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Don't Dream It's Over: Nothing ends tonight for the Philadelphia 76ers

Don't Dream It's Over: Nothing ends tonight for the Philadelphia 76ers

Boy, has this last week been fun. The Fultz trade rumors that somehow turned into the actual Fultz trade, the rumored size of assets given up that kept shrinking and shrinking until it practically seemed like Bryan Colangelo pocket change, Retweet Armageddon raining down righteous hellfire from the Bluebird heavens, and a series of increasingly ridiculous trades with depressing teams dealing depressing assets in the name of far-off mutual dreams that may never be realized -- none of which involved the Philadelphia 76ers. There's been a whole lot of cackling, and I wouldn't give back a single chuckle of it. After four years, can't say we haven't earned it. 

So why am I coming around like T.J. McConnell about to dump a whole bucket of ice water on Dario Saric? Because despite everything good that's happened for the Sixers in the last few weeks, I still can't help but think that the most fundamentally important thing hasn't changed, and is still as scary and threatening as ever. 

This isn't to say that Markelle Fultz isn't great, or won't be great. I hope he will, and I think there's a pretty good chance that he will. Sixer fans should be pumped to watch him for this year and many more after it; I certainly am. Whatever else we do tonight to fortify ourselves around him -- dealing into the late first-round, taking draft-and-stash projects or attempting to snag another role player or two in the second round -- it's all good news. He and Ben Simmons should make for a playmaking combo to rival that of any other team in the league, almost instantly. 

But the Sixers' most important player -- maybe their only truly crucial player -- is still Joel Embiid, and probably always will be. 

The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor had a semi-rant on the Bill Simmons Podcast this week that I was furious I didn't get to make first, when asked by Simmons about whether the Sixers' core was just gonna be beautiful forever. "It's gonna be really good for a really long time -- if Embiid stays healthy," he stipulated. "He's really the big part of that, I think. He is the cornerstone. He's the generational talent. He's the potential Hall-of-Famer. He's a level above Simmons and Fultz as a prospect, in my opinion. I think Fultz and Simmons, I would have them rated similarly... but Embiid is that guy." 

This is still where I'm at. Everything looks beautiful for the Sixers right now, but it all still hinges on a guy who's played 31 games in three NBA seasons. Pull that thread and everything unravels.

Maybe "unravels" is an exaggeration. Maybe Fultz is as good as we all think, maybe he and Simmons mesh beautifully, maybe even without Embiid, the Sixers embrace some epic small ball that even leans on a Robert Covington/Ben Simmons frontcourt, which makes them the most exciting young team in the league. Can that team win a title? Can that team contend for a title? Can that team even claim to be one or two veterans away from contending for a title? To me, the answer is pretty decisively no. 

Consider two hypotheticals for a moment. In one, pretty much everything goes right for the Sixers' current roster: Fultz becomes Kyrie Irving with better defense, Simmons wedges himself somewhere between being a poor man's LeBron and a poor man's T-Mac, Dario Saric thrives as a sixth man, Covington shoots 38% from three forever. But in this scenario, Joel Embiid gets hurt and stays hurt, never playing even half a full season for the Sixers. And in the other one, everything goes catastrophically wrong -- to the point where the Sixers have to immediately rip up virtually their entire team construction and start from scratch. Except this time, Embiid gets healthy and stays healthy, averaging 70+ games a year for the next decade. Which of these hypotheticals do you think would leave the Sixers in better shape? 

It might sound crazy, but I think I'm asking for Door No. 2 on that one. And I think Our Once and Always Dark Lord Sam Hinkie is, too. 

I believe that with a healthy Joel Embiid, this team will essentially never be less than pretty good again. We were already headed there last year, where with zero NBA experience and only a handful of NBA-caliber teammates -- one of whom spent months in a shooting slump, one of whom had yet to break through the rookie wall, one of whom took months to supplant Sergio Rodriguez on the depth chart, and one of whom spent most of the time either injured or chained to the bench -- JoJo was still well on his way to dragging this team to respectability when he went down. The Sixers were 7-2 in Embiid's final nine games of the season, including real wins over the Raptors, Clippers and Bucks. Even with his minutes limit and back-to-back restrictions, he very likely could've gotten the team to near-.500 if he'd played a full season. Give him some better teammates -- as the Sixers are gearing up to do -- and there's no reason he can't lead us to the playoffs right away.

