Before the start of the 2023-24 NBA season, I’m spending the week training the microscope on a handful of the most interesting teams in the NBA (to me, if not necessarily to anyone else). After hitting Oklahoma City and New Orleans, we’re traveling to the City of Brotherly Love, where everyone has gotten so comfortable being uncomfortable that it’s, frankly, a little uncomfortable:
What you’re looking for as a sports fan, more often than not, is something to invest in, an argument for showing up to watch every other night for more than half the year — a reason to believe.
There’s almost always one, if you look hard enough. Youngsters crackling with promise and unscuffed by the harsh new reality of life in the top flight. Ascendant players who’ve powered through that challenge, showed signs of growth and started making an argument that they’re ready for a larger share of the responsibility. Coaches getting creative in search of the tactical advantage that can paper over some shortcoming or another, even if it’s only just long enough to win one possession (which is all any coach ever really thinks about, anyway).
Best of all: a big, bright shining star. The kind of player who can do things nobody else can — the one with the tools and talent to carry you through the muck and mire of an eight-month marathon. Ideally, one with the temperament and temerity to make you feel something when you watch; to reward all your emotional investment with joy.
That’s the damnedest thing: It doesn’t feel like it right now, but when you zoom all the way out, the Philadelphia 76ers have, if not all of that, then at least an awful lot of it.
Tyrese Maxey has transformed from a change-of-pace rookie spark plug in spot minutes off the bench to one of the most efficient 20-point scorers in the NBA in just three years. We haven’t even begun approaching Maxey’s ceiling; if he can take the kind of leap as a facilitator that he has in his work as a pull-up and on-the-move shooter, the next stop in a development curve this steep might be “All-Star.”
Between Maxey (age 22), people’s-champ backup center Paul Reed (24), firmly established backcourt chaos agent De’Anthony Melton (25) and maybe-finally-ready-for-the-rotation 2021 draftee Jaden Springer (21), a Sixers roster with the NBA’s third-highest average age (only the Warriors and Clippers skew older, according to RealGM) actually features some fresh legs, sparks of athleticism, fonts of juice and runways for continued development. And in Nick Nurse, imported this summer to replace the ousted Doc Rivers, Philly might have a head coach interested in actually deploying them, letting youth be served to wreak some havoc. The former Raptors head coach, long one of the league’s most inventive and pliable defensive bench bosses (and one whose Toronto teams loved to play aggressively and bring pressure), has shown a willingness to let the Sixers swarm on that end in the preseason — something different and intriguing to digest after years of mostly conservative coverages under Brett Brown and Rivers.
It’s worth noting, though, that those coverages have been largely effective, with four top-10 finishes in the last six years, thanks largely to the looming paint-smothering presence of Joel Embiid — who, by the way, has led the NBA in scoring for the past two seasons, just won MVP like five months ago and who puts Philadelphia within arm’s reach of 50 wins virtually by himself.
A team with Embiid at the head of the table, Maxey seeming ready to level up, quality complementary vets like Tobias Harris, P.J. Tucker, Danuel House and the blessedly perhaps-not-totally washed Danny Green, added-depth newcomers like Kelly Oubre and Patrick Beverley, and the aforementioned intriguing young pieces — in a vacuum, that team is better positioned to win than, what, 75% of the NBA? Maybe 80%? (For what it’s worth, only six teams currently boast better odds of winning the championship, according to BetMGM; I recently broke down the cases for and against their title hopes.)
Alas: The Sixers don’t exist in a vacuum. (Some would argue that they exist in some kind of alternate terror dimension, like the Upside Down, or the version of hell that the spaceship travels through in “Event Horizon.”) They exist in a context that spans more than a decade, features enough chaos and absurdity that merely listing all the things that happened strains against the boundaries of credulity and includes both the second-most wins in the NBA since 2017 and six straight playoff appearances, but zero trips past the second round.
And if you’re having a hard time remembering any of the good stuff I just spent a few hundred words outlining, that’s probably because the last time you saw these Sixers, they were gagging up a 3-2 lead on the Celtics by giving up a 14-1 fourth-quarter run in Game 6 and all but refusing to come out of the locker room for the second half of Game 7. It was another ignominious exit to add to the depressing playoff résumés of James Harden, whose heroic performances in Games 1 and 4 against Boston were instantly reduced to ash in Philadelphians’ mouths, and Embiid, who got hurt before the season’s biggest moments (again), who finished a postseason with more turnovers than assists (again), and who watched one of his MVP rivals go on to hoist the Larry O’B (again) after going scoreless over the final six minutes of Game 6 and in the third quarter of Game 7 as the season went up in flames.
Or maybe it’s because, after all that, Harden — evidently aggrieved that the Sixers didn’t signal that they’d offer him a full-boat long-term maximum-salaried re-up following yet another find-the-fainting-couch swoon in elimination games — opted into the final year of his contract, called for a trade to the Clippers and spent the summer spoiling for an exit from Philadelphia and a divorce from longtime champion-turned-“liar” Daryl Morey.
And with no trade in the offing — Yahoo Sports senior NBA reporter Jake Fischer reported Tuesday that Morey continues to press the Clippers for two first-round picks, a future pick swap and expiring contracts in exchange for Harden, while the Clippers aren’t inclined to offer more than one first-rounder given the lack of any other evident suitor for Harden — it remains unclear when, or whether, Harden will suit up for the Sixers. From the looks of it, “before the start of the regular season” doesn’t seem too likely …
James Harden is not present for Philadelphia 76ers practice today, sources tell @YahooSports
— Vincent Goodwill (@VinceGoodwill) October 18, 2023
Just as he was during the Sixers’ media day, James Harden is in Houston, instead of Philadelphia, for this morning’s team practice, according to league sources. https://t.co/4vSCJEQwjg
— Jake Fischer (@JakeLFischer) October 18, 2023
I was on the phone with somebody a half hour ago who said that if Harden was sticking to his word on playing Friday that today would be a big day for the "ramp up"
In other words, WELP https://t.co/3Uee2193y5
— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) October 18, 2023
… which would kick the can into the regular season, meaning Philly’s faced with either once again not having its starting point guard on the floor when the games start to matter or welcoming back a player who’s shown before that he’s willing to give something less than maximum effort in service of finding his preferred exit. Neither seems ideal for a franchise that purportedly still views itself as a championship contender; then again, what in recent Sixers history has seemed ideal?
With the hours ticking away until the start of the season, questions abound — whether Harden will show up, and in what form; whether Morey will finally decide that whatever the Clips are offering plus the addition-by-subtraction potential of excising Harden’s vibes represents good enough value to justify pulling the trigger now; whether Embiid (who also hasn’t played this preseason), Maxey and Co. can once again keep the team afloat in the East well enough to allow Morey to remain patient; whether some other early-season surprise (a contender stumbling, a major injury) introduces some froth into the nonexistent Harden market, etc.
Looming over all of them, though, is maybe the biggest question in the NBA: Will whatever happens over the next few months lead Embiid, who turns 30 in March and whose recent comments about his future have raised plenty of eyebrows around the league, to become the next superstar to decide it’s time for a change of scenery?
Such a declaration, if it were ever to come, is a long way off. So, too, are the 2024 NBA playoffs, the only proving ground where Embiid can slough off the stink of last spring and all the early exits before it, and upend the conventional wisdom that he’s not the kind of superstar who can elevate his game and his team when it matters most. What lies between now and then, for Embiid and the Sixers, is opportunity: to begin the tedious and difficult work of putting themselves in position to succeed where they’d previously failed, to build new habits and establish a new identity, and to give their downtrodden fans — and themselves — a new reason to believe.