More Sports:

July 28, 2023

Mailbag: Is Joel Embiid the best player to never make a Conference Finals?

Embiid has been an ultra impressive, flat-out dominant player in the regular season, which has made the playoff woes even more of a gut punch for fans.

We are in the deadest part of the NBA offseason, so you know what that means: It's time for a Sixers mailbag, one that only has to mention the James Harden situation several times rather than over and over again.

Let's get to the questions.

Is it too early to wonder about the Celtics feeling buyer’s remorse on the Jaylen Brown contract? That’s the first place my mind would go until we see more big-time deals agreed to under the new CBA. A bunch of the big/bad deals signed under the last collective bargaining agreement won’t be as meaningful now, with the salary cap jumping far enough to buy teams wiggle room. Let’s see where Boston is at in another year, after making a pretty big team pivot via the Porzingis trade this summer.

I would be keeping a close eye on the Chicago Bulls, too, as I think Zach LaVine sits in a strange spot as an obviously talented and dynamic scorer, but he’s not quite good enough as a lead guy to push the Bulls toward relevance. Maybe Chicago just says enough is enough and moves him for what they can get, although the word this summer has been that they’ve asked for a nice return if anyone wants to get in the mix for the high-flying guard.

Philadelphia's ability to trade for a player in a cap dump scenario is a point of intrigue next summer and may end up being the more fruitful path compared to being the highest bidder for one (or more) of the 2024 free agents. But it's a way's off right now, so it's hard to know just how much it'll cost them if a player like this shakes free next year. And that assumes they preserve their flexibility for that full year, holding off on a major deal in the interim. We'll have to wait and see.

I think it’s pretty simple — he has to trade James Harden. As it stands right now, the Sixers have limited options in free agency as a result of their cap situation and who is actually left to sign. Their immediate future hinges on what happens with Harden and who comes back for him, which is likely to be multiple players rather than one big name to replace him.

That being said, there is a world where a trade with the Clippers takes on a combination of movable long-term money (more specifically, Terrance Mann’s contract) alongside expiring veterans like Marcus Morris. This doesn’t have to be a true either/or scenario, and the Sixers can find a way to split the difference if they’re methodical enough with this trade process. The Sixers don’t need to ask Joel Embiid to effectively take a sabbatical in order to keep the books clean for next summer, I don’t think.

So the Sixers wouldn’t use this exact phrasing, obviously, because it doesn’t benefit them to refer to a guy they want back as a “clown,” but I think this sentiment has to be baked into their position in trade discussions. They’re open to trading Harden and have tried to work with him/his representation to find a deal that works for both parties, but if they don’t find one to their liking, is Harden really going to risk a ton of future money by stomping his feet and acting out to open next season?

This is a player with a checkered reputation for multiple reasons, whether it’s the history of playoff meltdowns or just watching him lose enough athleticism to damage his effectiveness. Despite the Houston Rockets looming as a threat starting last December, his biggest potential suitor ultimately decided to stay out of the Harden business to invest in Fred Van Vleet instead. That’s noteworthy for multiple reasons, certainly because small guards like Van Vleet tend to age horribly. Being willing to take the Van Vleet risk rather than the Harden one says a lot about how the latter is viewed right now. Even the Clippers, Harden’s preferred destination, have been fairly unserious about what they’re willing to give up in order to acquire him. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that Harden is still valued, but on the team’s terms, which is a shift from the franchise-defining clout Harden had at his peak.

There will still be a market for him regardless, but at the moment, it seems like there’s a disconnect between what the player wants it to be and what teams think it is. Too much unknown to factor in over the next year to give a real answer, though.

I’m not expecting much from Reed beyond the three-point line, no matter how much Reed and Nick Nurse talk about using him in a more flexible role. There’s a higher tolerance for experimentation, for sure, but do we really think it’s going to be worth Philadelphia’s time to have Reed spending a decent chunk of his time away from the basket? It doesn’t seem realistic to me beyond the occasional gadget lineup.

I could end up being wrong, and maybe Nurse is so excited about a multi-big lineup on defense that Reed has to get up some shots by necessity. Reed works on the jumper frequently, and based on the reviews you hear about his work ethic, I wouldn’t put it past him to finally get results with his shot at the NBA level. But the more likely outcome is Reed sticking to what he’s good at.

I have not watched it yet but as a Futurama guy — we wrote about it as a streaming option when the whole world shut down in 2020 — I will definitely get to it at some point. I just started watching The Shield for the first time from the beginning, so that’s going to eat into my offseason TV time for a while.

As far as best side characters, it depends on whether you’re talking about one-off characters or regular appearances. For the former, the sleazy 80s guy remains near the top for me. Of the recurring characters outside of the main cast, I have a soft spot for the Robot Devil, the news anchor Morbo, Scruffy the janitor, and the entire robot mafia.

This guy is still mad that he couldn’t recognize an homage to 2001 A Space Odyssey, don’t mind him.

I think you could potentially argue the number is zero, and that Embiid is the best player to never make a conference finals, which is going to be a tough pill to swallow for a lot of Sixers fans.

The argument is basically between him and Dominique Wilkins, and with respect to the famously powerful scorer for the Hawks, Embiid has a better regular season resume. Wilkins peaked with an MVP runner-up in 1986 and didn’t finish any higher than fifth for that honor in any other season. The three-year stretch Embiid has had is simply better than any Nique had, though it is worth noting Wilkins had more playoff moments than Embiid has had to date. That includes a famous duel with Larry Bird where Wilkins put up an efficient 47 points on the road in a Game 7 and simply couldn’t outlast a superior Celtics team. If Embiid had a moment or two like that, he’d be under a lot less scrutiny.

(Also worth noting — Wilkins’ teams generally lost to the better team in the playoffs, running into the Bad Boys Pistons and the 80s Celtics when he was at his peak. There isn’t really an equivalent to the 2021 Hawks series loss Embiid’s Sixers had.)

Is anyone else even in the conversation? Bernard King is probably worth a shout here, as he had an absolutely electric peak in the mid-80s before his body gave out on him. But he didn’t sustain his excellence long enough to be better than Embiid for the purpose of this argument. There are other players who had similar issues as the lead guy who would eventually push deeper into the playoffs in supporting roles. Tracy McGrady made the Finals from the bench with the Spurs, but never pushed a team past round two as the alpha.

Embiid’s body of work is what it is at this point. He has been an ultra impressive, flat-out dominant guy in the regular season, which has made the playoff woes even more of a gut punch for fans. The hope is that he’ll break through at some point and never look back, and he has time left to redefine his current legacy. But it’s a rough one for the time being.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports