It’s not going to work.
We can keep pretending. We can live on hope. We can think positive, move forward and cross our fingers for the best. It’s natural. It’s fandom.
It’s also delusional, and ignoring all of the context screaming at us every spring.
The “it” in this case is the Joel Embiid era of Sixers basketball, and the hope (expectation?) that it would eventually end with a trip down Broad Street. Somehow, some way The Process would be validated with the big man as the best player on the best team in the NBA.
At some point, I think every basketball fan in Philadelphia felt like it was possible. Maybe it was the start of The Process, or a blockbuster trade, or a fleeting second watching a fully healthy Embiid do something few players in the history of the sport could do.
Those days are over.
I can’t speak for you or anyone but myself, yet do feel strongly about this: The Embiid era will not end with a title, and it’s something we’ll all eventually acknowledge together. After a six-game series loss to the Miami Heat, let’s run through the reasons this reality is becoming more and more obvious by the year.
Let’s start with Embiid himself, a player that both deserves admiration for playing through injury and admonishment for what he’s not and likely will never be.
Embiid is commendable for giving his body to the game, this franchise and an adoring fan base. He’s been through hell (both physically and emotionally) since entering the NBA, and has worked to become one of the most skilled big men in the history of the sport. He’s been a true MVP candidate in back-to-back years, one of the most efficient scorers of all-time and a future Hall of Famer.
But Embiid also isn’t what he most needs to be: A championship player. Embiid is an empirically worse player in the postseason than the regular season, and the gap keeps growing and standing out as he excels when the games don’t matter as much. You can scream about how hurt he is, but perhaps he’s just not built for this. There’s a reason why Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and (now) Giannis Antetokounmpo broke through and reigned as championship pillars: They were built for it both mentally and physically. Embiid has never shown to be.
Embiid shot 7-of-24 (29%, fifth worst of his playoff career) in Game 6 vs. Miami. That followed up a minus-29 in Game 5, the worst of his playoff career. One year ago, Embiid had eight turnovers in Game 7 vs. the Hawks. Embiid has looked nothing like an MVP when the lights shined brightest and the pressure mounted over the last two postseasons.
There’s always a physical ailment. There’s always an excuse. There’s always a no-show or lifeless effort. We wonder why the Sixers quiver when the going gets tough. It’s because attitude reflects leadership. When times get tough, Embiid deflects. He seems like a nice guy and will end up as an all-time regular season player, but there’s a Patrick Ewing feel to his career: Not meant to be, and not a champion among the giants in his era.
Then, of course, there’s the rest of the mess around Embiid and his limitations.
In the interest of time (mine writing this and yours reading it), Doc Rivers doesn’t matter. He should be gone by the time this column hits the internet. Then we can blame the next coach for the ill-fitting roster, bench issues and core that’s just not mentally tough enough.
Bigger reasons for the long-term and why title hopes are being dashed by the year: Roster mismanagement.
In an alternative reality, perhaps Embiid could be the co-star. Maybe he wouldn’t have to be the physical and emotional center of a team with high hopes. But that idea was butchered by a franchise that has drafted the wrong co-stars, moved on from the wrong veterans and paid the wrong players.
Sam Hinkie left the Sixers in a nearly idiot-proof spot, with nearly being the operative word. His friend and former mentor, Daryl Morey, was supposed to be the guy that re-arranged a true contender around Embiid. Instead, Morey showed his true colors: He’s basketball’s Billy Beane, living off one moment (the original trade for Harden in Houston) and not close to as good as his reputation.
Dumping Ben Simmons for James Harden was lauded in Philadelphia, until we all realized what Morey is paid (quite well) to realize: Harden is cooked. Instead of trying to move Simmons and assets for a young player with untapped potential (like Morey once did with a young Harden), the Sixers took the easy (and wrong) way out of Simmons' hell. Now the Sixers are tapped out of resources, likely on the hook for Harden’s bloated player option and without a realistic avenue to make this team a true title contender.
The Sixers, unlike the Warriors, Heat, Bucks or Suns, don’t have a winning culture. Some of that falls at Embiid’s lap. Some can be attributed to hiring a checked-out coach. Some can be about the players that have been brought in here, and a lack of attention to detail on crafting a roster with playoff-ready veterans that own championship DNA.
In summation, the star player hasn’t shown durability or maturity to count on vs. the games true winners. The general manager totally whiffed on his biggest decision thus far. The rest of the roster isn’t close to championship worthy, and possesses few assets (from available cap dollars to tradable players or draft picks) in order to truly improve from where they are now.
The Sixers began The Process to avoid second round exits.
They have become what they never wanted to be, and will likely be stuck there for the precious time left in Embiid’s prime whether we're willing to admit it or not.