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The Sixers have amassed a team full of guys with something to prove

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2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

We’ve reached the point in the offseason when optimism is cresting for most fanbases. Media week was upon us, and every team either had a sunny outlook on their odds of winning big this season or hope for the future. Player after player talked about the work they put in since the bubble ended, and a record-high number of players claim to be in the best shape of their lives. Fans everywhere are atwitter at the notion of their team having what it takes. Everyone is undefeated.

Soon, of course, the bloom will fall off the rose. Washington Wizards fans will be hit with the sobering reality of actually watching Russell Westbrook play basketball every night. Detroit Pistons fans will wake up in a cold sweat as they endure nightmares of the contract Mason Plumlee is earning. Cleveland Cavaliers fans will yearn for another offseason as Collin Sexton and Darius Garland dribble the air out of the basketball each night.

Sixers fans should certainly not feel immune to this phenomenon. I, myself, went through this, last season during the COVID-19-induced respite in the spring. Despite all evidence that the team was fated for an early playoff exit, I talked myself back into the Sixers. It’s difficult now — just a couple weeks until the season begins in earnest — to parse one’s true feelings on the team from the rosy picture being painted of the squad in training camp.

As I attempt to separate fact from fiction and come up with a (somewhat) bipartisan prognostication for this upcoming season in Philadelphia, one theme has stood out: this organization is now full of guys with something to prove, from top to bottom.

Let’s start at the top. Daryl Morey is many things — a widely heralded GM, a pioneer of how modern NBA basketball is played, and the only person to devise a roster good enough to put a true scare into the full-strength Golden State Warriors dynasty.

What he is not is a championship winner. Getting oh so close a few years ago, only to be undone by Chris Paul’s hamstring and catastrophically cold shooting from deep, has left a bad taste in Morey’s mouth.

Someone like Daryl Morey clearly isn’t content to live off the celebrity and notoriety he gained in Houston. At this stage of his career, he is driven by one thing only: winning that elusive championship. When he split from the Houston Rockets, he could easily have taken some time off to recharge and maybe anonymously consult for a team or two. He could’ve retired and aimed his talents and interests at a more passive, less stressful lifestyle. Today, he is the President of Basketball Operations of the Sixers. Sure, Josh Harris and company paid up with a number commensurate with Morey’s stature in the league, but anyone who has heard Morey talk at any length knows that he is driven by and hellbent on punctuating his long, illustrious career with the one descriptor that everyone in sports wants.

Doc Rivers may seem an odd fit for the criteria of this column, as unlike the others, Doc has been to the top of the mountain. In 2008, Rivers achieved NBA nirvana by winning the championship with the Boston Celtics. So what does he have to prove? Doc is one of the most respected and revered figures in the NBA.

Look no further than Doc’s most recent coaching experience.

Rivers was tasked with elevating the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George-led Clippers to the height their talent would suggest they could — at least a Conference Finals showdown with the Lakers. Instead, the Clips blew a 3-1 lead in the second round of the playoffs to the Denver Nuggets. As soon as the season ended, tall tales of the Clippers’ disjointed locker room flooded out, most pitting the old guard of Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, and Patrick Beverley against last season’s star studded additions. The Doc Rivers muckraking began, as he was (fairly) criticized for being overly rigid with his rotation — most notably in his insistence to play Harrell over big man Ivica Zubac.

Soon, the Clippers moved on from Rivers.

The LA-DEN showdown was the third blown 3-1 series lead in Rivers’ career. It’s easy to think that a guy like Doc must be so secure in his legacy that social media chirping about his recent struggles wouldn’t resonate at all. I wouldn’t be so sure. Doc is a prideful guy, and while he isn’t perfect, I’d be surprised if he merely decided to rest on his laurels as things like this are thrown subliminally in his direction:

What I believe Rivers sees in the Sixers is the opportunity to silence his naysayers by being the one coach who could bring a title to this misfit Sixers team. There were far less polarizing opportunities on the market if he wasn’t up for the challenge. Doc is a prideful man who, I’m sure, wants to prove that 2008 wasn’t a flash in the pan, but the first of multiple rings on his hand.

