The first 22 games of Joel Embiid have exceeded all reasonable expectations. He’s leading the team in three-point percentage, anchoring an otherwise erratic defense, and producing efficiently with an unprecedented usage percentage. It’s easy to begin dreaming of how quickly the Sixers can ascend now that they have Embiid on the court.
Before we put the cart before the horse, however, it’s worth looking at tonight’s Sixers opponent as an example of how not to build around a budding star.
The tales of New Orleans and Philadelphia have been intertwined over the last few seasons thanks to Sam Hinkie’s opening trade as Sixers GM. It represented a dramatic shift for both franchises; the Pelicans were interested in winning now and pushed hard for a point guard fresh off an All-Star appearance, while the Sixers dismantled a team that wasn’t good enough to make any noise even in a weak Eastern Conference.
Anthony Davis has been ridiculous for the Pelicans, particularly this season. He’s averaging 31.6 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks per game on better than 50 percent shooting. The list of players who have managed that over a full season are, well, it's just him. And yet, the Pelicans sit well outside the playoff picture with a 7-15 record.
The reasons for that are complicated. New Orelans invested a lot of money in players that, frankly, aren’t quite good enough to move the needle. They unloaded a first for Omer Asik in 2014, only to figure out Davis should be playing more time at center. They spent lavishly on players like Tyreke Evans, dedicating excessive time and money to a player incapable of playing off-ball (with a checkered health history to boot). In this year’s NBA Draft, they selected Buddy Hield, the latest in a long history of moves putting the present ahead of the future without present returns to justify them.
There’s no definitive way to make it happen, but the best run franchises in all sports look for the extra edge long-term even as they try to produce results on a consistent basis. The Spurs prioritized overseas talent before the rest of the NBA caught on. Powerhouse soccer clubs like Barcelona invest heavy sums into youth academies, making sure they have reinforcements when their big-money talents are old and/or injured.
This isn’t to say moves for the present are negative by their very nature. Talented players that could never stay healthy in New Orleans (Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson) are thriving in Houston under Mike D’Antoni. But New Orleans’ current roster shows what happens when you push all your chips into the middle too soon, with nothing promising in the pipeline to protect against underachieving in the short-term.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the moment whether you’re a fan or an executive watching guys like Davis and Embiid play basketball. Time and time again we’re reminded that these guys can only do so much early on; basketball intelligentsia sold itself on Karl-Anthony Towns being ready to lead the Wolves into the playoffs this season, only to face the reality of what it means to rely so heavily on ultra-young players as centerpieces.
The Sixers have nothing but time in front of them. The player they selected with this year’s No. 1 overall pick hasn’t played a single game yet, and he’s probably the second-best prospect on the roster. The franchise would do well to remember that, particularly when they line up for tonight’s game and stand across from a rag-tag band of players, the product of an organization rushing to augment their franchise talent.
Team-building musings aside, Sixers fans should get a healthy dose of Embiid tonight, with the team’s next game coming on Sunday evening.
Regardless of the lineup the Pelicans trot out, he should be able to tilt the game in his team’s favor. Against a more plodding center in Asik, Embiid’s shooting ability will create space in the paint for teammates, and a match-up with Davis gives the Sixers a significant size and weight advantage on both ends. Brett Brown will have to hope the Pelicans play Asik a lot, as Davis will present the stiffest defensive test yet for the Sixers’ rookie center.
Don’t expect the undermanned unit you saw in Memphis to get much in the way of reinforcements behind Embiid; Jahlil Okafor, Jerryd Bayless, and Robert Covington are not expected to join the team in New Orleans, leaving the team with just 10 players available to suit up. Richaun Holmes, a primary beneficiary of extra playing time on Tuesday night, figures to get another heavy dose of minutes in this one.
If the Sixers clean up the free-throw woes that plagued them against the Grizzlies and continue knocking down shots at the rate they have all season, this is a prime opportunity for a road win.
Start time: 8 p.m. EST
Local TV: The Comcast Network