• Alec Liebsch

Episode 39 Special Edition: Listener Mailbag

Since co-host Kenny Adkins is out of town, I will be doing a different kind of episode for the listeners. Based on questions submitted to the "It's Always Something in Philadelphia" Twitter account, I'll be typing out my thoughts in a way that makes up for our absence from your podcast feeds.

From Cam (@CTabatabaie): What did you think about Joel Embiid’s tweets?

Look, Embiid doesn’t talk about this stuff much. In his time as a Sixer, the team has been very active and very much at the center of the NBA’s storyline shitstorm. And through it all, the franchise player has mostly kept it simple, deflecting blame from others onto himself and expressing an unbridled love for the Philadelphia fanbase.

Within a soliloquy of tweets on Wednesday, Embiid changed that entirely. In just one sentence amidst an essay of points, he made a subtle criticism that seemed to overshadow his entire point. “Philly fans, y’all also gotta be better” was the line that many readers focused on. And many did not take it well.

Unfortunately, that’s the nature of the beast in Philadelphia. They’re the customers, the constituents, the very reasons that professional athletes like Embiid make millions of dollars. And in a city big on fandom but small on championship equity, the stress that comes from rooting on your favorite team is amplified.

So when they boo, they often have a reason to. Many Sixers fans supported the team through thick and thin, from Process to Progress to whatever stage it’s in now. The unrest that exploded from the Atlanta Hawks series is justified.

However, when Embiid talks, the fans should listen. It’s one thing for Danny Green to say the people have been too harsh; the toughest sports market he played in was Toronto, and that was during a championship season. It’s another for the franchise player to have something to say—someone like Embiid’s. He’s embraced the city since Day One, and said nothing but great things about it since the start.

Maybe, just maybe, we should dial it back a little.

As for what he was actually trying to say, it’s clear that a report from USA Today's Jeff Zilgitt struck a nerve with him. Either he’s finally putting the kibosh on a false narrative, he’s trying to avoid being blamed for any existing rift between the two, or he’s doing a favor to the organization by being a spokesperson.

Whatever the reason, that “report” was the catalyst, and the series of tweets couldn’t have come at a better time. As the Sixers try to navigate a treacherous situation, getting reassurance from the franchise’s best player is a good way to put out any flames that may grow as training camp approaches.

If the Sixers and Simmons are forced to be together for just a little longer, they'll have the big fella's support either way. After all, he did just sign the Designated Veteran's Extension, i.e. the SuperMax, locking him up in Philly through at least 2026. Even if Embiid secretly wants his teammate gone, he's doing a wonderful job clearing the air. Philly is lucky to have him.

From same mccarren (@sammccarren): What would need to happen at the player, team, and organizational level for Philadelphia [76ers] to retain the #1 seed in the East this year, and/or reach the Finals for the first time since 2001?"

This is the big-picture question that has loomed over the Sixers for eight years and counting. They've been far from perfect in terms of team-building since the start of The Process, but they have been deliberate in their attempts to compete for a championship. Their direction is clear.

That lofty goal comes with expectations, and expectations come with pressure--especially in this city. Philadelphia is one of the most intense sports fanbases on the planet, and everything that's happened to the Sixers in the last decade has only added to the hunger and impatience of this group. That pressure is warranted, but it has its downsides. If external forces starts to seep into the organization itself, the structure can be corrupted very quickly.

That has made this offseason even more difficult to navigate. Ben Simmons collapsed on the basketball world's biggest stage, and was already a questionable fit with Joel Embiid, all but certifying that the rest of his career would not happen in a Sixers uniform. Everyone from Simmons to the organization to the fanbase wants Simmons elsewhere by the start of next season.

If that were the only box they had to check, it would've been signed, sealed and delivered on by now. But for them to satisfy your question and become championship contenders, they have to get better from a Simmons trade. That doesn't seem realistic right now. The Sacramento Kings aren't including De'Aaron Fox, the San Antonio Spurs don't have anyone that would put the Sixers over the top (not in 2021, at least), the Minnesota Timberwolves seem to think D'Angelo Russell will get it done (he won't), and the Indiana Pacers' offer of Malcolm Brogdon and a first round pick already got shot down.

The easiest path to title contention right now is for Damian Lillard to become available. The Portland Trail Blazers have been mediocre for a half-decade now, sneaking into the Western Conference Finals in 2019 but mostly suffering early playoff exits every other year. Rumors have swirled around Lillard potentially requesting a trade for a while now, especially with Portland's path to prosperity weakening by the day, but until he actually demands a trade, he will stay there.

