If you navigate over to the quite-active Twitter account of the Sixers’ President of Basketball Operations, Daryl Morey, you can do a great deal of inferring. Throughout the on-again-off-again, will-they-won’t-they dalliance between Morey’s new franchise and his former (the Houston Rockets) in negotiating for the services of superstar guard James Harden, fans and media alike spent lots of time and energy jumping to conclusions based on Morey’s recently ‘liked’ tweets.
“He just liked a tweet about Ben Simmons in crunch time, he’s not going anywhere!”
In the end, all this inferring was for naught. As the rubber hit the road in reference to the Harden trade talks on Wednesday afternoon, Morey and the Sixers were right in the thick of it, and Ben Simmons was on the table.
Morey, of course, did not end up reacquiring James Harden; instead deciding to leave the negotiating table rather than match the draft equity ponied up by the Brooklyn Nets, and reportedly refusing to relinquish Sixers rookie guard Tyrese Maxey in the process. Harden landed in Brooklyn, and the rest is soon to be history.
But for me, the most relevant takeaway from looking over Morey’s Twitter profile isn’t his ‘likes,’ or his retweets, or his back-and-forths with local and national reporters or podcasters. It’s the second line of his bio.
Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.
What at first glance may just seem like a pithy bumper-sticker that looks nice under his header and rolls off the tongue, I believe, implies much more about the man who runs the account and the Sixers.
Morey is many things — he’s one of the most respected and accomplished executives in the NBA, he is in large part responsible for the on-court trajectory of the game of basketball at large, and he is amongst the most active and insatiable front office people the league has ever seen.
What he is not, is a champion.
Throughout his career, Morey has been rather explicit about the degree to which he is starved for a championship ring. It drives each of his decisions, it is the central reason Morey decided to part ways with Houston and is now in Philadelphia. He knows firsthand how ephemeral true title contention can be and has been in the league. Once upon a time, Morey’s Rockets seemed destined to raise a banner, but one Chris Paul hamstring and 27 missed three-pointers later, and they went home empty-handed.
Being that ‘opportunity is not a lengthy visitor’ can be somewhat presumed as Morey’s occupational ethos, I was surprised when he left the table without acquiring James Harden. The precipitating reports have been predictably abundant and somewhat conflicting. Maybe Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta was still sore from Morey’s exit, and decided to attach such a mighty tariff to any deal with Philadelphia (sure, we’ll take Simmons, but you need to send every attractive future pick and young player in the organization, as well) that the Sixers were merely used as leverage, in the end.
Maybe Morey and his staff believe so heavily in Maxey — the 20-year-old guard nabbed with the 21st pick in the most recent draft — that they simply couldn’t reconcile dealing a 24-year-old who was just named to both the All-NBA and All-Defense teams and their prized rookie for a player who was recently shrouded in as much controversy as James Harden, especially if the requisite future picks were already part of the equation.
Part of trading someone as good and young and cost-controlled as Simmons is generally that it saves you from saturating the rest of the offer with more stuff you value highly. Who knows. Maybe it wasn’t in the stars.
But here’s the thing: that ‘opportunity’ Daryl alludes to in his Twitter bio?
It’s here, and its name is Joel Embiid.
The Sixers’ homegrown big man is now 13 games into the season, and he looks better than ever. He’s combined his annually-excellent defense and low-post mastery with far improved conditioning, passing and demeanor. It is in no way hyperbolic to call him the current league MVP favorite.
So, while there’s sure to be talk about the Sixers’ youth — Embiid is 26, Simmons 24 — and how passing on the Harden trade allows the team to keep its window of contention open for longer than it would’ve been had the Sixers acquired the 31-year-old Harden, I’d caution you to not be fooled by their ages or by those who award this current team the misnomer of “contender.”
First, Embiid will be 27 in March — smack dab in the middle of his physical prime. He is not some plucky upstart with miles and miles of runway ahead. He’s in his salad days, and he’s also a 7-foot-2 human being who has a history of serious injury. The Sixers cannot waste a season in which Embiid looks this good, this engaged, this dominant. In September, I wrote a piece about how it was my belief that the most meaningful improvement possible for the Sixers lied within the team’s two stars. Substantial development and refinements from Simmons and Embiid would dwarf any possible ancillary cosmetic tune-ups to the roster. Well, the season is in full swing, and Embiid has made those improvements. The Sixers mustn’t let this season pass them by. (Simmons, meanwhile, has not made those improvements. He is still very good but looks exactly the same, offensively, as he has throughout his NBA career. He remains a complete non-shooter, an iffy finisher, and he spends full games avoiding eye-contact with the rim the way we were all told to not look directly at the sun during the 2017 eclipse.)
People also have a tendency to look at Simmons and Embiid’s contracts and assume that, for instance, since Simmons is in the first of a five-year deal, Simmons and Embiid have four more years to ascend together, should this season end in disappointment. This isn’t so. Player mobility is at an all-time-high, and executives in the league need to work daily to stave off wandering eyes from their core players. Another year that ends without a Finals appearance from the Simmons-Embiid duo would surely lead to loads of trade speculation, and likely ultimately a consummated trade.
The most tantalizing part of the Harden possibility, to me, was that Harden and Embiid would have had a chance to make the Sixers true title contenders.
The current Sixers are good. They shoot well, defend well, and Embiid gives them a chance every night, against anyone. But they’re not title contenders. This roster desperately lacks an elite creator from the perimeter — an element of nearly every Finals team of the modern era. As presently constructed, it will be a dogfight for the Sixers to make it out of the second round (again).
For one reason or another, Daryl Morey was unable to bring James Harden to Philadelphia. But Joel Embiid is a player in his prime in the midst of an MVP-caliber season. He represents the opportunity that few players ever do, if surrounded properly. It is now on Morey to waste no time and find Embiid a running-mate with whom he can contend for a championship, because as Morey knows, opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.