Reasons for optimism for Sixers and Joel Embiid despite recent playoff disappointment

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div>PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid has expressed a consistent belief throughout this season. He remains confident that as long as he plays for the Philadelphia 76ers, there’s always a chance for success. Whether it’s winning games, championships, or simply achieving victory. This mindset has driven him despite facing a challenging year. While he continues to hold onto this belief, recent events have tested the limits of this conviction.

The Sixers, led by Embiid, were eliminated from the playoffs by the New York Knicks in a tense 118-115 Game 6 defeat. It marked the end of a season filled with high expectations, especially as Embiid seemed on track to secure another NBA Most Valuable Player Award and lead the team to the top of the Eastern Conference. However, a left meniscus tear in January led to surgery for Embiid and a downward spiral for the team. Despite their efforts, neither could fully recover in time to propel the Sixers to the elusive Eastern Conference finals appearance that has eluded Embiid during his tenure in Philadelphia.

The disappointing conclusion occurred on Thursday night, at home, in front of a predominantly pro-Knicks crowd by the end of the game. The Sixers now need to process a tumultuous series that, although exciting and closely contested over six games, did not fall in their favor. Although the Knicks only outscored the Sixers by one point over the last two weeks, the margin was significant. Following a standout performance by Jalen Brunson with 41 points and 12 assists, he walked off the court to the applause of Knicks general manager Leon Rose, chants of “MVP,” and a ticket to the next round of the playoffs.

“This series could have easily gone the other way,” remarked Sixers head coach Nick Nurse. “But it didn’t. So credit to them for coming out on top.”

The 76ers now find themselves at a critical juncture once again. Following last season’s changes, including a new head coach in Nurse and a rising star in Tyrese Maxey, who not only embraced his role but excelled in it. Substituting for James Harden, Maxey evolved into an All-Star. Despite his impressive performance, including nearly single-handedly winning Game 5, it wasn’t sufficient.

While the Knicks mounted consistent pressure on Philadelphia, with Brunson shining in the last four games, the Sixers heavily relied on their core duo, Embiid and Maxey. When the Knicks effectively neutralized Embiid in the fourth quarter of Game 4, the Sixers struggled to respond. Moreover, inadequate support for Embiid on the defensive end impacted the team’s performance. Even Maxey endured difficulties in Game 6, scoring only 17 points while missing 12 of 18 shots.

Embiid, who faced health challenges and celebrated his 30th birthday in March, missed 30 games due to a torn meniscus in his left knee. Throughout the playoffs, he battled with Bell’s palsy.

Towards the end of the Sixers’ last two defeats, Embiid appeared fatigued and limited. In Game 4, he played the entire second half for the first time in his career and had minimal rest in Game 5. While the Sixers typically benefitted from winning when Embiid was on the court and surviving when he was off, they failed to establish significant leads despite his extended playing time in Games 4 and 5. Despite his impressive 39 points and 13 rebounds in Game 6, he fouled out late in the game, falling short of securing victory. Despite wearing a knee brace, Embiid claimed his left knee was “healthy.”

It’s disheartening to lose,” expressed Embiid. “Our aim is to win a championship. Falling short of that goal is disappointing. Advancing to the second round means little to me. Although we believed in our ability to win, things didn’t unfold as planned. While there were various challenges, it’s also motivating to consider the future. Yet, easier said than done.”

Embiid’s playoff exit was at the hands of the same organization that generated speculation last year about potentially acquiring him if he sought a trade from the only team he has known. While such talks have quieted, uncertainties linger for the Sixers. Entering the offseason as a captivating and opportunistic team, with the second-most cap space behind only the Detroit Pistons, the Sixers possess flexibility when many contenders face financial constraints due to new salary cap regulations. Team president Daryl Morey, known for his ingenuity, will have more freedom to navigate this unique situation.

With minimal contractual obligations beyond Embiid for the upcoming season, the Sixers are well-positioned to pursue star players in free agency. The team will likely draw interest from numerous elite players available. Should Paul George opt out of his contract with the L.A. Clippers, he could be a strong fit for the Sixers.OG Anunoby demonstrated his value in the series, making him an appealing free agent target. The Knicks are expected to retain him after acquiring him in a trade. Pascal Siakam faces a similar situation with the Indiana Pacers.

Tobias Harris, Buddy Hield, Kyle Lowry, Kelly Oubre Jr., and De’Anthony Melton are all entering free agency. Hield had limited playtime during the playoffs but made a notable impact in Game 6. Harris struggled against the Knicks, potentially marking the end of his time with the Sixers. Melton returned from injury mid-series, and Oubre showcased strong defensive skills and scoring ability, likely earning a better contract in free agency.

Sixers’ Morey emphasized the need for a high-level two-way player and enhanced playmaking, lacking which affected their performance against the Knicks.

The impact of the recently revised collective bargaining agreement remains uncertain. It may prompt teams close to or over the luxury tax threshold to take decisive actions, which could lead to significant expulsions of players on substantial contracts.

Embiid highlighted the importance of continuity, referencing successful teams like the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors. The Sixers have the opportunity this offseason to build a team around Embiid and Maxey that can withstand the playoffs’ challenges.

Embiid expressed confidence in Maxey, considering him among the top 10 players globally this year, offering the franchise stability and promise. The Sixers have undergone numerous roster changes and partnerships with Embiid over the years, seeking the right formula for success.

The upcoming offseason presents a chance for the Sixers to shape their future around current stars and build a competitive team. With Embiid’s leadership and emerging talent like Maxey, the Sixers aim for a brighter path forward.

The Sixers have a valuable opportunity to mold their roster for the upcoming season, intertwined with their long-term vision. With promising prospects and cap flexibility, the team is poised for a significant transformation.

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