The Sixers are now in the endgame

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Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid takes a shot during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

When Joel Embiid worsened his injured knee while fighting for a loose ball against the Golden State Warriors, the fate of this year’s Philadelphia 76ers team was sealed. There was no trade, no lineup adjustment, no post-deadline roster cuts, no reserves stepping up and leading that would save the season for the Sixers. It’s something that has become hard to accept, but the writing is on the wall.

“Reality can be disappointing. That is, it was. Now, reality can be whatever I want.”

In Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos uttered that line when he revealed that he could alter reality. Sixers’ president of basketball operations, Daryl Morey, has seemingly taken this to heart.

At the trade deadline, Morey pulled the trigger on several deals, sending away players like Marcus Morris, Furkan Korkmaz, Daniel House Jr., Jaden Springer, and Pat Beverley and, in their place, returning some draft capital as well as Buddy Hield and Cam Payne.

These players, coupled with a change in fortunes on the injury report and the rise of some depth talents, helped give the Sixers the most complete squad they possibly mustered. The team was assembled to be among the best in the league around the ultimate Avenger, Joel Embiid.

When Embiid is on the court and healthy, like Iron Man, he can pretty much do anything that he wants at any time and be successful. Embiid can save the Sixers‘ universe, but he can’t do it alone, and the rest of the assembled Avengers on the roster can’t do it without him.

“I know what it’s like to lose. To feel so desperate that you’re right, yet to fail nonetheless. It’s Frightening.”

Thanos said this line as he battled Thor, and nothing could come closer to describing the Sixers over the past 20 years. With each attempt at changing the team, the coach, the management, or the system, the Sixers have nothing to show for it.

Throughout The Process, Brian Colangelo, Brett Brown, Daryl Morey, Doc Rivers, and more draft misses than we should care to talk about, the Sixers have always operated under the assumption that they were right and this “next idea” would be the one that got them to the ultimate goal.

They’ve failed, nonetheless. This isn’t to blame them for what’s happened; it’s just time that we start to accept reality. Who could have predicted that Colangelo would trade two first-round picks to Boston for a guy that the Celtics never planned on drafting and would eventually forget how to shoot a basketball while dealing with a mysterious shoulder injury?

Who could have predicted that Jahlil Okafor would peak in his rookie season? Who could have seen the Ben Simmons fallout? Too many players have come and gone that seemed like they would work out and, for some reason, never did.

On the coaching side, you can’t fault Brett Brown for not winning a title. He was never meant to get them there. Brown was a coach who could relate to younger players, develop them, and get the team to the point where a winning veteran coach could get them over the final hurdle to a title. Unfortunately, the Sixers chose Doc Rivers, and that ultimately saw them come up short on several more occasions.

Now, it’s Nick Nurse’s turn, and he seemed to be sailing smoothly along the schedule with Embiid leading a squad that was put together specifically to get the team to a title. It’s early in the tenure of Nurse, and there’s not much that he can do this season other than keep developing those players who are here and hope that they see a healthy return from Embiid.

The Sixers, again, are right. They’ve assembled a team that will challenge for a title. They’ve brought in the right players and head coach to get them to their ultimate goal. This is the year that things will be different until they’re not.

“Your optimism is misplaced”

Looking through the Sixers roster, you could argue that players like Buddy Hield, Nico Batum, Kelly Oubre Jr., and some of the youngsters will be here and contribute over the next couple of years, providing the Sixers with a core group to build around, with Embiid leading the way. Tyrese Maxey is the true second star that fits best with Embiid and all of his otherworldly talent, a player who not only plays better when Embiid is on the floor but helps Embiid to play better.

Batum is 35 years old and while he’s a good veteran leader and has been labeled as a key piece of the Sixers’ success this season, his 6 points and 4 rebounds per game aren’t enough to truly elevate. It’s nice to think that between advice and a timely rebound or putback is helping but there are probably 20 other guys in the league that you could get to do the same thing. Those aren’t the stats of a starter on a championship team.

Kelly Oubre Jr., while a good story coming over to the Sixers in the Harden trade, is having his worst season since the 2017-18 season he played in Washington. Kyle Lowry, while a heartwarming story of a local kid coming home, is 37 years old and not the Kyle Lowry from the Raptors. Budd Hield is 31 and could still have a few good years ahead of him that align with the Sixers’ window.

After that, what’s left? Robert Covington, DeAnthony Melton, Cam Payne, Paul Reed, and a few guys who are very good G-League players but not going to be giving the team any real quality minutes.

You have to be optimistic when you have players like Embiid and Maxey on the roster, there’s only so much the two of them can do together, and they’re severely limited when they’re missing one or the other. The optimism is misplaced.

“The Hardest Choices Require The Strongest Wills.”

For the Sixers, they’re going to be forced to look at life without Joel Embiid sooner rather than later. In the immediate future, the team is stuck in its current position, which is falling slowly with each game. The bigger picture requires a more detailed analysis.

Do they bring back the pairing of Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, surrounded by some players like Oubre, Melton, Reed, Hield, and a few others, and trade for the third star that’s eluded Tobias Harris? Do they go all-in on a free agent like Paul George if he were to make it to free agency? Do they look at the health and youth of Tyrese Maxey and decide that moving Embiid for the insane amount they could get in return would benefit the team more in the long run? Do they gamble on the MVP being able to make it through a whole season, over one of the next three, and lead them to an actual title?

They’re going to have to make some very tough choices and will need the strongest of wills.

“I am inevitable”

In the end, the Sixers are enduring another season that will not end in a championship. As much as the fans would like to believe that Embiid will return at the end of the season and be just as dominant as a completely healthy Embiid was early in the season, you can’t rely on hope.

The team is not set up to be a title contender in its current form without Embiid. There is nothing that they’ve done to show that they can compete with the best this league has to offer in the playoffs without their star player.

The Sixers are slipping, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Tyrese Maxey, for all of his talent, can not carry this squad on his back. It’s too much to ask of the young superstar. Buddy Hield, for all of the quality three-point shooting that he’s brought in his eight games since being acquired, isn’t going to shoot the Sixers to a title.

There’s nothing that Joel Embiid can do this season. If, and it’s a huge “if”, he can come back at the end of the season and get a few games under his belt to gear up for the playoffs, there are way too many obstacles to overcome. The Sixers have to win games and with the current lineup, against the slate of teams that they have to face toward the end of the year, that is going to be a hard thing to do.

They would not only have to keep everyone else on the roster healthy (which in itself has proven to be difficult), but they would also have to learn how to work with Embiid on the floor after 30 games without him. Teething problems would be expected, but hardly ideal.

For the Sixers and this season, the towel should be thrown in. They have to know what they have in players like Robert Covington and De’Anthony Melton and make their decisions on re-signing them based on that knowledge.

They should be getting players like Terquavion Smith, Ricky Council IV, and KJ Martin as many quality minutes as they can to see what they may be able to provide to the team in the future. Let Joel Embiid get healthy, truly healthy. Let the knee heal so he can gear up for next season as one of the greatest players to ever wear a Sixers uniform without a worry that he’s pushed himself too hard, too soon.

The Sixers shouldn’t be relying on hope. They shouldn’t be hoping that Embiid comes back in six weeks as 100% healthy and in the best shape. They shouldn’t be hoping that Tobias Harris will put it together without Emiid on the court and being a consistent contributor to the team.

They shouldn’t be hoping that Buddy Hield and Kyle Lowry can produce like the players they were five or six seasons ago. The front office can’t be watching this team and hoping that they can win a title because the reality is the team losing early in the playoffs if they make the playoffs at all.

It’s inevitable.