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A new challenge awaits for Joel Embiid with 2023-24 Sixers

With James Harden waiting for a trade and the Bucks/Damian Lillard making the East even stronger, Joel Embiid has a tough task ahead of him to lead the Sixers next season.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Six Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Ready or not, another season of 76ers basketball is right around the corner. With that being said, it is once again time for preseason player profiles at Liberty Ballers.

We’ve already previewed several players, looking forward to how they could impact the team in the 2023-24 season.

Joel Embiid

Age: 29

Contract status: Four years, $213.28 million remaining (including a $59.03 million player option for 2026-27)

Usually when you’re talking about the NBA’s reigning MVP in this kind of article, they’re going to be entering a new season on a high note. But this is the Sixers. Of course things have to be weirder with worse vibes than that.

Despite winning his first MVP award and putting on an absolute show in the regular season, Embiid ended the playoffs with an extremely disappointing showing. When he and James Harden needed to show up the most to close the Sixers’ last two second-round games against the Celtics, they came up well short. Again, Embiid wasn’t fully healthy and that does need to be considered. But that’s a problem in itself if Embiid playing below 100 percent in the playoffs is the norm.

For now, Harden is on the team but completely mentally checked out. And seeing as it should only be a matter of time before he’s traded, there’s no denying that the team’s offense won’t be the same without him. The Sixers’ offense hummed to the elite tune of a 117 offensive rating last regular season (which ranked third in the NBA), often led by Harden and Embiid’s dominant pick-and-roll connection.

There’s simply no way to replace Harden’s exceptional creativity, vision, accuracy and timing as a passer, which helped Embiid thrive through his shorts rolls to the lane and favorite face-up spots around the elbows.

Embiid was a dominant near 30-point-per-game scorer before Harden arrived and he’ll continue to be that after. The main reason Embiid has climbed to MVP level is also because he’s continually developed all parts of his game. That said, it’s also no accident that he had the most efficient regular season of his career in 2022-23 (with a 65.5 true shooting percentage). Harden — from his great entry passes to their pick-and-roll play — set up Embiid with many of the easiest looks he’s ever had.

How Embiid adjusts his shot profile without Harden, and how the Sixers (primarily Tyrese Maxey as he takes on a larger role) can facilitate alongside him will be one of the most interesting things to watch for Embiid as next season gets underway. Leaning into Maxey’s pace, both in transition and through quick-twitch half-court drives and two-man play, would be one positive.

Bearing in mind Embiid’s track record of improvement, it’ll also be interesting to see if he’s honed any new tricks. As his trainer Drew Hanlen shared on a recent episode of LB’s Out of Site podcast, Embiid has spent a lot of time working on his floater and hook shot this summer. Could any improvement with those shots — especially the floater, a shot which Embiid hasn’t typically used that much in the past — help him in pick-and-roll situations, even if Harden isn’t there to assist for easier looks?

Ideally Embiid will go back to leading a bit more as a playmaker himself, too. He’s continually improved his passing and vision against double teams, and we’ve see how effective he can be handling the ball more in transition or from the middle of the floor in the Sixers’ Delay actions. Both before Harden arrived, and when the guard has simply been off the floor. Embiid forcing things more as a scorer wouldn’t necessarily be the best way to help the team’s offense. Following Embiid’s (and Nick Nurse’s) stylistic approach on offfense will be a key storyline to monitor.

Maybe Jrue Holiday could even be brought in to help...

At the other end of the floor, will Nurse have any defensive adjustments or new ways to utilize Embiid? One change could be the potential to use Paul Reed more at the 4 and mix him into lineups next to Embiid. A more supersized, versatile lineup like that sounds like just the sort of grouping Nurse would enjoy experimenting with.

As sour as the taste of the Sixers’ last playoff exit is, and as much as Embiid needs to prove himself in the playoffs, we can’t forget just how incredible a talent he is. And how much fun he was to watch for the vast majority of last season.

With Harden’s future and trade return so uncertain, and the vibes of this team being as bad as they’ve been for quite some time, awaiting the return of MVP Embiid should be something to look forward to.

Yet, as I write this, Milwaukee have gone and made things even harder for the Sixers in the Eastern Conference... Damian Lillard is a Buck.

Another challenging year awaits.

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