Joel Embiid makes everything better

Joel Embiid makes everything better

When the folklore is passed down from generation to generation about the Philaelphia 76ers' preseason victory over the Brooklyn Nets on a Wednesday night at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, it will probably go unmentioned how the game started as the rest of this preseason has for the Sixers: poorly, very poorly. It was 17-7 in a blink, with the Nets hitting threes from everywhere and the Sixers coughing the ball up like they were Julianne Moore in Safe. It seemed like we were on our way to having a long night on Long Island. 

And then Joel Embiid checked into the game. 

OK, that's only sorta how the game turned around. First off, the reversal of fortune really started when T.J. McConnell entered, quickly hitting two of his trademark mid-range leaners and steadying a previously unsteady offense. And second off, Embiid had already been in the game for a three-minute stretch, hitting his first jumper and grabbing a couple boards before being replaced by Amir Johnson — and rolling his eyes so hard at the quick substitution he popped a couple blood vessels. 

But wow. JoJo. 

Embiid checked back in with 3:53 to go, meaning he played under seven minutes total in the first half. Before the buzzer sounded on the quarter, he'd scored 11 points and been to the line eight times, collected four boards and swatted one gigantic block — and the Sixers were up 30-22, never to trail again. They went on to win 133-114 — in a game that really wasn't even close to being that close — with Embiid ultimately racking up 22 points, seven boards, three assists and that huge block in just 15 minutes of game action. Suddenly, everything makes sense with the Sixers again. 

So you still want to know why the Philadelphia 76ers gave Joel Embiid $148 million, perhaps? Well, let's start with this: Last season, there were just 16 players in the entire league who drew at least 18 free throws in a single game — two of whom were put on the line intentionally, and one of whom was JoJo himself. Well, Embiid did that last night, and he did it in just 15 minutes. There was simply no keeping him off the line last night, with the undersized Nets woefully unprepared to handle the size, athleticism and craftiness of the supposedly rusty Joel Embiid. (Lest we forget, The Process hadn't played competitively in over eight months — he should still need, like, an adjustment period, or at least a ramp-up quarter, come on.) 

But no — Embiid was dominant all game, also hitting fadeaway jumpers, top-of-the-arc nearly-threes, and wing bankers. He even had a nice run in the third of allowing teammates to play off him, punctuated by a beautiful two-man game with Simmons that led to Jo feeding Ben on a baseline cut for an easy dunk. He wasn't quite as spirit-crushing on D as he is at his uppermost brutality, but soon the Sixers were running the score up with such giddiness that it wouldn't matter anyway. JoJo checked out for good with just under nine minutes left in the third, and Philly had already posted 87 by that point — just two fewer than they managed in a full 48 against the Grizzlies a week earlier. 

The only downside of his performance was that every time he made physical contact with another player and/or the ground, you nearly doubled over out of nausea. But that's just kind of how it is with The Process: He gives you basketball play like you never thought possible in a Sixers uni, and in return you feel like you're being dropped in the Tower of Terror 20 times a game. It's not an unfair tradeoff, really. 

Simmons, in his first start alongside Embiid, was hardly as immaculate, but also not without his own electricity. It's not his lack of a jumper that's so concerning — although when he's given a wide-open six-footer in the lane and seems to have a panic attack deciding what to do, that's certainly not great — it's his total lack of touch around the basket, his inability to manipulate angles or even impose with brute force. But he jumpstarted the Sixers' offense in this one nearly as much as JoJo, finding Dario Saric for a couple clean early second-quarter threes that got him rolling in a major way. And get dude in transition and he is trouble: There was one look-ahead dish to J.J. Redick for an easy, open corner triple in transition that seems like it should be good for about six points a game, 82 games a season for this team. The possibilities are really breathtaking. 

But remarkably, the team right now doesn't run best with Simmons at point, or with Fultz, who sat this one out, or even with Jerryd Bayless, who had a decent game in this one but has still yet to really impress this preseason. Nah, it's with grizzled vet Timothy John at the helm: barking out directions, squirming his way into the lane for weird jumpers, finding his guys behind the arc and at the basket. He had 10 points and seven dimes in just 20 minutes in this one, totally changing the team's temperature when he checked in midway through the 1st, giving 'em a fluency and coherence they just don't have with anyone else manning the one right now. There may be some games when Bayless starts ahead of Fultz in the team's first five this season, but there may also be some when T.J. displaces Simmons.

