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.