Why Philadelphia 76ers, Joel Embiid should have hope after latest playoff letdown

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PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid has relied on a common refrain this season. As long as he is with the Philadelphia 76ers, he believes they have a chance. To win games, to win titles — to win. It has powered him despite nearly a year of tumult. While he may still believe it, that maxim has seen its limits over the last few months.

The Sixers, and Embiid, were knocked out of the playoffs by the New York Knicks in a 118-115 Game 6 loss. It ended a season that had crescendoed with high expectations as Embiid seemed to be rolling to another NBA Most Valuable Player Award and taking the franchise with him for a ride to the top of the Eastern Conference. But a January left meniscus tear sent him to the operating table and the team into a spiral. Neither could recover to full strength in time to propel the Sixers to the Eastern Conference finals appearance that has eluded Embiid during his decade in Philadelphia.

Thursday night, it came crashing down again, at home, in front of a crowd that was mostly Knicks fans by the very end of the night. The Sixers have to digest a chaotic series — exciting and tight for all six games — that didn’t swing their way. The Knicks scored just one more point than the Sixers did over the course of the last two weeks, but that delta was wide. It was Jalen Brunson, after 41 points and 12 assists, who walked off the court last, to a huge hug from Knicks general manager Leon Rose, chants of “MVP,” and into the second round of the playoffs.

“This series probably could have went the exact opposite the way it did,” Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said. “But it didn’t. So congratulate them for ending up on the positive side of it.”

Now, the 76ers are once again at a crossroads. They came out of last season with a new head coach in Nurse and a new top sidekick for Embiid in Tyrese Maxey, who has not just ascended capably in the role but outgrown it. He took over for James Harden and evolved into an All-Star. Maxey all but won Game 5 by himself. But it wasn’t enough.

While New York came at Philadelphia in waves, even beyond Brunson’s great performance over the last four games, the 76ers could only rely on their two pillars, Embiid and Maxey. When the Knicks pushed the ball out of Embiid’s hands in the fourth quarter of Game 4, the Sixers did not have enough pop to break that strategy. As the Knicks crashed the boards on the offensive end, there wasn’t enough help for Embiid to stave them off. Even Maxey faltered in Game 6, scoring just 17 points as he missed 12 of 18 shots.

Embiid, again, had his own health issues and turned 30 in March. He missed 30 games bookended around the All-Star break because of a torn meniscus in his left knee. He played with Bell’s palsy throughout the playoffs.

He looked limited and fatigued down the stretch of the Sixers’ last two losses. He did not sit at all in the second half of Game 4 — the first time he’s done that in his career — and barely rested in Game 5. The Sixers have long prospered by winning the minutes Embiid is on the court and gritting through the ones he sits, but they could not win those minutes by large enough margins, even as he played 44 minutes in Games 4 and 48 in Game 5. He fouled out in Game 6 after dominating most of the night, his 39 points and 13 rebounds not quite enough. He said little about his left knee afterward. He claimed that it was “healthy,” even as he took the floor with a brace on it.

It sucks to lose,” Embiid said. “The goal is to win a championship. Anytime that don’t happen, that’s all I care about. I don’t care if I got to the second round. That does not mean anything to me. We just didn’t accomplish what we wanted to. And the thing is, we believe in ourselves so much that we believe that we actually could have won it. But everything didn’t go the way we wanted to. A lot of different circumstances, but it’s also exciting to look at the future. To look what’s in front of you. But it’s also easier said than done.”

Embiid was eliminated from the playoffs by the same organization that had people around the NBA buzzing last spring that it may emerge as a potential landing spot for him if he ever decided to force his way out from the only franchise he has ever known. Embiid has declined to do so and that chatter has calmed.

But questions continue to abound for the Sixers. They will enter this offseason as one of the most interesting teams, and perhaps one of the most opportunistic. Only the Detroit Pistons are set to have more cap space this summer. At a time when contenders will be constrained by the new second apron and its various restraints, the 76ers will have flexibility to hit the free agent market hard or to use that space to acquire a top player. Team president Daryl Morey is one of the most creative executives in the league, even when dealing with cap limitations. He’ll get something closer to an open canvas this time.

The 76ers will be in a spot to take advantage. They have few commitments for next season beyond Embiid. Maxey is set for an extension off his rookie deal this summer and should get a contract that pays him 25 percent of the 2024-25 cap, but his cap hold will be just a little over $13 million.

Philadelphia will be eyed as a contender for nearly any star player that could hit the market. Paul George would fit well if he opts out of the last year of his contract with the Clippers. OG Anunoby showed this series why he will be such an attractive free agent this summer, though the Knicks seem likely to re-sign him after trading two key players for him in December. Pascal Siakam is likely in the same spot with the Indiana Pacers.

For the Sixers, Tobias Harris, Buddy Hield, Kyle Lowry, Kelly Oubre Jr. and De’Anthony Melton are all set to hit free agency. Hield barely played in the playoffs after a midseason trade from Indiana — but then leapt off the bench for 20 points in Game 6. Harris wilted against the Knicks; a scoreless series finale might have been the coda to his time with the Sixers. The end of Harris’ five-year, $180 million contract is almost like the end of an era for the franchise, let alone the flexibility it will give Philadelphia. Melton returned from injury midway through the series. Oubre proved to be a reliable defender and gave the team scoring punch, but he’ll hit free agency after outplaying his veteran minimum deal.

Morey has said publicly that the Sixers are looking for a high-level two-way player, as well as more playmaking. A dearth of both helped submarine them against the Knicks.

The effects of the still-freshly reconfigured collective bargaining agreement remain to be seen. Will it cause teams who are near or above the second apron to double-down, or will it lead to a mass disarmament that could put good players (on weighty contracts) on the market?

“What you’re seeing right now is the teams that are deep into the tax, they have sort of damned the torpedoes and they’re going to go even deeper because they know this is the one year they can do it and then it becomes far more punitive to be there,” Pelicans VP of basketball operations David Griffin said in October. “So I think you’re seeing teams that believe they’re one player away doing everything they can to win right now and this offseason you’re going to see people jettison a lot of money. I think that’s going to have a big role in the way teams are building around that.”

So close are the margins in the playoffs and the Sixers have not built themselves enough room for error. This offseason, again, will give them a chance to rectify that and build a team around Embiid, and now Maxey, that can withstand the rigors of the postseason. They had evidence in this series that there is plenty of potential.

Still, more change could force Embiid to once again adapt to new teammates around him. Continuity was his new watchword early into Friday morning. The Sixers have not had it during his tenure in Philadelphia. The recent champions have, he was quick to point out.

“You look at who won last year — Denver,” Embiid said. “They won last year. Jamal (Murray) and Nikola (Jokić), they’ve been together for eight years. Something like that — seven. Golden State Warriors, they’ve been together a long time. I don’t remember the last time you just put a team together and hope that it worked out the one year.”

But the 76ers seem to have found some clarity this season. In Maxey, the franchise has not just a running mate but a bona fide emerging star. Embiid is more bullish on Maxey than most. He has come to call him the face of the franchise and “one of the 10 best players in the world this year.” That kind of approval carries weight. 

It also gives the franchise hope for stability. The Sixers have iterated rosters, and stars alongside Embiid, over the last decade like a startup searching for the right path forward. It has been staggering at times.

This offseason, the Sixers will have a chance to build for next season and the future. The two are already linked. The Sixers have one MVP and another star emerging. They have cap space galore and draft picks to trade. What will it bring?

(Top photo of Joel Embiid: Elsa / Getty Images)

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