Jan. 4—The year 2022 was typical in Sixers Land — as in, sometimes chaotic, sometimes mesmerizing and never, ever dull.
The Ben Simmons saga finally came to an end with a February blockbuster trade to acquire James Harden. Joel Embiid led the NBA in scoring in 2021-22 and finished second in MVP voting for the second consecutive season, but then tore a ligament in his thumb and broke his face in the playoffs before his team fell in the second round (again).
Embiid lamented that the Sixers did not have a player like veteran bruiser P.J. Tucker ... and then they signed Tucker in free agency. They pulled off an excellent draft-night trade for De'Anthony Melton. Embiid enters Tuesday ranked second in the NBA in scoring — including a dazzling 59-point, 11-rebound, eight-assist, seven-block performance in a November win over the Utah Jazz — while Harden leads the league in assists (11.0 per game).
Yet it feels like the Sixers have been in a holding pattern for most of the season's first 36 games, after Harden and Tyrese Maxey both missed more than a month with foot injuries. Still, they have won 10 of their last 12 games to surge past a rocky start and enter Wednesday 1.5 games back of third place in the Eastern Conference at 22-14. They bookended the start of 2023 with two victories, a blowout at the Oklahoma City Thunder and an impressive bounce-back home win over the New Orleans Pelicans.
With the new year officially underway, here are some Sixers resolutions for the next 12 months. In true fresh-start fashion, some of these are on the loftier side, while others are more realistic.
This goal applies to the immediate future, now that Harden and Maxey have both returned. A full available roster will allow coach Doc Rivers to experiment with different lineup combinations — such as the three-guard look with Maxey, Harden, and Melton that closed Monday's win over New Orleans — solidify roles and sharpen timing and on-court chemistry.
But this is also a long-term hope. Not saying the Sixers would have defeated the Miami Heat in the playoffs with a healthy Embiid — who missed the series' first two games and then played the rest of the series with a mask on his face and tape on his detached thumb that would eventually be surgically repaired — but they would have been a tougher out with the All-NBA center at full strength.
Injuries, of course, are part of the game. But the Sixers are due for a run of good health.
Embiid for MVP
How ho-hum are Embiid's dominant performances becoming? Rivers was not even asked about the big man's 42 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists Monday, a game he entered as questionable to play because of back soreness.
When asked how Embiid has improved this season, Rivers has highlighted his ability to bait defenders and play-make for teammates (his 4.6 assists per game would set a career high for the second consecutive season). He remains a dangerous scorer at all three levels, complete with impressive off-the-dribble moves for his size. He can be utilized in a variety of ways for a defense that enters Tuesday ranked third in efficiency at 109.2 points allowed per 100 possessions.
The MVP field, however, is loaded. The Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic is on a scoring rampage. The Brookyln Nets' Kevin Durant, the Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum are all anchoring top-3 teams in the East, creating a stiff competition for the starting frontcourt spots at next month's All-Star Game. And the Denver Nuggets' Nikola Jokic is putting up numbers — while fueling the team entering Wednesday in first in the Western Conference at 24-13 — worthy of winning the award for the third consecutive season.
But if Embiid is in the thick of this race down the stretch, it means two things: One, that he has stayed healthy, which is always a variable for the oft-injured big man; and two, that the Sixers are a contender to come out of the East.
Clear the second-round hurdle
The Sixers have championship aspirations, of course.
But getting over that second-round road block is a significant first step. Barring injuries or other unforeseen circumstances, however, that looks like a challenging task.
Despite some hiccups, the Celtics and Bucks are regarded as the class of the NBA. The Nets' 12-game winning streak entering Wednesday is the league's most prominent — and most stunning — current storyline.
And coming off Donovan Mitchell's 71-point avalanche, the Cleveland Cavaliers look more than formidable. If the postseason began Wednesday, that would be the Sixers' first-round matchup.
Keep James Harden
The ESPN report dropped on Christmas morning that Harden is considering a return to the Houston Rockets in free agency is bizarre from a basketball standpoint, though perhaps not from a lifestyle standpoint. Floating that publicly, though, could be a leverage ploy for a bigger deal if he declines his player option for 2023-24 this summer, after he took a pay cut so the Sixers could sign Tucker and Danuel House Jr. last offseason.
Harden has long been a polarizing player, and is not the explosive scorer he once was. But it would be detrimental if the Harden experiment ended after less than two seasons.
He has evolved into a masterful facilitator with pick-and-roll partner Embiid, though the eye test reveals that the tandem could still be even sharper.
Signing Harden to a lucrative long-term contract would be a financial burden for the Sixers, with Embiid's super-max deal that kicks in in 2023-24, Tobias Harris' contract still on the books for one more season, and a max rookie extension looming for Maxey.
But losing Harden this summer, without an immediate Plan B, would ... not be ideal.
De'Anthony Melton contending for All-Defensive honors
Melton has been a fabulous addition, particularly while stepping in as a starter while Harden and Maxey were injured.
He has shot 39.7% from three-point range, and had a career-best 33-point outburst against the Los Angeles Lakers last month. But he also has exceeded the high defensive expectations, using his long arms, anticipation, and quick hands to disrupt and create turnovers. Entering Wednesday, he was second in the NBA in steals (2.0 per game) and fourth in deflections (3.6 per game).
He has gotten enough time in the starting lineup to warrant consideration for the NBA's All-Defensive team — remember: Matisse Thybulle is a back-to-back second-teamer as a part-time starter — and could become a closing-lineup regular when the Sixers need an elite perimeter defender.
P.J. Tucker finding his footing
In a few months, Tucker has gone from celebrated free-agency acquisition to the second-biggest source of vitriol for Sixers fans (the top source, for a very vocal segment of the fan base, is Rivers).
Tucker is averaging 3.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, including 10 scoreless outings and four games when he did not attempt a shot. He has also periodically sat during crunch time, including Monday night against the Pelicans.
Part of Tucker's struggles are due to injuries, including offseason knee surgery that limited his training camp ramp-up and now a pinched nerve in his neck that is affecting his right hand. Another part could be age, which makes the three-year contract that will take him to age 40 look risky. And part could be still figuring out his place within the Sixers' offense, instead of primarily hanging out in the corner without regular touches.
Former teammates rave about Tucker's willingness to take on the toughest defensive assignment, his physicality, and his locker-room presence. Embiid lobbied for him, and Harden took less money so he could reunite with his former Rockets teammate.
If Tucker gets right physically, he could still make his biggest impact during the most crucial part of the season.
Stabilize the backup center position
Who knew the Sixers would miss Andre Drummond so much? He was a reliable rebounder and occasional playmaker as Embiid's backup, before becoming the sneaky loss for the Sixers in the Simmons-Harden trade.
Rivers toggled back and forth between Montrezl Harrell and Paul Reed at the beginning of this season. Though Harrell has held that role for most of the past month, that position still does not feel solidified. Harrell is best utilized as a roller with Harden, and as an energy jolt. Rivers' spotty trust in Reed, another high-motor player who had performed well with regular postseason minutes, is sometimes perplexing to outsiders.
Rivers said he is fine with an ongoing competition between Reed and Harrell throughout the season, and is interested in lineups where they share the floor.
But that lingering uncertainty brings us to ...
One more in-season move?
The Inquirer laid out where the Sixers' roster stands in our mid-December trade season primer.
They are far less likely than last season to pull off a splashy move, and do not have much draft capital to offer. Yet packaging expiring contracts and/or role players could yield a positional upgrade. They also still have an open roster spot, which could make the buyout market an option.
And given president of basketball operations Daryl Morey's history, it's more likely the Sixers pull off some kind of move than stand pat.
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