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Are the Sixers true contenders? It’s too early to know — but they should be better

There are sacrifices being made and players putting in work. There is depth being added and team bonding. This Sixers team should be much better than the one that left the court in disappointing fashion last season.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

After tying their series with the Heat, 2-2, the Sixers were beaten soundly and thoroughly in Game 5 in Miami and back home for Game 6. A team with a pair of superstars in Joel Embiid and James Harden, and a burgeoning star in Tyrese Maxey, went out with nary a whimper.

Jimmy Butler, some guy named P.J. Tucker and the Heat took the Sixers’ heart and soul that night. This offseason has been Daryl Morey’s quest to get them back.

It’s been mostly successful, with Harden taking a pay cut to give the Sixers flexibility, Embiid and Maxey looking to continue their respective ascensions, and positive vibes that have been surrounding the team this summer.

Is it enough for the 2022-23 Sixers to be considered contenders? It’s too early to know, but there are several reasons to think this is a better team than the one that left the floor that night back in May.

The Beard shaves his 2022-23 salary

The longest contract negotiation ever — which wasn’t really a contract negotiation at all — ended last Wednesday night as we received word that Harden and the Sixers agreed to terms. The deal Harden signed ($33M this season, a player option at $35.6M next season) made the Sixers’ entire offseason possible.

As has been noted, if Harden picked up his $47.4M option for 2022-23, the Sixers would’ve been left with very little this offseason. They would’ve had access to the TPMLE (which came in at roughly $6.5M this season) and then been forced to make any other moves via trade and minimum contracts. Instead, Harden’s deal gave the team the maneuverability to not only sign Tucker to the non-taxpayer MLE ($10.5M), but it also gave them access to the biannual exception ($4.1M) to sign Danuel House.

The deal also gives the Sixers future flexibility by being below the tax apron, opening up more trade possibilities between now and the deadline.

Should Harden be canonized for giving up roughly $15M? No. But with this deal, he gave the Sixers a chance to improve this season (and gave himself a better chance at an elusive title) while also betting on himself to possibly cash in as early as next year on a new deal. It feels like a win-win.

Harden also seems like he’s reached a bit of a career crossroads just ahead of his 33rd birthday.

“I’ve got to be cautious of what I eat, because as you get older, your metabolism slows down. It sucks honestly, because I love to eat and I don’t want to be having to watch how many calories I intake,” he said to Haute Time back in July. “I don’t shred fat as fast as I used to, so I have to work extra hard, especially in the summertime. In the summertime, I just want to be free; I want to eat, sip wine, and do whatever I want to do.

“And it’s still [early summer], so I don’t want to be going crazy working out now, but I am going into year 14, so I’ve got to be cautious as far as hitting my peak — when I’m supposed to be in my stride — going into the season.”

The Process ... processing ...

The Sixers were completely outplayed by the Heat, but it is fair to wonder what difference a fully healthy Embiid could’ve made. While he never looked like himself against the Heat with a broken orbital bone and torn ligament in his right shooting thumb, the positive is those injuries were remedied rather quickly once the season ended.

That means Embiid has already begun the process of building upon another season that saw him finish as the runner-up for the league’s MVP.

“And you look, Joel is so dominant when he gets the ball in the regular season obviously,” his trainer Drew Hanlen told our Dave Early back in June, “leading the league in scoring, but in the postseason teams are just throwing two, three guys at him and so we’re trying to just continue to be more and more versatile where they can’t double team him as much. That just means more perimeter-oriented where he can face up and drive from the perimeter which is a lot harder to kind of throw schemes and adjustments at.”

Embiid learning how to better navigate the perimeter and handle double and triple teams, while also being surrounded by a better, deeper supporting cast (and a presumably healthier Harden), should bode very well for the Sixers.

Maxey getting ‘one percent better’

Maxey is considered a franchise cornerstone and virtually untouchable, a source told Liberty Ballers early this summer.

