It’s difficult to overstate just how much changed for the Philadelphia 76ers between their 2017 and 2018 Media Days.
At last year’s event, general manager Bryan Colangelo spoke with optimism, but not certainty, that Joel Embiid would be signed long-term, or even cleared for five-on-five action in practice. Embiid had a total of 31 games on his professional resume. And that was 31 more than Ben Simmons had played. The Sixers had won 28 games the year before, and that was a franchise-high dating back to 2012-13, also known as the Kwame Brown/Jason Richardson Sixers.
A year later, Embiid is firmly established as the centerpiece of a Sixers team that won 52 games, challenged the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals before losing in five games, while Simmons and others on the team are both settled into professional life in Philly and represent upside that support Sam Hinkie’s version of The Process with virtually every possession.
Oh, and Bryan Colangelo isn’t… around anymore. Elton Brand is the GM, and if you think time moves quickly in Philly, consider that only two years ago, Embiid was dunking on Brand in practice, something Embiid reminded Brand of when the Duke vet got the GM job.
But while this past year is viewed mostly in terms of the successful outcome — understandably so, for a roster, fan base and front office hungry for results — it is what the past calendar year has done for the overall development of the Sixers as the title window opens that may turn out to be even more consequential than this initial success.
Take Embiid, for example. It isn’t just that he managed to produce over a full season the way he had in those 31 tantalizing games the season before. He showed what the Sixers are capable of with an Embiid-centered lineup. Philly posted an offensive efficiency of 113.9 per 100 possessions with Embiid on the court in 2017-18, 102.5 defensive efficiency. To put that in perspective, that would have ranked the Sixers second in the league overall last season, just ahead of the Raptors and Warriors, on the offensive end. Defensively, that mark would have ranked first.
So there’s a full understanding that Embiid is capable of leading this team, and the Sixers rewarded him even before finding that out, signing him to a max extension last October. It assumed some risk, but it offered the reward of providing comfort to Embiid, and he’s now managed to follow up a season that reinforced the wisdom of this decision with something brand new: a healthy summer to simply prepare like any other NBA star.
“I think this whole summer was more about working on my body, and I feel like I’m a complete player,” Embiid said at Media Day, adding that he watched every single Sixers game from last season, the playoff games more than once. “So, it was always about just perfecting everything, working on everything, because I’m not perfect, so I still make a lot of mistakes and I’m still kind of young to basketball, so just learning, and watching a lot of film, and just like perfecting everything.”
Again, it bears noting: the Sixers won 52 games in a year Embiid began without physical clearance to play, learning as he went. So, too, did rookie of the year Ben Simmons, who brushed aside any remaining questions about his health by playing in 81 games, and spent the summer working to improve a shot that already allowed him to shoot 54.5 percent as a rookie, though the bulk of that success came right around the basket.
Simmons, at last year’s Media Day, sounded like a man with something to prove, and he did. This year, he spoke like an experienced NBA player looking to hone his craft, citing how many shots he’ll take from the perimeter as the true test of his reworked jumper, rather than the results.
“Coming into my second year playing, I’m confident in myself and my abilities to lead the team as the point guard,” Simmons said. “And I’m learning a lot from the best we have now, but also, teaching a lot. And I think that year has really helped me, playing that one season, to where I’m able to talk to guys. I’m able to learn at the same time. But I’m at another level where I know what to expect. And I know what I need to be at game-wise and practice-wise, or what I need to do.”
That knowledge, that template, is exceedingly valuable for another member of the Sixers: Markelle Fultz. The parallels between the two young guards are significant — high picks, injury struggles, public questions about their ability to shoot and even get on the floor. And for Fultz, who also spent the summer working on a retooled jump shot, leaning on both Simmons and his close friend and fellow Washington alum Kelsey Plum (who went through a similarly rough rookie season in the WNBA) means he doesn’t have to figure things out alone as a 20-year-old.
“Really, just talking to them, just figuring how they got through the year really. Just trying to figure out what they did, it just worked, go back to the basics of what you know,” Fultz said of Simmons and Plum. “That’s the same thing I did, I just went back to what I know and that’s just work as hard as you can and live with the results, really, and it’s worked out for me. I love going to the gym, I love working out to get the result that I want. That’s the only way I know how to do it. There’s really no other way you can. I’m just taking it from them, just stay confident.”
The confidence is as consistent as any other emotion from these Sixers right now, who would have been laughed at for talking about an NBA title a year ago, but understand how far along the path they’ve trod in such a short time. Embiid described a trip to the NBA Finals as a goal.
“I think our timeline probably got sped up a little bit given our success from Christmas on last year,” Sixers guard J.J. Redick said. “But we all recognize that we have more to do. The East, for as much as it gets knocked, has a bunch of really good teams. The regular season will be very competitive and I think our goal will be trying to get home court for as many rounds as possible.”
Redick came to Philly last year and gave them precisely what he was signed to provide: elite 3-point shooting, floor spacing, leadership. His commute from Brooklyn took some getting used to, but this summer, he made the decision to re-up with the Sixers, the success they experienced playing a part in keeping him with Brett Brown’s group.
Now, as the season closes in, Redick’s trip to Camden from Brooklyn every day is as normal as seeing the Sixers in the title discussion.
“I was actually thinking about that this morning. I feel like the first two or three months of the season I was just sort of figuring things out,” Redick said. “My youngest was still waking up at 5, if that makes sense. And you scramble to get out the door by 7. I feel like during the second half of last season I got into a nice rhythm. My family and I know what to expect now. We’re gonna have a team meal tonight. I’m staying over in Philly tonight. Leaving this morning my kids and my wife, it wasn’t a big deal. He’s gonna be gone and he’s gonna be back tomorrow night so there’s a rhythm to it now that I have and it makes things a lot more comfortable.”