As crucial as T.J. looks to this team right now, just about the exact opposite could be said for his good buddy Nik Stauskas. Poor Sauce just can't get it going right now, seemingly growing more exasperated with every reverse layup that spills off the rim, every triple that clanks off the back iron, every no-look pass that caroms off the intended target's fingers. Will he be good someday? I still have to believe yes for our long-suffering Sauce, but he's really running out of time in Philly, especially with so many of our other wings — TLC, Korkmaz, maybe even James Blackmon — seemingly passing him on the wing utility depth chart. A good Nik game would go a long way at this point. 

And we should probably take a second to make more than a passing reference to Dario Saric's hot night. Dario's play in EuroBasket this summer had fans hoping that he'd managed to extend his shooting range, but a flat start to his preseason had dampened expectations a little. Then in the second quarter, he drilled four triples in a row, on his way to a team-high 26-point night, along with nine boards and three steals. This upcoming season, Saric will almost certainly have plenty of both games like last night and games like Monday's more bricktastic affair against the Celtics, but as long as he can be that X-factor-type player for the Sixers, who can swing a game when he really gets going, that's a huge weapon off the bench for a team that's been too lacking in starting-five excellence to even worry about having that kind of depth in recent years. 

When the final buzzer sounded last night, though, all that really mattered was Embiid. He came, he cackled, he conquered, and he left the floor without suffering any obvious career- or life-ending injuries. Feels good to get our first win of the preseason, obviously — one against a division rival with an improbable 3-0 record this preseason going into Wednesday — but at this point, you have to say that any game that ends with JoJo smiling as wide as he did before tip-off Needs be considered a W for the Sixers. Having more points than the other team as well is just a bonus.

Sixers give Joel Embiid max contract, rest of team shows us why they had to

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Sixers give Joel Embiid max contract, rest of team shows us why they had to

My only regret is that the Sixers have but one max contract to give for our JoJo. 

In case you missed it, the Colangelos dropped a spicy Woj Bomb on the NBA world last night in the form of a five-year, $148 million contract extension for one Joel Hans Embiid, ensuring that The Process will stay in Philly for the foreseeable future. I'll save you the math: That's ~$4,774,194 per contest for JoJo over his 31-game NBA career to date. It's also about $50 million more than we have in all other player salary on the books after this season combined. 

And that's fine. Totally. I couldn't say with confidence that Joel Embiid will ever play a mostly-healthy season for the Philadelphia 76ers — hell, I can't even say with complete assuredness that Joel Embiid will ever play a mostly-healthy game for the Philadelphia 76ers again — but that doesn't really affect my opinion of this contract. If anything, it just makes me grateful that the powers that be realized that we still had to ink it ASAP. 

Is there risk to go with the contract? Of course, but the risk is not with the money, it's with Joel. The money doesn't matter: There's no amount of money we could legally give Embiid that wouldn't be worth what he'd be worth to this team if he averaged even 50 games a year over the length of the contract. And yes, even 50 a year might be optimistic for a guy who's played 31 games in three seasons; also ultimately unimportant. The Sixers seem to think Joel will play basketball again at some point in the not-distant future. That's enough for me — back up the Brink'siest of Brink's trucks.  

The Sixers had no choice here. Or, they had a choice, but one of the two options wasn't one many teams would consider: Joel Embiid or irrelevance. Put simply, Embiid is the difference between this team mattering or not for the next half-decade: They need him, and if they lost him, they would almost certainly have zero avenues to properly replace him. Would it have been nice if JoJo had shaved a couple million off his AAV just to do the Colangelim a solid? Sure, but he was under zero obligation to — in case you forgot, they didn't draft Embiid, and the guy who did is long gone now — and you could argue that Joel's already practically earned nine digits in public goodwill with his delightful antics off the court the past few seasons alone, keeping the fanbase engaged during the darkest win-loss period in franchise history. He wants $148 mil? 10s and 20s OK? 

