PHILADELPHIA – The question has followed the 76ers for three years, and for each game Joel Embiid fails to keep his conditioning issues under control and Ben Simmons keeps his 3-point shot tucked into his designer shorts, the franchise is no closer to an answer: Can Philly win a championship with both All-Stars on the roster?
The doubt seems almost inconceivable given the talent possessed by the 24-year-old Simmons and 26-year-old Embiid and — certainly, at times — the pair have shown flashes of championship credentials.
Yet the well ran dry in the Brett Brown era and Sam Hinkie and Bryan Colangelo failed to crack the championship code, leading to one of the biggest overhauls yet under Josh Harris and David Blitzer’s ownership.
On Monday, the Sixers lifted the curtain on the Daryl Morey era, the former Houston Rockets executive now tasked with running Philadelphia’s basketball operations. By his side at the team complex were new coach Doc Rivers and general manager Elton Brand — an attempt at a new collaboration after Brand deemed previous combinations “didn’t work.”
The early returns show a regime determined to gut it out with Simmons and Embiid on the roster.
“My goal is to win us a championship, so whatever gets us there is what we’ll do,” Morey said. “But, I will say, to have two star-plus players at 24 and 26 years old, that is why I couldn’t get Doc Rivers to interview in Houston.”
Morey’s unemployment after his split with Houston — he cited family reasons, but quarantine time at home will rush anyone back to work — lasted about as long as Rivers’ time off after he left the Los Angeles Clippers.
Pressed on Embiid and Simmons, Morey quipped he was low on the tenure board.
“I think they absolutely can work together,” Morey said, “but Doc’s been here a little longer than me. I’ll turn to him. He’s thought even longer on how they can work together.”
The job largely fell on Brand, who was thrust into the GM role two years ago with no experience in the wake of Colangelo’s Twitter-scandal resignation. Brand had complained that the Sixers essentially had too many cooks in the kitchen and a shakeup was underway not long after the Sixers were swept by Boston in the first round of the playoffs. They hired former Pacers executive Peter Dinwiddie as executive vice president of basketball operations. Prosper Karangwa was hired away from Orlando and brought in as VP of player personnel.
Brand, liked and respected around the league, was the public face of the franchise even if he wasn’t necessarily responsible for all the transactions. He earned a multiyear contract extension Monday to stay and work under Morey.
“Whatever my role needs to be, I accept that role,” Brand said. “I’m going to follow Daryl’s lead. He’s the president. He’s going to head of basketball operations. But as general manager, I’m still going to have a significant role, vision and strategy.”
Morey and Rivers come with sizable track records, a change in direction from an ownership group that gave Hinkie, Brown and Brand their first jobs in their prominent roles. But the days of the lose-first rebuild are long gone, though Morey comes from the same Houston branch that yielded Hinkie, and his arrival, in a way, signals the continuation of The Process the franchise waved the white flag on under pressure from the NBA.
So what worked in Houston will work in Philly?
Not necessarily, though it’s easy to draw a correlation between the Yao Ming-Tracy McGrady era with the Rockets with what Morey has to work with in Philadelphia.
The Rockets, though, made the 3-pointer king in the NBA. They averaged 45.3 3-pointers per game, tops in NBA. The Sixers were 22nd in the league with 31.6 attempts — and Simmons hit only two (2 of 24 lifetime). The triple-double threat is a liability from the perimeter, keeping small ball from working to its full potential in Philadelphia.
“The goal is not to shoot 3-pointers, the goal is to win,” Morey said.
Who will adapt first? The franchise players who were coddled by ownership and tuned out Brown? Or Morey and Rivers, who bring decades of sustained winning to Philly and will demand players do it their way?
“The best way to win in the NBA is to take your talent and figure out how to utilize them the best (way),” Morey said. “It’s not to take your talent and hammer it into a particular system. It’s to try and get the most out of what you have.”
The Sixers don’t have much outside of Simmons and Embiid except for bad contracts and a mismatched roster. Morey was blunt when he said “we’re not the favorites” and knows there’s a long road ahead to win the East, much less the title.
They want Embiid and Simmons to come along for the ride.
“We have to change the narrative,” Rivers said. “They haven’t won yet, not that they can’t win.”
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