Without JoJo, we can still be good eventually, maybe even great -- but for the moment, our ceiling remains only as high as Exciting Young Team status. And in that sense, we're no different than the Timberwolves, or the Suns, or (gasp!) the Lakers, or any other team who's gotten to take a number of swings in the recent lottery, but still hasn't made the clear jump from rebuilding to just plain building. And without JoJo, that final jump from great to elite becomes damn near impossible to make. Because O'Connor is right: Simmons and Fultz are blue-chip prospects, but even in their best-case scenarios, it's hard to see them being the best guy on a championship team. And Embiid unquestionably has that potential. And that's the guy you need to contend for titles. 

What does that mean for tonight, then? Just that Markelle Fultz may feel something like the last piece of the puzzle now, but there is no last piece of the puzzle -- since the most important puzzle piece is at perpetual risk to slide out of place at any point. Of course, the Philadelphia 76ers would hardly be the first team to build around players who were considered to be at perpetual injury risk at some point in their career -- the Warriors were just led to a championship by two of 'em -- but few of them have a player with an early history quite as intimidating as Joel's. If the question is when Sixers fans can stop worrying about the rug being pulled out from them at any point in the post-Process, the answer is never. 

That sounds more dire than it really is, though. Embiid may not ever be a safe bet, but he's ours, and he only comes around once every few years -- if it was easy to get him, we'd have at least three of him by now. Having one at constant risk of breaking in is still infinitely preferable to having none, and now that we seem to finally have the pieces around him to really grow this team around him, we at least have a chance of becoming something transcendent, which is more than the great majority of teams have. But Fultz doesn't make that chance anywhere near 100%, and neither would anyone else in this draft. Only when Embiid is enshrined in Springfield as a 12-time All-Star and five-time champion will we be able to truly cackle in peace.

Eagles still better off at QB than Giants

Eagles still better off at QB than Giants

The Eagles may have lost Carson Wentz for the season, but it could be worse. A lot worse. The Eagles could be in the New York Giants’ shoes.

How much better are the Eagles than their loathsome NFC East rival to the north this season? Even with a season-ending injury to an MVP-caliber player under center, the Eagles still look vastly superior to their Week 15 opponent Sunday. In fact, would you even trade their quarterback situation with the Giants?

We try to answer that question and more while we examine whether the Giants do anything better than the Eagles in 2017. Anything at all!

Probably not though.

QUARTERBACKS
Eli Manning may have a couple of Super Bowl rings, and his supporting cast with the Giants is awful, but I can’t understand why there was such a clamoring to have him remain the team’s starter. Their record is 2-11. He’s averaging 6.0 yards per pass attempt this season — only Joe Flacco has been worse. And Manning turns 37 in less than three weeks, so what’s the upside? He looks shot. At least Nick Foles gives the Eagles some hope heading into his 29th birthday. At this stage of their respective careers, you would take Foles, and it’s a no-brainer. Heck, plenty of people would take Davis Webb over Manning.

Advantage: Eagles

RUNNING BACKS
The Giants’ backfield is better than many suspected at the beginning of the season. Of course, turning out marginally better than the worst backfield in the NFL isn’t a huge accomplishment. Orleans Darkwa runs with power, and Wayne Gallman is a nice change of pace when he’s not fumbling the football. Both average better than 4.0 yards per carry. Shane Vereen looks cooked in the third-down role. Of course, the team doesn’t run the ball much, and none of the trio is a home-run hitter of the caliber of Jay Ajayi for the Eagles. Neither Darkwa nor Gallman looks like a better prospect than Corey Clement, either.

Advantage: Eagles

WIDE RECEIVERS AND TIGHT ENDS
The Eagles have three players with more yards and touchdowns than the Giants’ leading receiver. Alshon Jeffery has 732 yards and eight touchdowns, while Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor both have 663 yards and seven scores. New York’s receiving corps was also decimated by injuries to Odell Beckham and Brandon Marshall. Despite the losses, speedy Evan Engram is having an incredible rookie season for a tight end, becoming the primary weapon in the passing attack with 55 catches, 623 yards and six touchdowns. Clearly, Engram’s stellar play hasn’t been enough to compensate. Now wideouts Sterling Shepherd and Roger Lewis are questionable to play Sunday, too.

