This offseason has been nothing if not unusual for the Philadelphia 76ers. After being systematically dismantled on the court in the Orlando bubble via four quick losses to the Boston Celtics, many fans feared that Sixers ownership would be unwilling to go to the necessary lengths to meaningfully improve the team’s future outlook. Sure, many thought, head coach Brett Brown would be fired. That was the one meaningful alteration that seemed destined during the playoffs, as the amiable clipboard-holder had clearly been in Philadelphia one season too long. So a new coach would take over — maybe Ty Lue, maybe Mike D’Antoni, maybe Billy Donovan.
But outside of that?
Fans weren’t so sure. For years, Josh Harris and company had simply tried to brush past their mistakes by shuffling some things around in the team’s executive structure, rather than making the difficult (but also obvious) moves to fire team officials with shoddy records and then supplant them with an executive group to whom they would bequeath full personnel control. For years, the Sixers’ owners cleaned up the mess they made like Adam Sandler in Big Daddy — merely spreading a newspaper over their spilt milk, hoping no one would notice.
The Sixers also stood in a precarious position with star center Joel Embiid. While Embiid had not yet blatantly hinted at wanted to be traded elsewhere, it was easy to connect a few dots and think that maybe he wasn’t so jazzed about the direction of the franchise and the moves that precipitated its tragic fate last season. The furthest Embiid ever got to suggesting he could someday have a wandering eye was in an early February Instagram interchange with former Sixer (and close friend) Jimmy Butler:
Quickly, once Sixers fans had sold out all the defibrillators available on Amazon.com, Embiid followed up with a Philly-friendly post, doing his best to quell the concerns.
But last offseason contained a string of mistakes so detrimental that they (according to Embiid) left him feeling mildly depressed heading into the season. First, after a complicated and ephemeral union, the Sixers moved on from Butler and shipped him to Miami. Then, the team allowed JJ Redick — the team’s best perimeter shooter and Embiid’s dribble-hand-off partner — to flock to the New Orleans Pelicans. And finally, the pièce de résistance, the team signed Al Horford to a four-year, $100 million contract. So the team allowed Embiid’s two favorite teammates to get away, and then used their cap space on an old guy who plays the same position he does.
The toll that these moves took on the Sixers on the court was rather empirical: the team’s spacing collapsed, and it’s isolation ball-handler was nowhere to be found. The “bully ball” ethos that Brown trumpeted in training camp proved to be no more befitting of the team than “Passionate, Intense, Proud” was of the Evan Turner-era Sixers.
The toll that the moves took on the team’s best player, however, went beyond basketball. Of course, the spacing deficiency made it worlds harder for him to do his job, but the moves also left Embiid unhappy and underwhelmed heading into the season. Time and again, Embiid discussed how he was no longer having fun playing basketball, and how he needed to find an avenue back to that part of himself.
I’m not one for coddling star players and walking on eggshells around them. They’re professionals and shouldn’t be in charge of personnel decisions unless they’re LeBron James. But the ways that the team had blatantly ignored both what Embiid wanted in his teammates and the ways to build the most productive basketball situation around him made me worried that the clock was ticking on his inevitable trade request.
Over the last few months, the Sixers have changed all of that. Through various player personnel, executive-level and coaching staff changes, the team has undone the harm they did a year ago.
So here are the five ways that the Sixers have supported Joel Embiid this offseason.
They Hired Doc Rivers as Head Coach
Rivers’ hiring was met with instant public approval from Embiid online:
This may seem like some sort of hollow formality, but I don’t think it is. If you scan Embiid’s timeline, there was no “Welcome to Philly, Al Horford!” message last summer. No “Let’s do this, Alex Rucker! #PhilaTough” to be found. He only voices his support with a move if he really supports it — which is not to say that any move about which he’s silent must be one he doesn’t like. Recently, in his first interview since the season ended, Embiid confirmed his approval of Rivers to Sixers.com reporter Brian Seltzer, saying, “I’m excited about working for Coach Rivers. Coach Rivers has a great track record. I’m excited for him to come in and lead us and put us on the right track.”
Rivers is a championship coach, but not one who ought to be impervious to blame for failures in his past. Most recently, he was unable to strike the right chord to elevate the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George-led Clippers to the Western Conference Finals. Rivers is not a perfect coach, and he’s not a coach without some unsavory blemishes on his record.
But he is the most respected coaching figure among players in the NBA. He carries a cache and gravitas with him that commands a room, and when coaching the right players, the personality and acumen to lead a unit to the promised land. I don’t think there was a coach on the market whom Embiid could more easily trust with his prime years.
They Hired Daryl Morey
This is a really well-trodden path at this point, but it bares repeating: after Bryan Colangelo (and possibly his wife) humiliated the organization by using the veil of fake Twitter accounts to defend his transactions, reveal sensitive team information, and continuously deride Embiid, Joshua Harris and the Sixers’ ownership group insisted that Colangelo’s colleagues stay with the franchise after his departure.
