hanlen, and the 76ers will need the 2017 No. 1 overall pick to rebound from a forgettable rookie campaign in which he battled the yips and lost his feel for the game. The 76ers were reportedly unwilling to move Fultz in any deal for Leonard, which increases the pressure for him to perform. Simmons was, at times, more than promised as he became the first 76er since Allen Iverson to claim Rookie of the Year honors. That trio of remaining high draft picks from that tanking/“Process” era will need to improve in an Eastern Conference that looks dramatically different with James on the opposite coast.
“It’s the same approach,” Embiid said. “Last year, we had a goal. Our goals throughout the season change. First, it was to make the playoffs. We had a run at the end of the year. We were like, ‘We have a chance.’ We get to the first round, which was pretty, I would say, easy. Then I felt like we had a pretty good chance against Boston, too. They kind of caught us off-guard, but they’re a really good team. They have a lot of talent. From there after, our goal was to go to the Finals. I feel we had the right pieces. We kept telling each other, ‘We can do this.’ We’ve come a long way. We won 52 games, which nobody thought would happen. We won 16 games in a row. We just thought that we had a chance to go to the Finals. Doesn’t change. The approach doesn’t change. Still the same. We’re just going to do our thing.”
Embiid has mixed in some fun with his offseason work, treating anyone in front of him with the same amount of dunking disrespect — whether it’s an unsuspecting scrub on South Philadelphia outdoor courts, a Los Angeles gym with lottery pick Mo Bamba or one-on-one drills with Bismack Biyombo this week in South Africa. With the NBA set to play its third exhibition game in Africa on Saturday in Pretoria, Embiid — a native of Cameroon who was discovered at a Basketball Without Borders camp in 2011 — said he plans to be an annual participant. Far from the “shy” kid that he was when he began, Embiid is eager to take the next step in his career.
“I feel like I have everything. I just need to be more consistent,” Embiid said. “This is the first summer where I’m actually healthy and able to play basketball. I was pretty excited. I’ve already gotten so much better. It’s just about working on everything, perfecting everything. Like when it comes to my 3-point shot or the ball-handling, which was a problem. I feel like I can do it. You can also say I’m kind of new to the game. I’m still learning a lot. I feel like I still have a lot of potential, a lot of stuff to show.”
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