Expectations should be tampered. The East is better. Even if Ben Simmons plays this entire year, Brooklyn and Milwaukee remain superior. That’s OK. Boston will be healthier. Atlanta will only improve given how many games Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter missed a season ago. It’s tough to know what the real expectations for Philadelphia should be. Anywhere from 3-7 in the standings could be real, which might feel like another year of “wasting” Joel Embiid’s prime, but I take offense to that notion, regardless of when a Simmons trade happens. No matter how good the East will be. It’s nonsense.
Being a fan is obviously about watching your team succeed. Winning stands as the utmost importance. To witness Embiid play basketball is a treat in of itself, however. On a mundane night last season, Embiid scored 50 points against Chicago. His step-back triple in Daniel Theis’s face capped off a win against Boston early in the year. Who could forget his game-tying three in the last seconds against the Jazz? (I’ll personally never forget it. It was the night before I drove three hours to meet my dad just over the New York border in an unknown PA town at a Tim Horton’s parking lot to retrieve an engagement ring to be used the following day). If not for his untimely injury, Embiid could have been the league’s Most Valuable Player. There’s no reason he can’t have a similar season again. He’s that dominant.
The team should take more threes per game this year. It’s a glaring issue. Think about any regular season loss a year ago and point to the lack of three pointers made. Players have said the right things. Tobias Harris, who has been shy about shooting threes in the past, and Embiid, in particular, have spoken at length about that notion. It’s imperative Philadelphia has a top-10 offense because its defense should take a slight step backwards. It’s true Embiid is the defensive fulcrum, but without Simmons given full effort, the perimeter defense could be a problem at times.
A recent report from Kyle Neubeck at Philly Voice said Embiid is OK with being patient on a Simmons deal. He knows the only way to win a championship is to be paired with a star-level player, not trade for a couple solid-to-good players. Simmons hasn’t proven to be a compatible counterpart for Embiid, and it’s looking more and more likely that he won’t ever be, but he still represents the best, and possible only, chance for the Sixers to get what Embiid desperately needs through a trade. The idea of waiting for a Simmons trade sounds like a pain. A distraction. It’s unclear how motivated Simmons will be to make things ugly. He’s always had a passive personality (I mean have you seen him play offense late in games before) but I’m curious how that’ll translate defensively. You can’t fake effort on that end of the court. We’ll find out pretty soon. Although what happens if it’s mid-November and Simmons is given so-so effort, yet he’s stilled rostered? This situation will remain fascinating until its resolved.
In the meantime, as fans, we’re focused on who’s there and actually giving a shit. Four players come to mind.
Isaiah Joe is one player who fits that description. It’s hard to really know what he’ll be this year, but it’s nice to have an imagination. The sky is always the limit when projecting a guy who can shoot the lights out. He led the league in Wins Above Replacement Player in the preseason. He couldn’t miss from three, but not only that, he scored in a variety of ways, and he became a playmaker, tossing lobs to Andre Drummond ad nauseum. It’s only encouraging to think about what he can be. Tyrese Maxey is obviously the player to watch, with or without Simmons. He’ll be 21 next month. He’s probably not ready to be who Philly fans think he is, but that’s OK. Being a fan is being irrational. It’ll just be fun to see him play basketball. His speed. His dynamic floater. He’s the most fun 76ers guard since Lou Williams. Matisse Thybulle is the third player with the potential to be better than he’s perceived. Thybulle is already revered. Zach Lowe said about Thybulle during his most recent podcast: Thybulle “is a better defensive player than anyone basically. I don’t that he’s a human being the way he moves around the floor. I think there’s something suspicious, frankly, that the league might want to investigate.” Thybulle, no matter what happens with Simmons, will be gigantic defensively for Philadelphia. His offense, however, will be the difference as to the kind of player he actually becomes. This summer, as he won a bronze medal with Australia, Thybulle could do a little more. He wasn’t restricted to being a spot-up shooter. With Danny Green and Seth Curry in the fold, Thybulle was asked to do less offensively last year than his rookie season. That’ll change this year. He’ll probably play more minutes, which means he’ll need to shoot more threes. The talk this offseason, with the rule change limiting the number of fouling three-point shooters there will be, focused on offensive players. The real winner of the rule change, however, will be Thybulle. Who could forget Game 1 against the Hawks? Doc Rivers challenged a Thybulle foul on Trae Young. It remained a foul, but now that’s a thing of the past, which is exciting.
The last one is someone I already mentioned.
It’s Embiid. It’ll always be Embiid.
Overall, 2021 has been a strange year for the two Philly sports teams I enjoy. The Eagles traded Carson Wentz in February. Five years ago, I went to Wentz’ debut against Cleveland. About six weeks later, I went to Embiid’s debut game against the Oklahoma City Thunder (where I saw a doctor flip off Russell Westbrook). It’s been done before, but it’s hard not to compare Wentz and Embiid. They debuted around the same time. They were promised as the future of their respective franchises. Now, obviously, only Embiid remains.
I’ll never forget Embiid’s debut. His turnaround from the foul line. An immediate block the next possession. A triple. A beautiful post move over Steven Adams. Time after time, Embiid made plays. He’s never stopped. You knew immediately he’d be a difference maker whenever he stepped on the floor. Because of that Philadelphia has a chance. Because of that they always will.