The Philadelphia 76ers entered last season with title aspirations. It was James Harden's first full campaign with the team. Joel Embiid was healthy, on the verge of MVP status, and Tyrese Maxey was on the ascent.
The season ended in familiar fashion: with a second-round loss to the Boston Celtics, complete with a total meltdown as soon as Philadelphia made progress toward a potential victory and a conference finals breakthrough. Jayson Tatum dropped 51 points in the Celtics' Game 7 win and the Sixers were once again sent back to the drawing board.
Embiid spent early portions of the summer sowing the seeds for his eventual departure, ruminating about the possibility of winning a championship somewhere other than Philly. But, the Sixers were in the driver's seat to re-sign Harden. The outlook wasn't so bad, especially with the Bucks getting shellacked in the first round and the Celtics looking hapless in the conference finals.
Well, the outlook is certainly bad now.
The Sixers blew up the Harden relationship with stubborn, remarkably rule-adherent negotiating tactics. Harden has spent his offseason touring the American party scene and publicly demolishing Daryl Morey in China, a country known to despise the Sixers' GM. He wants a trade and there's a chance he doesn't show up to training camp in a couple days.
That's bad enough. Embiid has already been through the trade request charade one too many times. How many star point guards can possibly hold out of training camp? The Sixers should dial up the Guiness Book of World Records.
But, the Sixers' offseason took another southbound turn this week, when the Bucks traded for Damian Lillard. Then, to rub salt in the wound, the Celtics turned around and traded for Jrue Holiday.
Joel Embiid is not having fun.
Joel Embiid bemoans Philadelphia 76ers' disastrous offseason
The Sixers' offseason has been a complete and utter disaster. There isn't a silver lining in sight.
Shake Milton, Jalen McDaniels, and Georges Niang all left in free agency. For nothing. The Sixers signed Patrick Beverley, Danny Green, and Kelly Oubre — two way-past-prime vets and a known locker room disruptor who profiles as one of the worst passers in the NBA. Not ideal.
There was a brief respite from the hellfire when Paul Reed's offer sheet from the Utah Jazz was matched, but even that wasn't enough to keep up the spirits of the Philadelphia fandom. With six centers on the roster and little depth elsewhere, the Sixers have let the Harden trade saga drag right up to training camp with no resolution.
Meanwhile, their two biggest competitors in the East received marked upgrades at point guard — the very position Philly will have to replace once Harden is dealt, if he is ever dealt. Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo form the most unstoppable offensive duo in the NBA. Holiday gives the Celtics another perimeter stopper to replace Marcus Smart, as well as a facilitator to lubricate the offense.
Milwaukee and Boston now occupy an entirely separate tier of contention in the East. The Sixers still have the reigning MVP, a one-man oasis in the desert, but let's be frank. Embiid has never been good enough in the playoffs to suggest that he alone guarantees the ability to contend. Maxey is a joy, a true rising star, but he's flawed. His success over the last two seasons has been inextricably tied to Harden. Without his running mate, Maxey faces a steep learning curve. He's not a point guard by trade.
It's hard to decipher a path to Philadelphia catching up to either Milwaukee or Boston. Those teams are deeper, with more top-end talent and no active holdouts. Nick Nurse is a new head coach looking to build a system and a culture from scratch. That will be hard to accomplish if he doesn't even know the full extent of his roster in training camp.
The Sixers are on the fast track to another disappointing season. Embiid has at least three years left on his contract, but it's 2023. You don't need an expiring contract to demand a trade. If he decides to force his hand — if he decides he has had enough of the Sixers' constant failure to build a contender around him — then he can leave the franchise with little choice but to embark on a rebuild.
The market for Harden is arid, Embiid is flirting with outright unhappiness, and there's no clear path to getting another proper co-star on the roster next to Embiid. The Sixers are about to win 50 regular season games and then get trucked in the playoffs, a time-honored tradition. That is unless Morey can pull off a true miracle and salvage the remnants of a tainted 'process.'