Maxey’s work ethic is reaching somewhat legendary status. Doc Rivers has mentioned that the team logs every player’s time spent in the gym. Maxey by far spends more time there than anyone on the Sixers. Embiid, who you’ll recall was a teammate of the hardest-working basketball player of all time (just ask him), has even said Maxey is the hardest worker he’s ever been around.

The 21-year-old always talks about getting “one percent better every day” — to the point where it’s become a bit of a running joke within the team. After a stellar sophomore season, the question becomes: when does Maxey reach 100 percent?

Last season, Maxey averaged 17.5 points per game on 59.4 true shooting. Only two players have accomplished that at age 21 or younger — Maxey and Trae Young. Maxey’s second season also compares favorably to Cavaliers guard Darius Garland. Garland was an All-Star in his third NBA season.

The passing numbers favor Garland, but the efficiency, turnover numbers and free throw attempts favor Maxey. I cite Garland here just to show what Maxey’s immediate trajectory could look like. It appears to be a question of when, not if, Maxey makes his first All-Star appearance. From there, the sky is the limit.

‘The Dogs’

Morey’s first big offseason acquisition came on draft night. The Sixers traded pick No. 23 and Danny Green (who’s contract was non-guaranteed for $10M in 2022-23 and is coming off a serious knee injury) to the Grizzlies for guard De’Anthony Melton.

Then was adding much-needed mental and physical toughness, stealing Tucker away from Miami to reunite with Morey and Harden. Next was adding more two-way wing depth — after a dearth of such players doomed them — in Danuel House. Get your “Philadelphia Rockets” jokes in, but both Tucker and House represent upgrades from the players that departed.

Those three players have a few key traits in common — they all have high motors, they play defense at a high level, they’re versatile, and they all can make catch-and-shoot threes. The Sixers, even at their peak last season, were a slow and plodding team. Now, they’ve added three rotation players that play 100 mph.

The simplest way to put it is this: Tucker, House and Melton are replacing Green, Paul Millsap and DeAndre Jordan. Those are serious upgrades.

Running deep

With the Sixers adding that trio, the team suddenly has an abundance of versatile, NBA talent. How often do you watch the Heat bring in player after player that contributes and think Why can’t the Sixers have that?

Well, they’re pretty close.

The starting five is rock solid with Harden, Maxey, Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid. Your first four off the bench are Melton, House, Georges Niang, and (likely) Paul Reed. Rivers will likely go with a 10-man rotation to start the season, leaving competition between Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, Shake Milton, and Isaiah Joe for the final spot.

Think about that for a second. Thybulle, Korkmaz and Milton all averaged over 20 minutes a game last season. Now, they’ll be entangled in a competition for the last rotation spot. This team has legitimate depth.

Immaculate vibes

There are so many examples of how good the vibes are with the Sixers, we’ll simply link to several of them here.

I’ll just say it — these videos are so much better to share than Ben Simmons shooting videos in an empty gym.

The vibes around the team seem excellent at the moment. A lot can change as teams encounter adversity, but Rivers has a plan he hopes will make sure his squad comes together through any struggles.

The biggest relationship to monitor will be between Embiid and Harden. Both players seem to be making an effort to bond this summer, something we didn’t see as much of with Embiid and other teammates in the past.

“I talk with Joel frequently and we have meetings about how we’re going to play and what we need to do to help our team win a championship,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “When you have two of the top players at their positions on the same team, that’s a great building block. We’re going to grow together and try to lead this team to the top. I believe we can do it together.”

And while the Sixers seem comfortable with their roster as we inch toward training camp, don’t be surprised if Morey has another trick up his sleeve.

While we wait for the dust to settle in Brooklyn and Utah, don’t be surprised to see Morey get in on the action after the big dominoes fall.

And if nothing transpires, expect Morey to be aggressive at the deadline in looking for that final piece to try to make this team a contender.