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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

McGuinness: 76ers can’t punt a season of prime Embiid

It takes a lot of things to win a championship in sports. Ownership, depth, health, salary cap management (when applicable), luck and a slew of other elements play an important role in deciding who comes out on top. But by far the most important thing, and the one that’s hardest to find, is an elite talent. That’s especially true in the NBA, where one player has a far greater impact on the game than in any other league.

When you find a player, or even better, players with that special talent, you have a responsibility — to them, to your fans, and even to the league itself — to put yourself in a position to win a championship as many times as possible, as soon as possible. Injuries, contract disputes, cap crunches or, as we found out the hard way, a global pandemic can eliminate some of those opportunities in the blink of an eye.

There’s no shame in coming up short in sports, but only when you maximize your team’s potential to win. It’s one thing to build a great team that just can’t quite beat an equally strong opponent; it’s another to disappoint from shooting yourself in the foot or kicking the can down the road, not realizing the road isn’t infinite and eventually leads off the end of a cliff if you don’t make the turn into win now-mode quickly and aggressively enough.

There’s a staggering number of examples. Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani in Los Angeles, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in Edmonton, Jack Eichel in Buffalo and Andrew Luck in Indianapolis are just a few other truly special talents who have never been surrounded with the help necessary to lead their teams within arm’s reach of a championship.

Those six stars have combined for just seven playoff appearances and one conference championship appearance in large part because their front offices either took too long to or never surrounded them with a championship quality supporting cast. Most GMs are passive by nature, which is understandable considering the high stakes and pressure of their job. Slow and steady is a fine approach for a rebuild, but shifting into win-now mode is a task that demands aggressiveness and making tough calls.

Elite talents and tough calls are in the spotlight in Philadelphia, shifting more into focus leading up to the NBA’s February 10 trade deadline. When Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons emerged as a potentially championship-caliber duo in 2017-18, the 76ers acted quickly and aggressively in trying to get the team over the hump — perhaps a bit too quickly. The Sixers have made the playoffs four years straight, appearing in the second round three times ... but never reaching the conference finals. That includes two of the more painful Game 7 losses in recent memory, the latter of which appears to be the final game Simmons will ever play in a 76ers uniform.

But the good news for the Sixers is that it’s not too late to act. Far from it. Embiid is still in his prime, and after a slow start to the season, the 27-year old is playing at an MVP level. Through three games in 2022, Embiid has scored 122 points in just 92 minutes, including a 50-point performance to near single-handedly lift the 76ers to victory over the Magic. For everything that has gone wrong for the Sixers this season, from Simmons’ holdout to numerous injuries and COVID cases, to the point where they are literally starting Charlie Brown (Jr., but still), the Sixers are right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Yes, they’re only the #6 seed right now. But they’re also just 2.5 games back of the first place Nets, who the Sixers have played tight in their three head-to-head meetings this season.

It’s easy to take Embiid’s brilliance for granted in his sixth NBA season. He’s racked up all kinds of hardware in his career; four all-star selections, three all-NBA and all-defensive team nominations. There’s a good chance he wins an MVP or/and Defensive Player of the Year Award (he’s been a finalist for both previously). Not only is he a force in the paint on both ends of the floor, but he’s the rare big man who can make just about any shot. Seven-foot players shouldn’t be able to bring the ball up the court or drain nearly 40% of their threes. Yet Embiid seems to dazzle on a nightly basis, no matter who’s suiting up alongside him.

However, no matter how dominant Embiid may be, who’s suiting up alongside him does matter. The 76ers do have some nice pieces, but it’s hard to see them seriously competing for a championship without the significant return that only one asset can bring back (or at least free up the cap space to add another one) — Simmons. GM Darel Morey has been very patient with his approach to trading Simmons, and with good reason. You only get to trade a star player once, and maximizing the return for Simmons will go a long way to deciding whether the 76ers break their 39-year title drought during the Embiid era.

But Morey can’t wait forever. Embiid has one year left after the current one on his 5-year, $147 million deal, after which a 4-year, $196 million extension kicks in. Winning before that extension comes onto the cap, both to keep Embiid happy and maximize the $10-20 million in savings the 76ers will have (depending on the year) between his current contract and the next one, should be paramount. Yes, it’s Morey’s job to maximize the return for Simmons. But that includes maximizing the number of games and playoff runs.

You only get so many opportunities to win with a star player before you just run out of time — a feeling someone else who walks the home tunnels of the Wells Fargo Center knows all too well. Regardless of what happens, Claude Giroux will go down as one of the greatest Flyers of all time. He’s the longest-tenured captain in team history, scored an overtime winner in the Stanley Cup Final at just 22 years old and is at or near the top of several franchise categories. He’s had top-three finishes for the Hart Trophy (MVP) in Art Ross (leading scorer) Trophies. And he might go down as the second greatest skater in Flyers history.

When the Flyers embarked on a retool in 2014, they thought it would leave them with enough time to return to contention soon enough for Giroux to still be a significant contributor. After becoming the first team in NHL history to suffer two ten-game losing streaks in their first forty games Thursday, that calculation is almost certainly wrong. Giroux has always hoped to win a Stanley Cup and play out his career in Philadelphia. Now, it looks like the 34-year old will almost certainly have to choose between one and the other.

It shouldn’t have to be that way for Embiid. Trading Simmons before February 10th doesn’t mean it won’t be. But doing so would almost certainly increase the 76ers chances of a deep playoff run this year, which increases their chances of winning a title with him as their centerpiece. That’s an offer Morey can’t afford to pass up — even if he hasn’t received one for Simmons that he feels the same way about.