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.