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May 03, 2024

5 thoughts about the Sixers after yet another early playoff exit

Was this a memorable series? Are the Knicks a rival? Does Joel Embiid get enough credit?

Sixers NBA
Sixers-Knicks-Joel-Embiid-Game-6_050324_USAT Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

Joel Embiid will probably have a completely new cast around him next season.

It's hard to make sense of what just happened to the 76ers.

When Joel Embiid regained (some) health and returned, the team went on a run that nearly resulted in them avoiding a play-in tournament date. They were able to beat the Heat and ride some momentum into their series against the Knicks — at which point they sort of ran into a buzz saw.

Whether it was a lack of time together, an abundance of injuries or the fact that the Knicks were a particularly difficult matchup, the Sixers fell in six games in an otherwise all-time great series.

Before we all head to Citizens Bank Park to drown ourselves in the Phillies, here are five thoughts I had about the end of the Sixers 2023-24 NBA Season:

1. The crowd

Embiid complained after Game 4, when the Knicks fans seemed to nearly outnumber the home Sixers fans. There was a small campaign in the city to try and reverse that issue and it didn't seem to make a very big difference Thursday. What made more of a difference was the Sixers good play (at least after the first quarter).

With teams sporting a similar shade of blue on most of their jerseys it was hard to visually distinguish the difference at the Wells Fargo Center. But the Knicks crowd was loud. Perhaps not as loud as the home fans, but at least through my ears it sounded like a 60-40 Philly-NY split — which isn't great.

Tickets before the game were around a third as expensive in Philly than in Manhattan, which makes sense. Knicks fans were optimistic. Sixers fans don't know what that word means anymore. They are a team that has not made it out of the second round since Allen Iverson was here, and they aren't going to be as big a draw as, say, a team that has recently made the World Series or Super Bowl — both of which play in this city too. 

I was in South Philly covering the NCAA Tournament a few times, and when the Elite 8 was here it sounded pretty similar, a relatively large contingent rooting on each of the teams in the early going. That can't make you feel good.

2. Embiid's a warrior

The Sixers' superstar center is fresh off knee surgery. He's also had injuries this season to his hip and ankle. And he also has a history of back issues. And is currently dealing will Bell's Palsy. 

But he had 50 points in Game 3, basically on one good leg, and somehow posted a triple-double on fumes in over 50 minutes of game time in Game 5. The reigning MVP — who won't repeat in large part because his body continues to fail him — puts himself on the floor in pain and less than 100% continually. And it's admirable. 

It's hard to imagine what kind of career he might have right now if he'd been able to stay healthy — he missed two entire seasons to start his career after all. But the amount of production he's been able to create with ailments all over his gigantic body is impressive and worth acknowledging. The big man basically willed Philly back into this one, posting a monster line of 39 points and 13 rebounds. Embiid is an all-time great and deserves to have at least one real playoff run.

3. Comeback kids

The Sixers were down 33-11 at one point in Game 6. They were down by six points with seconds to play in Game 5. There was something special about them never saying die.

That being said, they didn't have enough fight to minimize immature turnovers or make high IQ decisions against New York, and to me that was their undoing. Yes, Jalen Brunson is extremely impressive, and yes the officiating was bad. But if Embiid didn't overthrow so many passes, or of the rest of the squad thought for half a beat before rushing a low percentage shot or making a thoughtless pass — or fought a tiny bit harder on the defensive glass — the team wouldn't be packing up its locker right now.

4. Memorable series?

I have been going back and forth on this one since the final buzzer. Was this a memorable series for Sixers fans? Was it enough to make this a renewed rivalry between Philly and New York?

I want to say yes — it would be so cool to have a bitter rivalry that included two of the top 10 players in the NBA in Embiid and Brunson. But it was just a first round match, even if it was an entertaining one. The Sixers could resemble a totally different team next year, as we'll get into in just a second. I think this is a potentially budding rivalry but it's not really there yet. These teams need to face off in a couple more postseason series, or perhaps in an Eastern Conference Finals to get it to an Eagles-Cowboys or Phillies-Braves place in the city's mind.

5. The last dance

Thursday night's loss means the Sixers could, and probably will look entirely different next season. A first round exit isn't exactly begging to run it back.

That's nothing new. We've gone though the Dario Saric era, the Ben Simmons era, the Jimmy Butler era, the James Harden era, and now the Tyrese Maxey era (to name a few). The team continues to evolve and desperately find ways to flank Embiid with winning talent.

Maxey will return — he'll be extended this summer. Embiid is under contract. And that's it. If the Sixers wanted to, they could let every other player walk. And depending on who is available in free agency and via the trade market they just might. They have a mountain of cap space.

Next season might be the start of the final chapter for Embiid, who is 30 and struggling to stay healthy, before he potentially leaves for greener pastures. They have a ton of cap money. There has never been more pressure on Daryl Morey and company to figure it out.

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