Distinct advantage: Eagles

OFFENSIVE LINES
The Giants’ best O-lineman, right tackle Justin Pugh, is questionable as well with a back injury and hasn’t suited up in weeks. That’s a problem because their line wasn’t very good to begin with. Left tackle Ereck Flowers has improved as the season has progressed, and isn’t nearly as bad his reputation might suggest. Otherwise, there aren’t many bright spots up front. The Eagles have had their issues. The hope is Stefen Wisniewski can go with an ankle injury, and Halapoulivaati Vaitai has looked beatable in recent weeks. At least their issues are confined to the left side. From center to right tackle, the unit is great.

Advantage: Eagles

DEFENSIVE LINES AND LINEBACKERS
If games were won and lost on reputation, the Giants’ D-line would be among the scariest units in the league. Damon Harrison, Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon are all All-Pro/Pro Bowl players, yet New York ranks 31st against the run and is tied for 30th in sacks. The stars are not living up to the hype. Surely, it hasn’t helped that roughly all of their linebackers are on injured reserve. The Eagles still rank No. 1 against the run, though they’ve looked a little shaky of late, and are tied for ninth in sacks. Their defensive end rotation with Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Chris Long and Derek Bennett is becoming quite dangerous, with 20.5 sacks between them.

Slight advantage: Eagles

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Don’t worry, the Giants’ issues on defense aren’t limited to the front seven. The club also ranks 31st against the pass, and unlike so many other areas of the roster, injuries aren’t solely to blame. Janoris Jenkins was hurt all year and eventually landed on IR. For Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Eli Apple, it’s been a question of effort and will they or won’t they quit on their teammates. Apple has since been benched and left on the inactives list. The Eagles’ secondary has its flaws, but attitude isn’t one of them. They’re also an opportunistic bunch, with three players — Jalen Mills, Rodney McLeod and Patrick Robinson — with three interceptions, and three more with two.

Advantage: Eagles

SPECIAL TEAMS
As bad as the Eagles’ special teams have been for at times this season, the Giants have been worse. Their kicking game stinks — Aldrick Rosas has made only 75.0 percent of field-goal tries. Their coverage units stink, with a blocked punt and a punt return for a touchdown. And their return game stinks, with a 19.4 average on kickoffs and a 5.1 average on punts. We’re going to assume the re-signing of Bryan Braman this week (see story) fixes some of the issues the Eagles have experienced, and they’re back to being one of the top all-around units in the league.

Advantage: Eagles

COACHING
Ben McAdoo had one of the most meteoric rises and falls you will ever see. In a matter of three years, McAdoo was hailed as a genius for reinventing Manning, usurped the head coaching job from Tom Coughlin, and guided the Giants to the playoffs. Eleven months later, he was out of a job. Perennially overrated defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo took over in the interim, so no groundbreaking changes on the sideline for the time being. McAdoo’s timeline might be a cautionary tale for Doug Pederson and the Eagles. As far as this game is concerned, the staff that’s not in the midst of upheaval has the edge.

Distinct advantage: Eagles

OVERALL
There was no shortage of warning signs for New York heading into 2017. Sure, they managed to go 11-5 and make the playoffs a year ago but had not won more than seven games in any of the previous three seasons. I’m not sure anybody saw 2-11 coming, although, with an aging quarterback, shaky offensive line, and no running game, the Giants needed their defense to shoulder the load. Obviously, that didn’t happen. The Eagles have the injury under center, but I’ll take Foles with his roster over the current version of Manning and his crew of flunkies. And I wouldn’t think twice.

Distinct advantage: Eagles

Richaun Holmes' mishap does not end well

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ESPN broadcast

Richaun Holmes' mishap does not end well

You will not find Billy Donovan on the Thunder's injury report after Friday's game against the Sixers.

But Oklahoma City's head coach may be icing down alongside his players or popping a few Advil.

Why?

Donovan took an errant pass straight to his face during the Sixers-Thunder game at the Wells Fargo Center. Richaun Holmes was looking to collect an assist on a JJ Redick jumper, but the Sixers' big man put a little too much mustard on the pass.

The one-handed dish went right to Donovan … who was not ready to catch it, and why would he be? Holmes also just barely missed former Sixers player and head coach, Maurice Cheeks, who is an assistant under Donovan.

At least that was Holmes' only turnover of the game.