Now we get to the roster. Joel Embiid has had quite the hero’s journey in the NBA. From being everyone’s favorite Twitter jokester whilst sitting out his first two professional seasons, to making a name for himself on the court early and often, to weeping on television after Game 7 heartbreak and getting summarily housed in a four-game sweep at the hands of Boston in consecutive seasons, Embiid’s public image has withstood some hits in recent years. Those hits — combined with the team’s listless, disappointing season — depleted his league-wide respect to such an extent that he was totally omitted from the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams last season.

Embiid has tons to prove. Of course, he will always have the diehards and devotees who stood with him through each bumpy valley along his voyage. But consensus opinion as a top-5 player in the league (a lofty goal but an attainable one for a player with Embiid’s talent) is a prize to be won if Joel has the end-to-end season of which he’s capable. Embiid seems, publicly, to now have the motivation to once-and-for-all maintain his fitness base and captain this team on offense and defense en route to real, sustained contention.

The trouble with Ben Simmons is that, unlike Embiid, he plays everything so very close to the vest. While Embiid can be expressive and verbose in victory and defeat, Simmons so rarely allows us to see a chink in his armor. He is obviously an extremely hard worker, and I’d argue that Simmons most consistently played the hardest of any Sixer on last year’s team. But his glaring deficiency — an unwillingness to shoot — implies so much more than a lack in raw basketball skill that it leads fans and media to assume him complacent. This year, Simmons has broken tradition and done away with the empty gym videos of him firing from deep like he’s Jason Kapono. In his first media availability last week, when asked, he didn’t promise to shoot when he’s open as he did last year, instead lobbing a pat answer about how scoring and winning is important no matter how it happens.

Since entering the league, the one thing that’s become clear about Ben Simmons is that he hates to lose. Even following selections to the All-Defensive and All-NBA teams, Simmons is not immune to the noise surrounding him and his game. He’s aware of the easy jokes made at his expense on social media, and I’d bet he sure wants to shut them up. So while I won’t predict that he will prove himself as a shooter in any meaningful way, I would bet on improvement from Simmons. Maybe that’s him weaponizing his size, speed and athleticism and getting to the free throw line 10 times a game. Maybe he takes another quantum leap as a defender. Simmons hates to lose, and I think this season he will be better as he tries to remove the stench of losing from this franchise.

This roster is littered with guys aiming to prove themselves. From young guys wanting to prove themselves as meaningful two-way contributors on a contender — Tyrese Maxey, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz — to vets like Danny Green and Dwight Howard who want to prove their success as irrespective of their most recent teammates.

The final, most interesting Sixer with something to prove is Tobias Harris. Many of you may think, what in the world does a guy on that contract have to prove? He won. Game over.

I think this line of thinking would underestimate his character. Harris is on an unquestionable overpay. He is a good — not great — player, being paid as one of the best in the league. For two years in a row, Harris has been flat-out bad in the playoffs. Last season, as he shouldered more of the load with Simmons out for the postseason, Harris averaged only 16 points per game on 38 percent shooting from the field. That’s unacceptable. He knows it. He needs to dribble less and shoot at a higher volume from deep. No player wants to be known as an albatross weighing their team down. Especially not a player as high-character and proud as Tobias Harris. There’s no doubt that this season, he will be out to restore his value as a fringe-All Star in the regular season and prove his mettle in the playoffs.

From top to bottom, this new-look Sixers organization is full of guys who have something to prove. Time will tell if all this motivation amounts to a legitimate rise to title contention. But nightly motivation and a change in culture was deeply needed for this team. According to Harris, those wheels are already in motion.

So, do the Sixers have something to prove? Just ask Doc Rivers (via Kyle Neubeck).