For the first time in a long time, the Philadelphia 76ers are relevant in the basketball universe.
They’re still far away from competing for a championship and a hop, skip and a jump away from sniffing the playoffs, but the signs of a bright future are finally all coming together.
Right now, the Sixers are riding a high they haven’t felt in years. Rookie sensation Joel Embiid chipped in 24 points in the team’s102-93 victory over Charlotte on Friday, helping cap off their first 3-game winning streak in 3 years. Embiid is the tangible result of “The Process” in Philadelphia, and he’s not only lived up to his expectations this year, but continues to shatter new ones on a nightly basis.
The 22-year-old 7-footer is still on a minutes’ limit as he works his way back from multiple lower body injuries, but that isn’t stopping him from stuffing the stat sheet. In just over 25 minutes per game, Embiid is averaging a team-high 19.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. Only two centers in the league are scoring more points than Embiid on a nightly basis (Karl Anthony-Towns & Brook Lopez; Demarcus Cousins is listed as a power forward on ESPN.com) and only two block more shots (Rudy Gobert, Myles Turner). Of the top 20 scoring centers in the league, only two play fewer minutes than Embiid (Enes Kanter & Greg Monroe). If the Sixers let their manchild center run wild for roughly 36 minutes per game—the same amount of minutes other top centers like Karl Anthony Towns and Marc Gasol play—his numbers would look like this: 28 points/10.8 rebounds/3.3 blocks. Numbers like that could win a MVP award some day.
Embiid’s gaudy stats don’t do a great job drawing a picture of his overall impact on the organization. When he’s on the floor, Philadelphia is a significantly better team on both ends of the court. He has the lowest (best) defensive rating on the team. When Embiid is patrolling the paint, the Sixers give up about 5 less points per 100 possessions than they do when he’s on the bench. Offensively, Embiid’s mere presence on the court opens up shots and driving lanes for his teammates. He owns the second highest offensive rating on the squad, trailing only Ersan Illysova by less than a point. To give that stat some context, Jahlil Okafor has the exact opposite effect on the Sixers offense. His 94.4 Offensive Rating is nearly 4 points lower than the team as a whole, and it’s the lowest of any Sixer who has played in at least 4 games this year. Overall, the difference between Okafor and Embiid being on the floor for Philadelphia averages out to about 17 points per 100 possessions.
If one stat and one stat only could describe Embiid’s impact on this team, this is it: he’s the only player on the roster with a positive plus/minus rating. Embiid is the centerpiece of this franchise moving forward, but he’s not the only building block “The Process” brought to the city of brotherly love.
Last year’s No. 1 pick Ben Simmons hasn’t suited up this year as he recovers from a foot injury, but his game has been compared to LeBron James. If he can develop into just one-eighth of the player King James is, Sixers fans are in for a treat. Former first round pick Dario Saric has impressed in his first year in the NBA, ranking second among NBA rookies in both scoring and rebounding. Okafor, despite his defensive shortcomings and limited offensive range, is still a viable post option on offense. Nerlens Noel is the odd man out of the Sixers’ frontcourt logjam, but he’s an athletic, rangy forward who at the very least could help out defensively. He’ll most likely be traded before the deadline, and could bring back a decent return of picks or young talent.
The 76ers roster is far from perfect. The team is loaded with frontcourt talent in a guard-dominated league. They rank in the bottom third of the NBA in 3-point shooting efficiency despite attempting the seventh most triples per game. Simmons and Saric play a similar point forward role, with neither putting pressure on opposing defenses to guard them beyond the 3-point arc. Embiid and Okafor are most effective around the rim, even though Embiid has shown the ability to stretch the floor. The team doesn’t have a lead guard to match up athletically with the Westbrooks and the Walls of the world. But what they do have is a budding superstar in Joel Embiid, a potential superstar in Ben Simmons, and a plethora of picks and young talent to help them acquire build for the future.
For the better part of the last decade, the Sixers’ front office has been asking its fan base to trust the process. Now, it’s time to watch that process bear fruit.