Six games into a winning streak, the scoring coming easy, Joel Embiid noticed something that he hadn’t always felt in his eight years as a Sixer.
“The game is becoming easy,” he said. “We’re playing with each other. The ball is not sticking. When a play is called, we have a first option, a second option, a third option. And we are playing together.”
It’s the way successful basketball was always meant to unfold, with some patience, with some unselfishness, with minimal-ego players helping each other to thrive.
Even if the NBA is in an odd spot with so many players being disqualified for failed COVID tests – the 119-100 triumph over virus-tormented San Antonio Friday should have been stopped after Round 1 – the Sixers’ development as a functional group has occurred at a critical time.
By the Feb. 10 trade deadline, Daryl Morey will have had to make a move with Ben Simmons, trading a $34 million player who refuses to work for $34-ish-million of talent able to boost the Sixers’ chances to win their first championship since the organization had only one Doc. But the more the Sixers frolic in position-less basketball and a team spirit that has been missing since the moment Simmons entered the room in 2016 with an agenda to make the team work for him, the more Morey must be careful.
Once convinced he could easily move the All-Star Simmons for a talent of comparable accomplishment, Morey has found that plug-and-play option elusive. Not surprisingly, few general managers were willing to risk a gifted player straight-up for whatever stress Simmons likely would spread. Yet the NBA is under the spell of agents, and as long as there is basketball, there is going to be a coach convinced he can mine the best out of any problem-spreading talent. So somehow, the Simmons deal will happen.
Morey, though, has to be certain that whatever he does is not more disruptive than nightly plopping Simmons on the injury report for “personal reasons.” And that’s what would happen should the Sixers’ president of basketball operations become too creative.
Not that they mean any more than mock drafts, but trade rumors for Simmons drop daily. Some seem sensible. Others are so complex that they would require substantial roster upheaval. During his recent slump, Tobias Harris might have heard his name in such chatter, the idea being that in order to maximize his haul for Simmons, Morey would have to concoct a deal involving multiple stars and teams.
That is an option Morey cannot take, not with what he has stumbled into during what is developing as a fascinating Sixers season. And to his credit, he has been properly patient.
“We had good rhythm,” Doc Rivers said after the rout of the Spurs. “That’s as good a rhythm as I’ve seen from us in a while. As far as offensive movement, it seemed like the ball never stuck. Everybody got their points in rhythm and we ran good stuff.”
The Sixers don’t run many set plays, but when they do, they have a chance to work, particularly with the way Embiid can score. Their secret is to trust anyone to play anywhere on the floor. With Tyrese Maxey protocoled, they have succeeded with Seth Curry, Furkan Korkmaz and, at times, Embiid initiating the offense from the point. Players routinely accept their roles, sometimes as starters, often off the bench. Among Brett Brown’s laments late in his tenure was that, for injury reasons, he too seldom had his preferred lineup together. For some teams, that is a value. For the 2021-22 Sixers, it is basically irrelevant, with Rivers announcing early that no lineup combination would be out of the question, then effectively proving it on a shift-by-shift basis.
Even if some of that was out of protocol-necessity, it has worked. Guards are playing anywhere on the perimeter. Embiid, who dished seven assists Friday, is showing the versatility of skills that makes him the most talented player in franchise history. Players are accepting roles – Andre Drummond a rebounder, Matisse Thybulle a defender – but are not limited to any. Along with vocal support, deep subs and G-League call-ups rarely look out of place in emergency roles.
“We’re moving the ball,” said Embiid, who has scored 30 or more points in the last six games. “We’re playing with each other. Offensively, we have been on a roll.”
Rolls build and rolls too quickly stop in the NBA, but the Sixers have waited too long to enjoy such a serviceable roster. Since the league is not set up to allow any championship-ready operation to allow a $34 million talent investment to yield nothing, Morey must smartly move Simmons to give Rivers the best chance to make a long postseason run.
Adding a talent or two would be smart. Shattering what has taken too long to evolve would be a mistake.