Joel Embiid is an MVP candidate again.
Last season, Embiid started the season on a scorching pace while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the East until a leg injury kept him out of action for nearly a month. He finished the season averaging 28.5 points on 51.3 percent shooting with 10.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists. Nikola Jokic eventually took home MVP with Embiid coming in second with a considerable margin in between. Had Embiid been healthier, he probably would have given Jokic a better challenge.
This season, the Sixers were set up to fail before it even started. Ben Simmons didn’t want to play for them anymore for multiple reasons. Without Simmons, the Sixers were missing a piece. His refusal to play and his public demands made him almost untradeable. The Sixers ran into a corner they couldn’t get out of.
So Embiid dragged them out of it, kicking and screaming. The Sixers started the season hot, despite Embiid shooting on subpar levels. COVID absences hit the Sixers hard with all their starters, including Embiid, missing two weeks. Since getting relatively healthy, the Sixers have managed to stay on pace in a hectic Eastern Conference.
Sure, the Sixers got contributions from Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, and Seth Curry. But Philadelphia sitting in third at the All-Star break with a 35-23 record was all because of Embiid.
In the last 28 games he’s played, Embiid has averaged 33.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1.5 blocks with shooting percentages of 52/37/82. Philly is 19-9 in that stretch with Embiid crossing the 30-point mark 24 times.
A few expected to see Embiid get to this level given the disastrous start to his career. Surviving the mental and physical toll of sitting out his first two seasons, Embiid has only gotten better and healthier as he's matured in the NBA. Near the peak of his powers, Embiid is willing the Sixers to the playoffs.
Even if he is only 27 years old, the Sixers cannot waste this window in Embiid’s career. Big men and lower extremity injuries have never meshed well as a center’s career can change with just one leg injury. Just ask DeMarcus Cousins.
Philadelphia did right by Embiid by getting the best possible outcome in the Ben Simmons ordeal – swapping a temperamental star for a temperamental MVP in James Harden. When the pundits were chiding the Sixers for turning down packages that included De’Aaron Fox or CJ McCollum, the Sixers front office had the temerity to stay patient.
Now, the Sixers are truly all in. The stockpile of assets that the “Trust The Process” era brought them has all but run dry after trading Simmons. They’re in dangerous territory with barely any room for mistakes. The Harden trade was less insurance and more of a gamble.
It’s fair to say now that Harden has to have certain things catered to him to flourish. That was the case in his prime years with the Houston Rockets when Mike D’Antoni devised their system to maximize Harden’s talent, while Daryl Morey only brought in players that perfectly complemented Harden’s skillset. When the Rockets gave a small inkling of change in the front office, Harden made it known that he wanted out. Then the moment things didn’t go exactly as planned in Brooklyn, Harden requested another trade, barely spending a year as a Net.
The Sixers can’t afford to make any drastic shifts to an offense that was already working without Harden. It’s on the former MVP to adapt to playing with a potential MVP. The scary part for the Sixers is that if Harden couldn’t work things out playing next to one of the best scorers ever in Kevin Durant, what are the chances he finds his game playing next to a more traditional big man in Embiid?
There are obvious avenues for the Sixers to slot Harden in immediately. A Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll is a deadly go-to tool that no team, especially in the East, can switch. Embiid’s main weakness as a big is shot creation in the clutch as teams easily double him and skew the defense on his side. If Harden can muster even 80 percent of the juice that made him MVP, the Sixers no longer have to struggle to find a shot late in the fourth quarter.
The pitfalls of this trade are also glaring. Trading away Seth Curry removes their best shooter and dribble hand-off partner for Embiid. Harden and Curry are on the opposite spectrums as shooters. Whereas Curry depends on constant off-ball movement and screens, Harden prefers to hunt his deep attempts off the dribble. Without the ball in his hands, Harden has been limited as a basketball player.
It shouldn’t be an overreaction to say that the next few months will be the most pivotal in Sixers’ history since they hired Sam Hinkie. The Sixers are betting on prime Embiid now and are taking an even bigger risk by taking in an aging star in Harden. With the East in a constant state of chaos, this might be the best time for the Sixers to get even crazier. There are only two outcomes for the Sixers from here on out: championships or despair.