Andrew Unterberger

Home Opening, Home Closing: Sixers lose brutal game to Celtics in home opener

Home Opening, Home Closing: Sixers lose brutal game to Celtics in home opener

At least the national anthem was awesome. After that, some good things must have happened to the Sixers last night, but it's hard to remember what they are. Instead, there were a lot of turnovers, a lot of misses, and enough fouls to inspire a Flyers month's worth of "REF YOU SUCK" chants. The Sixers lost, 102-92. That score feels neither accurate nor inaccurate. It's hard to remember anyone scoring anything last night, to be honest.

Watching this game felt like getting stuck in traffic for two and a half hours. Just a lot of stop-starts, a lot of honking, and endless amounts of frustration. Joel Embiid went 4 of 16. Dario Saric turned the ball over six times, including twice on consecutive offensive foul clear-outs. Ben Simmons — well, he had 11 and 11, making him the only Sixers rookie start off his career with two double-doubles. Cool, but not enough to provide the team any sort of fluidity or consistency on offense. This one got nasty early and stayed that way, as unpleasurable a contest as the Sixers are likely to ever play at (close to) full health.

Hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong, either. The spacing seemed cramped all night, and far too often, JoJo was getting the ball behind the three-point line. His pump-fake wasn't fooling the Celtics' bigs, and his shot from range has eluded him thus far this season (0-6 last night, now 0-15 total since his preseason debut). Jerryd Bayless, J.J. Redick and Robert Covington did their part — 10 combined threes on 19 attempts — but the Sixers just didn't seem to get many clean looks, especially around the basket. And the bench, a combined 8 of 27 (0 of 7 from deep), was no help.

But the story from this one was the refs. I'm not sure if I'd even say how poorly the game was officiated, the more striking thing was just how relentlessly the game was officiated. The Sixers got whistled for 30 fouls — 24 for Boston — and the stoppages made the game so choppy that the game flowed about as well as a 23-track DJ Khaled album. A sellout home crowd was absolutely raring to go all night, but never got to build up any kind of momentum (except against the refs), with their only opportunities for extended cheering coming at the free-throw line. The Cetlics' didn't fare much better flow-wise, with only 16 assists on the night — fewer than they had in any game last year — but they had Kyrie Irving, and that was enough to make the difference down the stretch.

The Sixers will continue looking for their first win tonight, in Toronto. Doesn't seem likely they'll find it, with JoJo sitting and the Raps returning most of their playoff core, but hopefully they can at least wash the taste of this one out a little, and get some of their guys — Dario especially, who's now 5 for 15 (0 for 6 from three) for the season — into a little bit of a groove. We should also be seeing Vegan Jah for the first time this season, so hopefully he can provide a little of the offensive spark off the bench we were missing in this one. In any event, 40 home games to go this season – there'll be losses worth than this, but hopefully none quite so uniquely frustrating.

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

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USA Today Images

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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USA Today Images

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.