The East is an arms race, and the Sixers need to load up
The power structure of the NBA just shifted seismically. James Harden has been traded to the Brooklyn Nets in a four-way mega-deal, in which four first round picks, four pick swaps, Caris LeVert and Victor Oladipo also changed hands.
This has a drastic effect on the Sixers. Not only were they in the running for Harden all the way to the end, but a direct competitor of theirs just nabbed him. Brooklyn already had two elite scorers in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving; Harden makes that team a juggernaut.
The Nets are the second Eastern Conference team to push all its chips in. The Milwaukee Bucks made their mark during the offseason, trading three first round picks, two swaps, and guards Eric Bledsoe and George Hill for Jrue Holiday. They also made a run at restricted free agent Bogdan Bogdanovic, though the reported sign-and-trade fell apart over issues with tampering.
By the way, what is the NBA's deal with tampering? Anthony Davis basically pouted his way to the Los Angeles Lakers and the league never batted an eye, meanwhile the Bucks can't add a starter without Secaucus getting suspicious?
Rules are out the window now anyway. On paper, Brooklyn has the best Big Three in league history. All three of Durant, Harden and Irving are incredible scorers and playmakers on the ball while also being excellent shooters and cutters off it. Their congregation is nothing like the NBA has ever seen. Weaknesses are palpable behind that triad, particularly the interior defense, but it might not matter when those three combine for 140. One of them is always going to have a mismatch to generate instant offense.
And then there's Milwaukee, who is led by the NBA's reigning back-to-back Most Valuable Player. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a wrecking ball on both ends, the engine of an elite offense and the fulcrum of an even more dominant defense. Few can guard him, and even fewer can score on him. With Holiday in the fold now, along with Khris Middleton and an armada of willing shooters, the Bucks are truly a machine.
The Sixers have some work to do to join those ranks. Joel Embiid can be the best player in the world some games, but he can't do so all night, nor every night. He's the best post player in the league by a longshot, both in volume and efficiency, but there are tangible downsides to an offense centered around that. To maximize his strengths as an offensive force, while also helping him preserve energy for a keystone role on defense, he needs partner in crime.
Ideally this guy would've been Harden, a player I lobbied for quite loudly. His superhuman level of scoring volume, efficiency and playmaking is one of the best in league history, and would make Embiid a 1B on offense rather than the alpha and the omega. His post-up game could be more natural and within the flow of the offense, rather than forced to be the only source of points, and he could conserve more energy for defense, where he is indisputably the Sixers' most important player.
In the end, the Houston Rockets' asking price was just too high. Daryl Morey was publicly adamant about not trading Ben Simmons at all, while Houston tried to extract Simmons and a bunch of premium assets from Philadelphia.
We'll never know how willing to pull the trigger Morey actually was, but Sixers fans can be content with his decision not to. After all, he was the man who traded for Harden in Houston and spent eight years building around him as aggressively as possible. If anyone on Earth knows how to properly value Harden, it's Morey.
That doesn't make this season's outlook any brighter, though. The Sixers are a notch below Brooklyn and Milwaukee. The Nets might not be able to guard Embiid, but Embiid can't be the focal point of the offense while also holding down the fort on defense—especially not against that team's firepower. The Bucks are easier to match up with, especially since Embiid is one of the few humans out there who can guard Giannis, but Giannis' support cast is also much stronger than Embiid's. The Bucks would cook the Sixers in those non-Embiid minutes.
TL;DR is that the Sixers don't have enough right now. Their starting lineup is strong on shooting, catering to Embiid and Simmons' strengths better than any team has before them. In addition, any unit with those two is going to be elite on defense. But there are distinct weaknesses to an offense whose best source of points is the low block. All great playoff teams have a superb halfcourt creator like Harden, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler.
None of Seth Curry, Shake Milton or Tyrese Maxey is that guy right now. While it would be great for one of them to grow into the role, it's not realistic anytime soon. And timing is vital here, because Embiid is one of the best players on the planet right now. Each day that the team doesn't cater to his strengths is a day of Embiid's prime wasted, especially when factoring in his injury history.
The Sixers' best chance at a championship is right now, while Embiid is an MVP candidate. But as currently constructed, the odds are slim. If they don't make a serious effort to solve the issues around the Big Fella, they'll have wasted yet another year of his greatness.