Joel’s been through it all. Once the crown jewel of the process, he took his lumps in the playoffs losing in 5 to Boston in the second round, just to come back, take the leap and be on the wrong end of an iconic game winning, series clinching shot. Then, he had to endure a 1st round sweep in Disney World. He took another leap, this time into the upper stratosphere of athletes who have ever played in Philadelphia just to battle through injuries and bow out in the second round two straight years.
If the Sixers are really committed to winning a championship, they need to stop expecting Embiid to score upwards of 35 points, anchor an elite defense, consistently create open shots for his team, be the sole rebounding presence all while having an extra, extra gear for crunch time after playing 70 regular season games.
No player wins alone in a team sport. Luka might headline the Mavs series win over the Suns but that never happens without Jason Kidd installing a defensive identity that the entire team top to bottom bought into and executed. Jayson Tatum can score 40+ points to force a game 7 but none of that matters if Boston doesn’t combine to go 22/55 from long range while holding Milwaukee to 36% from the field in the winner take all game. One player can power you to the playoffs but in the brutal 7 game chess match that awaits you, teams scheme for your weaknesses and double down on their strengths like never before.
That was the point of the Harden trade, right? To give Joel the honest to god co-star he had silently been begging for ( and not so silently after ) during the Hawks series? The sad truth is that at this point, the player we saw for the Sixers last 20 or so games is the reality for James Harden. He’s probably lost a step or two he isn’t getting back. His stepback isn’t lethal or dangerous, it’s hot and cold. He still is a special passer and possesses the ability to take over a game, but neither of those do any good when you take two shots in the second half of a must win game, and cough up the ball at unacceptable rates. The honeymoon phase is long gone. Even on a discount, Philly will be paying James Harden to be at minimum an All-Star, and the pressure is entirely on him to figure a way around his new limitations.
The Sixers could try to build a starting and closing lineup of 5 fringe all stars by trying to swing a headline grabbing trade, but the real need for this team is role players, the kind of guys who won’t swing games in February but can in May. You know how much a Mikal Bridges, Gary Payton II, Dorian Finney-Smith or Grant Williams would help right now? The problem is that the league as a whole is wising up to this truth and rushing to extend these guys before some other team has the chance to poach them. The best free agent wings this offseason include Gary Harris, Thad Young, Taurean Prince, Derrick Jones Jr., Nic Batum, Otto Porter Jr. and Bruce Brown. Are any of these guys really going to inspire confidence in big time moments, especially when you factor in the sixers eternal need for a true bench ballhandler and backup center, which signing any of these guys probably prevents the team from fully solving those problems.
The bench needs a major rehaul, and after Danny Green’s ACL tear a 5th starter is needed. I mean, does any team really want Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, and a second for a good player? Any other options either involve trading a young player or somehow finding a Tobias Harris partner, which probably ends up with a worse Sixers team in the short term.
So to put it shortly, the Sixers in an ideal world will find a 5th starter, a backup ball handler, two bench shooters + defenders, a backup center all while solving James Harden’s contract situation. They also need to somehow rebuild their perimeter defense, get better on the glass and maybe most importantly, find a guy who really cares and will make sure everyone else will too.
The future for Philadelphia hangs on this offseason more than any other, just as it does every year. That's how life always is when you're stuck in purgatory, eternally trying to get over the hump. When the lottery is over and teams start discussing trades and finalizing draft boards, the Sixers countdown clock starts. And when it hits 0, there better be a contending team in Philadelphia or the fans will make sure there’s hell to pay.