Maybe after four years of Hard Process Living you've convinced yourself that the Sixers have enough stuff already that they don't have to be so beholden to Embiid — that between Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, our draft picks in reserve and our other blue-chip young'ns, we could still be one of the league's most fun, most exciting teams even sans Joel. Well, you must've missed last night's preseason game in Boston, then, where our crappy defense and stagnant offense led to us getting creamed by a C's squad missing four of five starters, with Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz both showing occasional flashes but failing to get the team into any kind of flow. Neither dude has shown much this preseason to suggest that they'll be able to contribute to winning (or even consistently competitive) basketball right away, and they both have glaring holes in their game that'll take a whole lotta precious time to correct. 

And next to Embiid, that's all cool. Joel makes everything easier for everyone, and with his instantaneous brilliance in place to anchor the roster and cover up teammate flaws, Simmons and Fultz can both grow slowly as needed around him, without either's development becoming the team's dominant story. But if he's not around, they've got to lead pretty much right away, and that's very bad for this season — like, 25 wins if we're lucky bad — and not great long term, where it's hard to imagine these Sixers growing into more than a 40-45-win squad, even by 2023. 

I've beat this drum for so long and so hard that I've had to buy multiple replacement skins, but continue to Neil Peart about it I shall: Embiid is all that really matters, and without him this team is lost. Even if JoJo gets attacked by a sentient lawn mower tomorrow and has his foot irreparably mangled — knock on wood — I would still have no regrets about this contract, because our only path to true success the next half-decade would've involved extending The Process anyway. Without him, this team is basically screwed, and all the cap space in the world isn't likely to change that. (And in any event, there's said to be some worst-case-scenario protections on the deal that will aid our cap if JoJo misses significant injury time — cool, though if we need to spend significant time talking about those particulars the next few years, the depression might not be worth the savings.)

And what's more, I'm good with the contract because I'm fine riding with Joel until the end of the line regardless. Due to all we've already been through together before achieving any kind of real success, the Sixers fanbase has a connection with Embiid unlike any in fan-player history, and it's a relationship that he's always seemed to care about nurturing and earning, even when things were at their personally or professionally direst. If there's even a 20% chance that we'll one day get to root for JoJo at a postseason game at the WFC, that's a chance we need to take, because it would cause a home excitement that the NBA world has never quite seen before. Sports relationships like this are truly once in a lifetime, and not to be trifled with. 

So yeah. Let the rest of the sports world cackle about the sagacity of giving a dude who's never even played half a healthy season (and hasn't proven he's in shape to do this year) enough money to buy a couple private islands — they're not wrong to do so, but they're also definitely not right. They don't understand that there's no risk greater in locking JoJo up at any price tag than anything that leaves the door open for him to be donning another uniform before 2023. They don't understand that without him, the next five years are a wash for Philly fans no matter what else happens. They don't understand that Joel Embiid is The Process, and The Process is Joel Embiid, and that without him Our Once and Always Dark Lord Sam Hinkie basically died for nothing

Learning to Fly: Sixers' issues apparent in preseason opener

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Learning to Fly: Sixers' issues apparent in preseason opener

Hear this of our 2017-18 Philadelphia 76ers and know it to be true: Joel Embiid or it doesn't happen. 

After a competitive first half, the 76ers got pummeled last night by the Memphis Grizzlies, losing their preseason opener by a score of 110-89. Embiid was not in the lineup, nor will he be Friday against Boston; I'd wager we probably don't see him at all this preseason. (Though Embiid did practice full-court 5-on-5 at Thursday's practice.)

What we will see in his absence is a team led by our two new No. 1 overall picks — which, in theory, should be exciting at the very least. And it may still be that, at least in part, but it's also going to be very, very messy. And, as we saw Wednesday, it's going to be rather unsuccessful. 

Let's start with Ben Simmons, whose first official game action in a Sixers uni since the 2016 Summer League went about as expected. He electrified early, particularly in the open court, where he hooked up with Richaun Holmes on a half-court alley-oop, and he scored at the hoop with disarming ease. He had four assists in a blink, ending with nine in 22 minutes, to go with seven rebounds and six points. The highlights were damn impressive, and after the game, Grizzlies coach David Fizdale was raving about the 21-year-old, calling him a "super freak" and declaring "I don't wanna see that for the next 15 years." 

