Offseason moves have been made and the Philadelphia 76ers didn't quite land the big move they hoped for when the summer began. Hopes of making a run at available superstars LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George danced in the Sixers' heads, but in the end, those players either signed elsewhere (in the case of James and George) or were dealt elsewhere (Leonard).
That said, the Sixers have high hopes for 2018-19 in large part because All-Star center Joel Embiid continues to trend upward in his progress. Last season, his production jumped to 22.9 points and 11 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game -- all improvements from his rookie 2016-17 season -- as Philadelphia reached the Eastern Conference semifinals. Embiid also finished second in voting for Kia Defensive Player of the Year and gave the Sixers further hope a championship run may happen in the near future.
The Sixers' biggest offseason moves amounted to trading for Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala and re-signing J.J. Redick. And while Leonard moved to the East-rival Toronto Raptors, Embiid isn't fretting what didn't happen for his squad on the transactions page. In a conference call interview with reports from NBA Africa 2018, Embiid is focusing on taking his game and his team to new heights next season.
“I don’t think it matters, big free agent or not. My goal going into the offseason was to get better. I want to win the MVP. I feel like at the end of the day it might be an individual award, but when I play better, the team also does. I feel like if I’m an MVP candidate or if I win the MVP, that means we are on another level.”
“When my season ended, there was a lot of talk about adding guys. I literally did not really care because I want to get better,” Embiid said. “I want to be better than those guys that were mentioned, if I’m not already better than them. That was my message, just going into the offseason, finally the first one healthy and able to do whatever I want. That was my goal regardless.”
In the offseason, Embiid made a pitch of sorts to James via social media, writing: "Trust The Process!!!! Find a new slant @KingJames." However, James' agent -- and not James himself -- met with the Sixers in Los Angeles to hear their pitch. In a recent interview with ESPN, James said he thought "long and hard" about joining the Sixers. To Embiid, losing out on James wasn't as big of a letdown as it may have been for Sixers fans.
“I thought we had a chance,” Embiid said. “I’m a player. I always felt like it’s not my job to be in the middle of all that. I don’t like to be involved in front-office stuff. I always felt like [LeBron] didn’t need my help if he was going to do it. It is whatever. We have a great group of guys. A lot of guys coming back. Last year, we won 52 games. This next year is going to be even much better with the addition of Wilson Chandler. I expect Markelle [Fultz] to be back to himself.”
“Last year, we had a goal. Our goals throughout the season change. First, it was to make the playoffs. We had a run at the end of the year. We were like, ‘We have a chance.’ We get to the first round, which was pretty, I would say, easy. Then I felt like we had a pretty good chance against Boston, too. They kind of caught us off-guard, but they’re a really good team. They have a lot of talent. From there after, our goal was to go to the Finals. I feel we had the right pieces. We kept telling each other, ‘We can do this.’ We’ve come a long way. We won 52 games, which nobody thought would happen. We won 16 games in a row. We just thought that we had a chance to go to the Finals. Doesn’t change. The approach doesn’t change. Still the same. We’re just going to do our thing.”
Overall, in the conference call with reports, Embiid sounds like the confident player he has always been -- as well as one who is sure he can take his game to another level quickly.
“I feel like I have everything. I just need to be more consistent,” Embiid said. “This is the first summer where I’m actually healthy and able to play basketball. I was pretty excited. I’ve already gotten so much better. It’s just about working on everything, perfecting everything. Like when it comes to my 3-point shot or the ball-handling, which was a problem. I feel like I can do it. You can also say I’m kind of new to the game. I’m still learning a lot. I feel like I still have a lot of potential, a lot of stuff to show.”
Embiid's superstar cohort, rookie guard Ben Simmons, was a regular triple-double threat and claimed Kia Rookie of the Year honors last season. To close out last season, the Sixers got hot at the right time, racking up 16 straight wins as they made quick work of the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs.
However, the Sixers got outplayed by Boston in the playoffs — and last year’s draft. It was a gut-punch for every Sixers fan who watched Jayson Tatum torch the Sixers while Fultz rode the bench. The Sixers, of course, swapped the No. 3 pick to Boston (who took Tatum) for the No. 1 pick (Fultz).
It’s too early to call a 19-year-old No. 1 pick a bust, but Fultz is certainly trending that way after a pitiful rookie year derailed by a mysterious shoulder injury, a broken shot and confidence issues. He played the first four games, missed 68 games because of injury, then was persona non grata in the postseason.
Simmons-Embiid-Fultz were expected to form a trio of stars that would lead the Sixers to the top. Fultz’s ignominious first year instead made him more of a mystery than when the Sixers selected him out of Washington.
Entering the offseason, there were serious questions ahead about who will team with Embiid and Simmons to form a championship core -- and plenty of room to grow for both franchise stars.
“If we all sat in that room when we met back in September, and said we’re going to finish third in the Eastern conference, we’re going to lose in the semifinals of the Eastern Conference, there’s a strong chance we all would have been hugging each other,” coach Brett Brown said at season's end. “The initial goal was to make the playoffs. The final piece is, if we’re going to do anything of any significance.”
The Sixers signed Brown to a three-year contract extension in the offseason, as Philadelphia has increased its win total by 42 games since the start of the 2015-16 season. That run that tied Boston (2006-08) for the largest turnaround within a three-year span in NBA history.
However, the offseason wasn't all positives for the front office in Philadelphia. GM Bryan Colangelo resigned from his post in early June in the wake of what an investigation found was ''careless and in some instances reckless'' sharing of sensitive team information. It was a stunning fall for Colangelo, a former two-time Executive of the Year who was expected to lead the improving 76ers into an important summer.
Brown took over the team's basketball operations on an interim basis since then, although the 76ers said their search for a new general manager would begin immediately.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.