While I’m sure he only delves so deep into the granular details of the team’s palace intrigue, Embiid is a smart guy. He knows what’s up. He was also deeply committed to former general manager Sam Hinkie. Hinkie even went so far as to state that he and Embiid still speak “frequently” and that they remain close friends when interviewed by Pablo Torre on the ESPN Daily podcast recently.
So who better to replace the shambolic structure that had too long permeated the team’s ranks that Hinkie’s former boss, Daryl Morey? In that same conversation with Seltzer, Embiid said, “Daryl, I think he’s going to be great. I’ve talked to him a lot. We like to talk about basketball, but you can relate with someone when you can just talk about life. You can just sit there [with him], you can talk about anything really. I feel like that’s where our connection has been and obviously about basketball, how we can improve the team and make it better.” Forget, for a second, that Morey is without question one of the five best executives in the NBA. This is a far cry from the reported relationship between Embiid and the previous regime(s). Morey seems to be keeping his star in the loop consistently, and that’s a welcome change.
They Traded Al Horford
This is not to suggest that Horford was some sort of pernicious, evildoing presence in the locker room, hell-bent on holding Embiid back. Horford and the Sixers, I’m sure, entered into this union with optimism only, badly wanting to bring a title to Philadelphia together.
It just simply did not work, and was ill-conceived from the start.
Horford, at this stage in his career, simply cannot play power forward next to a back-to-the-basket center like Embiid. And he certainly could not co-exist in a starting lineup that contained not only Embiid, but also a 6-foot-10 point guard who won’t shoot. He was benched late in the season as this became clear, and paying $30 million annually to a backup center was a clear misuse of resources. Instead of returning Horford to give the same roster a try with a new head coach, Morey attached a first and a second-round pick to him in order to ship him to Oklahoma City and welcome Danny Green — a shooter and defender rather perfectly equipped to play alongside Embiid (and Ben Simmons). It was in the best interest of all involved (but especially Embiid) for the Sixers to find a home elsewhere for Al Horford. Recouping Green in the process was an example of some extremely shrewd dealing from Daryl Morey.
They Traded for Seth Curry
In another draft night move, Morey shipped shooting guard Josh Richardson and a second-round pick to Dallas in exchange for sharpshooter (and Doc Rivers’ son-in-law) Seth Curry. This is no grand indictment on Richardson — a fine player who seemed to get along well with Embiid — but it is a remarkably valuable acquisition for a team like the Sixers. Embiid has been far from shy about yearning for the glory days of his unstoppable dribble-hand-off with JJ Redick, and how he felt heartbroken at the thought of never regaining that particular action again in his career.
Seth Curry could absolutely bring that to the table in the Sixers’ offense.
While not as accomplished or versatile a defender as Richardson, Curry gives you shooting in spades. Throughout his career, he has averaged 44 percent shooting from 3-point range on high volume. Curry has the skill set to meaningfully alleviate the issues with spacing the Sixers had last year.
Morey put it best when discussing the Green and Curry additions following the draft: “Having a truly gravity elite shooter really changes the dynamic for Ben and Joel.” Curry can now become a core piece on this roster, as he’s under team control for an extremely reasonable $8 million per year for three more seasons.
They Signed Justin Anderson
This, as a move on the fringes of the roster, may seem immaterial, but hear me out. Throughout his career, Embiid has not been shy when talking about who he’s been closest with, personally, on the team. From Nerlens Noel, to Justin Anderson, to Jimmy Butler, Embiid has had some very close friends on the team, all of whom left the team in short order, one way or another.
Last week, the Sixers re-signed Anderson — who was a part of the Sixers’ 2017 and 2018 squads — to a partially-guaranteed two-year deal. Anderson is strong and physical, but he lacks the requisite offensive tools you generally look for when filling out a Simmons and Embiid roster.
I’m actually a bit bullish on the prospect of Anderson playing 5-to-10 minutes per game in the playoffs when the Sixers need help slowing a bigger perimeter threat.
But forget on-court contributions for a moment — the Sixers reacquired a person whom Joel Embiid many times deemed his best friend. This is important. The NBA is driven by star players and their agents more and more every day. Teams throughout the league go to great lengths to keep these stars happy — they hire assistant coaches who carry a strong relationship with said player, they aim to support them holistically in every way. Another way teams have showed appreciation and value in their star players over the years has been by awarding an end-of-the-bench roster spot to someone their star wants around. The regular season can be a slog, and you want to keep your star’s spirits afloat by surrounding them the way they want to be surrounded. This isn’t LeBron making the Cavaliers trade a first-round pick for an over-the-hill Kyle Korver, this is a choice to award DNP-CD’s to Justin Anderson instead of Derrick Walton Jr. It’s a small token at first glance, but it’s one that could certainly help appease Embiid in the short term.
Good on Daryl Morey, Josh Harris and the Sixers for finally throwing their full, unbridled support behind Joel Embiid. While the roster ought to remain under constant scrutiny and no one should be patting themselves on the back too much, the job now falls to Joel. He now has a roster he can win with, an executive he can trust, and a coach he believes in. He must now blossom into the leader and top-5 player he has the potential to be.