All fair, but ... I dunno. For all the raves about his all-around game, I mostly see a guy who's elite at passing but still has no idea how to score consistently. Simmons clearly has zero faith in his jumper, which he kept in cold storage the whole game, and that too often leads to half-court congestion that there's really nothing he can do about. He's already a master at manipulating chaos — give him a step to the basket, give him a mismatch on the floor, give him a missed assignment in transition and he'll kill you for any of it — but for now he seems unable to create the chaos himself, to force the defensive adjustment, to generate offense where there was no offense previously. Give him a competent defense and he ends up attempting a lot of layups and floaters over defenders, with a predictably low success rate. It's an untenable way to run an offense. 

Of course, expecting Simmons to have mastered offensive efficiency at the ripe old age of 21 with zero regular-season NBA games under his belt is beyond foolish. But the concerning thing to me last night — and in much of the (admittedly exceedingly limited) footage I've seen of him from last summer and earlier — is just how uneasy he seems to even try his jumper when it's given to him. Maybe it's just something he needs to build the proper confidence in off the court before he feels comfortable integrating it on the court, but doing that is easier said than done, and meanwhile, we're still not totally sure if he's even shooting the damn thing with the correct hand. It's a concern, and one that's going to lead to a whole lot of intra-Process arguments and debates before the season is over, or even starts.  

It's not the biggest concern the Sixers have at the moment, though, because something is very clearly not right with Markelle Fultz. Our top prize of the 2017 draft went 2 for 13 for four points last night, and not that there's such a thing as a pretty 2 for 13, but this was a particularly ugly 2 for 13. Fultz spent most of the game careening into traffic, drawing contact but not fouls, and either failing to finish through contact or backing off and missing contested floaters and mini-jumpers. He found his teammates occasionally — three assists, with two coming early alongside Simmons — and showed sporadic spark on defense, but proved thoroughly unsuccessful running a half-court offense. 

And he also avoided shooting from any kind of range about as much as possible. From Simmons, this is concerning but understandable. From Mr. Hesi Pull-Up Jimbo, this is downright alarming. Reports from the team's scrimmage at the Palestra over the weekend mentioned that Fultz's shooting form looked off — Brett Brown even confirmed as much after the game — but the fact that he appears to have totally lost faith in his shot effectively neuters the rest of his game without Simmons' size, athleticism or vision to fall back on. It's not totally clear to me why reconstructing his jumper over the summer was a priority for Fultz — the thing looked pretty good to me over the summer, for the most part — but he appears to have totally lost his shooting form in the interim, and his mojo along with it. And while our offense can maybe abide one non-shooting point guard, two on the court together is guaranteed poison. 

Is this the ruination of the Process, in one preseason game? Assuredly not: These issues are hopefully fixable and probably improvable, and there are many years still ahead of us to figure them out. But they are issues, and it would be prudent for all of us as Sixers fans to take a step back this preseason and disavow ourselves of some of our loftier notions about the team's win-loss record this season. With these two dudes in our starting lineup — and a forever-increasing likelihood that Embiid is limited or missing outright for much of the early season — there are going to be some serious struggles, and they are going to come at the expense of our much-hoped-for playoff push. Not to say it's impossible, but it's going to take a lot of work and a lot of luck, and Process Trusters should at least know not to count on the latter by now. 

It wasn't all bad last night. Robert Covington has sprouted cool new hair, and he looks (and plays) more like a defensive monster than ever. JJ Redick was basically as advertised for his debut game, scoring 11 points on 4 for 7 shooting (including a trademark four-point play!) and ending a plus-5 for the night. Skinny/Vegan Jah is more than a myth; Okafor ended with 13 points on 5 for 6 shooting and occasionally even looked engaged on the boards, though he still got beaten to some easy ones. Kris Humphries got booed every time he touched the ball toward game's end, which is probably unfair but still sorta feels right. Things will be better with Dario Saric around — he was held out tonight by Brown for rest — because things are always better when Dario's around. The team around our Big Three is largely as it should be. 

Still, with that Big Three struggling and/or hurting, it's going to be ... well, it's going to be a process. These guys have a lot to learn and a lot to prove, and without a healthy Embiid to anchor the whole operation, sloppiness is almost guaranteed to ensue. Pity poor Brett Brown — we'll get you to that season where everything is finally easy someday. Maybe. Hopefully.