Unless Lillard or some other prolific scoring/playmaking hybrid guard becomes available, the Sixers are kind of stuck. The Brooklyn Nets are a powerhouse, and the Milwaukee Bucks are the reigning champs. Meanwhile, this Sixers team couldn't beat the Atlanta Hawks. They have to either make a franchise-altering move, or set themselves up to execute such a deal in the near future. However, Simmons' desire to leave, the fanbase's desire for Simmons to leave, and the immense amount of media coverage that will surround that situation when the season gets going, are all forces that could cause the front office to crack sooner rather than later.

From Kory Waldron (@KWalHoops): Can the 76ers make the ECF with Tobias Harris as their 2nd best player?

I’ll keep it real with you, chief: no. They didn’t trade for Tobias for him to be the No. 2, and I imagine they didn’t have that role in mind for him when they re-signed him either.

Optimists will argue he was basically their 2nd option this past year, and that the results were pretty good. Harris had another good season under Doc Rivers, averaging 19.5 points and 6.8 rebounds on .597 true shooting as the Sixers earned the 1 seed in the East. At the same time though, the Sixers’ offense was not a strength; it ranked 13th in the league and basically stalled out in the playoffs. Embiid and Harris is not a title-worthy offensive hierarchy.

Give credit where credit is due: Harris gets better at something every year, and made a leap from 2019-20 to 2020-21, likely reaping the same benefits that Embiid did (more shooting). If Simmons’ spot in the lineup is replaced by a more traditional point guard who can shoot off the catch, it’s reasonable to see Harris make another jump in production. He’d be one of the biggest winners of such a trade.

But as things stand right now, he’s a fine 2nd option, which isn't enough to put the Sixers over the top.

From Birdeaux Jeaux (@joeski214): The Phillies currently sit 2 games back. We all know how likely and easily we can get hurt by this, but what if we don't? The '93 team is known as one of the most likeable Philly teams ever and they didn't even win. What needs to happen for them to get hot, and how can they become as likable as that ‘93 team?

A baseball question!

For starters, the 1993 Phillies had an NLCS berth basically locked up by the All-Star Break. It’s easy to like a team that was winning as much as them.

The 2021 squad doesn’t light a candle to that one. The ‘93 team went .500 down the stretch because it could lay off the gas; this team is at full throttle and barely above water.

The formula is simple: Win. Get a streak going, win the division title, and try and steal a playoff series or two. The fans will like you if you’re good.

I know you want some baseball analysis for how they get it done, but this one isn’t rocket science. For them to win the National League East, they basically have to beat who is in front of them. They have done that recently, to their credit, taking six of seven from two of the worst teams in baseball. 23 of their last 29 games are against squads under .500. If they take wins from teams that are literally giving them away, the division is theirs.

The easiest way for the Phils to seal the deal is through their offense. Get ahead early in games and don’t look back. Don’t give Joe Girardi or the bullpen a chance to ruin it.

From para (@ParadigmTV_): Would Embiid + the 2000-2001 Sixers (no Mutombo) or Allen Iverson + the 2020-2021 Sixers (no Simmons) be a better team to win a championship?

This is a tough one. Iverson and Embiid as your core is extremely good, as Iverson can take the offensive load off Embiid’s shoulders while the big fella patrols the defense and covers up for Iverson on the other end. There’s a lot to like about that pairing.

I wasn’t exactly around for that 2001 run, but I know that team was built on a lot of defense and rebounding around Iverson. You wouldn’t have needed to stress those skills as much with Embiid in the fold, but there’s still a ton to like about some combination of Eric Snow, George Lynch, Tyrone Hill and Aaron McKie around A.I. and Jo. Toni Kukoc instantly becomes Embiid’s best friend.

As for Iverson with the 2021 Sixers, it’s pretty close to the James Harden trade that never happened. Harden is levels above Iverson as a playmaker, and can endure a lot more contact to generate easy points at the foul line, but Iverson still would’ve been a hell of an add to this Sixers team. Iverson, Seth Curry, Green, Harris and Embiid is potent. A.I. and Seth would be tough to pull off in certain matchups, but Matisse Thybulle also becomes more viable now that Simmons is out of the picture.

In theory, the 2021 squad with A.I. makes more sense. But that’s the case for a lot of rosters in modern times; the NBA has evolved. Given that the 2001 team made the Finals on its own, and the 2021 team couldn’t escape the second round, I have to give this nod to the 2001 squad.

Let’s hope Daryl Morey proves me wrong.