Why Philadelphia 76ers Joel Embiid should be optimistic after recent playoff loss

PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid has relied on a common refrain this season. As long as he stays with the Philadelphia 76ers, he believes they have a chance. To win games, to win titles — to win. It has given him strength despite almost a year of turmoil. Although he still believes in it, that maxim has seen its limits in the past few months.

The Sixers and Embiid were eliminated from the playoffs with a 118-115 Game 6 loss to the New York Knicks. The season ended with high expectations as Embiid looked set to claim another NBA Most Valuable Player award and take the franchise with him on a ride to the top of the Eastern Conference. But a January menstrual tear sent her to the operating table and sent the team into a tailspin. Embiid couldn’t recover to full strength in time to spark the Sixers to the Eastern Conference Finals that he missed during his decade in Philadelphia.

Thursday night, it went down again, at home, in front of a crowd that was mostly Knicks fans at the end of the night. The Sixers will have to digest a messy series — hectic and tight for all six games — that hasn’t gone their way. The Knicks scored one more point than the Sixers did the last two weeks, but that delta was wide. Jalen Brunson, after 41 points and 12 assists, got a big hug from Knicks general manager Leon Rose, chants of “MVP” and a final exit to the second round of the playoffs.

“This series could have gone the other way,” Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said, “but it didn’t.” So congratulations to them for finishing on the positive side of it.

Now, the 76ers are once again at a crossroads. They exited last season with a new head coach in Nurse and a new top sidekick for Embiid in Dyers Maxey, who not only excelled in the role, but also transcended it. He took over for James Harden and emerged as an All-Star. Maxey is all but He won the 5th game himself. But that’s not enough.

Even if New York makes waves in Philadelphia, and despite Brunson’s outstanding play over the last four games, the 76ers can only rely on their two pillars, Embiid and Maxey. When the Knicks pushed the ball out of Embiid’s hands in the fourth quarter of Game 4, the Sixers didn’t have enough pop to break that strategy. As the Knicks crashed the boards on the offensive end, Embiid didn’t have enough help to stop them. Maxey also struggled in Game 6, scoring just 17 points as he missed 12 of 18 shots.

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Embiid, again, had his own health issues and turned 30 in March. He missed a record 30 games during the All-Star break due to a torn meniscus in his left knee. He played with Bell’s palsy throughout the playoffs.

He looked limited and tired during stretches of the Sixers’ last two losses. He didn’t sit out the second half of Game 4 — the first time he’s done that in his career — and wasn’t rested in Game 5. The Sixers have long thrived by winning the minutes Embiid is on the court. He sat, but they couldn’t win those minutes by a wide enough margin, even though he played 44 minutes in Games 4 and 48 in Game 5, and after he dominated most of the night in Game 6, his 39 points and 13 rebounds didn’t. Very enough. Then he said something about his left knee. Even when he took the floor with the brace he said it was “healthy”.

“It’s boring to lose,” Embiid said. “The goal is to win a championship. It’s not going to happen anytime soon, and I’m worried. I don’t care if I get to the second round. It doesn’t mean anything to me. We didn’t accomplish what we set out to do. And the thing is, we believe in ourselves so much that we really should have won it.” We hope it will. But it’s easier said than done to see what the future holds.

Embiid was kicked out of the playoffs by the same organization that buzzed around the NBA last spring, which could emerge as a potential landing spot for him should he ever decide to leave the only franchise he’s ever known. Embiid declined to do so, and the conversation was hushed up.

But the questions keep piling up for the Sixers. They enter this season as one of the most interesting teams, and perhaps the most opportunistic. Only the Detroit Pistons will have more cap space this summer. At a time when contenders are restricted by the new second apron and its various restrictions, the 76ers will have the flexibility to hit the free agent market hard or use that space to acquire a top player. Team captain Daryl Morey is one of the most creative executives in the league, even when dealing with cap limitations. He’ll get something close to an open canvas this time.

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The 76ers will be in a position to take advantage. Beyond Embiid, they have some responsibilities for next season. Maxey is set to extend his rookie contract this summer, giving him a deal that will pay him 25 percent of the 2024-25 cap hit, but his cap hit will be just over $13 million.

Philadelphia will be considered a contender for any star player that could hit the market. Paul George would be a good fit if he opts out of the final year of his contract with the Clippers. OG Anunoby showed this series why he’ll be an attractive free agent this summer, though the Knicks are likely to re-sign him after trading away two key players for him in December. Pascal Siakam could be in the same spot with the Indiana Pacers.

For the Sixers, Tobias Harris, Buddy Hield, Kyle Lowry, Kelly Oubre Jr. and D’Anthony Melton are set to hit free agency. Hield didn’t play in the playoffs after a midseason trade from Indiana — but then jumped off the bench for 20 points in Game 6. A scoreless series finale could have been a coda to his time with the Sixers. The end of Harris’ five-year, $180 million deal is akin to the end of an era for the franchise, let alone the flexibility it affords Philadelphia. Melton recovered from injury midway through the series. Oubre has proven to be a reliable defender and gives the team scoring punch, but he will hit free agency after outliving his veteran minimum contract.

Morey has said publicly that the Sixers are looking for a high-end two-way player and one that can play more. The lack of both helped the Submarine against the Knicks.

Yet the effects of the newly restructured collective bargaining agreement remain to be seen. Will it double down on teams near or above the second apron, or will it lead to a mass downsizing that could put good players (on hefty contracts) on the market?

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“What you’re seeing now are teams that are deep at the line, they’ve destroyed torpedoes, and they’re going to go deeper because they know this is one year they can do it, and then it changes. It’s very punishing to be there,” Pelicans VP of basketball operations David Griffin said in October. “So I think you’re seeing teams that believe they’re a player doing everything they can to win right now. I think that will play a big part in how teams build around it.

The margins are so close in the playoffs and the Sixers don’t create enough room for error. This season, once again, they’ve had proof in this series that they can fix that and build a team around Embiid and now Maxey that has plenty of potential to withstand the rigors of the postseason.

However, more changes could force Embiid to re-acclimate to the new teammates around him. Continuity was his new watchword from Friday morning. The Sixers didn’t have that during his tenure in Philadelphia. Recent champions, he was quick to point out.

“Look who won last year — Denver,” Embiid said. “They won last year. Jamal (Murray) and Nikola (Jokic), they’ve been together for eight years. Something like that — seven. The Golden State Warriors, they’ve been together that long. I can’t remember the last time you put a team together, and that’s it. Hopefully it will work in a year.

But the 76ers seem to have found some clarity this offseason. In Maxey, the franchise not only has a running mate but also a bona fide rising star. Embiid is more positive on Maxey than most. He came to call him the owner’s face and said “OhOne of the top 10 players in the world this year. Such consent carries weight.

It also gives hope for stability. Like a startup searching for the right path over the last decade, the Sixers have acquired a roster that is stacked and stars with Embiid. It was bewildering at times.

This season, the Sixers will have a chance to build for next season and the future. Both are already connected. The Sixers have an MVP and another star in the making. They have cap space and draft picks to trade. What will it bring?

(Top photo of Joel Embiid: Elsa/Getty Images)

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