It’s a good time to be a Sixers fan. Yes, that’s an unfamiliar phrase that tumbles from the lips as if composed in an alien tongue, but here we are.
Philadelphia has won seven of its past nine games, a stretch that includes victories over four teams in playoff position (Nuggets, Hornets, Bucks, Raptors), their biggest coming against Toronto on Wednesday night. There have been two buzzer-beaters, respectively by Robert "Rock" Covington and T.J. McConnell, chants of "Trust the Process" from crowds in Boston and Washington, D.C., and a frenzied All-Star campaign from precocious rookie Joel Embiid that involved a Triple H pregame introduction with a misty plume of saliva and water.
"There’s a good feeling amongst our group at the moment," Sixers coach Brett Brown told The Ringer. "I feel like it sort of validates all the work everyone has put in. The nuances and the system and the belief and the work ethic — all the things that really [add up to a] culture — I feel very, very confident that we have done the right things over the past three and a half years."
Philadelphia’s newfound "winning culture" did not arrive in the suitcases of journeyman free agents or appear thanks to the ouster of former GM Sam Hinkie, the architect of the Sixers’ rebuild whose phantom still hovers over the organization. It was there all along. It’s just visible now, because Embiid’s broken foot finally healed. The 7-foot-2 center looks like a franchise keystone: He’s the size of a McMansion but equipped with stunning mobility, a silky shooting touch, and basketball aptitude that grows exponentially by the game. Per 36 minutes, he’s averaging 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks. The only rookie to score more per 36? Wilt Chamberlain.
Embiid is the result of the Process, and his self-supplied nickname is perfect. In past seasons, even as the team piled up lottery picks and accumulated assets, it was unclear how this mound of clay could be molded and animated. Last year was a napalm junglefire of ineptitude, ranging from on-court performance to ownership’s meek acquiescence to league honchos, and there was no identifiable strength to build around. But now, the path to contention is obvious: Throttle the living shit out of everyone.
Defensively, Embiid is already that good. He’s 29 games into his career, and declaring that he can anchor a championship team doesn’t feel as presumptuous as it should. Outside of Golden State’s Draymond Green, whose ability to smother 7-footers creates mismatches on the other side of the ball, Embiid may already be the most dimension-altering defender on the planet. He spikes shots into the stands, forces contorted attempts around the basket, and makes guards reevaluate their life decisions whenever they creep into the lane.
Embiid leads the league in blocks per 36 minutes and allows the lowest field goal percentage at the rim (40.4 percent) of any player who has contested at least 200 shots. The chances of a player hitting a shot within six feet of the basket plummets by 18.6 percentage points compared to his regular field goal percentage when he’s defended by Embiid, the largest differential in the league among the NBA’s best rim protectors. The Sixers defense is ranked 10th overall, but over their past 10 games, they boast a top-three defensive rating. For the season, with Embiid on the court, the Sixers allow a mere 98.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would lead the league. Covington and McConnell have evolved from undrafted free agents to handsy, vespine defenders, but Embiid is the centerpiece of the starting lineup.
"He’s brilliant at times," said Brown. "The most important thing is that he truly is a willing defender. He understands that we are building our program around defense and he’s the crown jewel. There is a competitiveness in Joel Embiid that trumps his talent."
Embiid has been remarkably effective since day one, but his play has taken a menacing turn over the past two weeks. The athleticism he demonstrated at the University of Kansas, once concealed beneath a girdle of weight gain and rust, is resurfacing with increased regularity. He is finishing pick-and-rolls with Amar’e-esque tomahawks, sprinting out for easy buckets on the break, and appearing in midair like a giant predatory bird to snuff out opponents’ dunk attempts. Are these flashes indicative of something special gathering on the horizon?
"Absolutely," said Brown. "And I think that it’s only going to get more real. If you really study him, there are times when his base isn’t as strong as it will be next year. There will be times, when he fatigues, [where] there will be breakdowns, like there will be with anybody. But I especially see it with Joel, [because] he hasn’t really played that much basketball. But there are portions of the game where he will come up with a jaw-dropping block or stalk somebody down in the open court and pin their ball against the backboard. I think as he plays more, as he gets older, as he starts getting into fantastic shape, he has the chance to be dominating."
What’s better than having one young defensive savant? Uh, two? Since returning from surgery that kept him out of the Sixers’ first 23 games, Nerlens Noel has been as disruptive as ever. The third-year center is holding opponents to 47.8 percent at the rim and posting steal and deflection rates that would top the league if he had enough minutes to qualify for the leaderboard. That’s trippy — especially when you realize he’s younger than Embiid. And for those concerned about Noel’s offense, he’s averaging 17.2 points per 36 minutes on a mondo-efficient 59.8 true shooting percentage.
It’s not a coincidence that the Sixers’ winning streak was ignited when Noel replaced Jahlil Okafor as backup center in the final days of 2016. With more minutes of elite paint protection, Philly has allowed the second-lowest opponent field goal percentage from both 0–5 feet and 5–9 feet since December 30. This is the "violence at the rim" that Sam Hinkie spoke so reverently of.
To date, Embiid and Noel have shared the court for only eight minutes in the same color T-shirt. The Sixers outscored opponents by 33.1 points per 100 possessions over that stretch, but the sample size is too tiny to draw any conclusions. Injuries, rest, and foul trouble have stymied further attempts to pair them, but discovering if the big guys can coexist is necessary due diligence.
"It’s something that’s completely on my mind," said Brown. "It’s got to be done in an environment where it’s not going to hurt the team. Although it sounds like a no-brainer comment, most times, in the NBA, the matchup isn’t favorable. I think that both Nerlens and Joel, their instincts are to go back to the rim. I think that we’re very vulnerable in transition defense. If it was a half-court sport, you wouldn’t feel as naked when those stretch 4s are on the floor."
Still, it’s tempting to wonder if a lineup that includes (arguably) two of the top 10 defenders in the NBA could be historically fearsome. Plus, even a paltry 10 minutes of overlap per night would give Noel enough playing time to make the $80 million contract he’ll command this offseason as a restricted free agent easily palatable. The Sixers’ failure to ink Noel to an extension in October might have been a mistake, but retaining him is crucial to preserving the team’s growing identity. Crack open the checkbook and construct a traumatizing defense around Embiid and Noel for the next half-decade. Boom, done.
Yet, despite Embiid’s monstrous individual stats, Philly still has the league’s worst offense (even with him on the floor, the team scores at a rate of 102.3 points per 100 possessions, which would rank 25th). This is (hopefully) where Ben Simmons comes in. The top pick in the 2016 draft, who is still rehabbing from a fractured foot, is a gifted distributor who will eventually be the Sixers’ offensive fulcrum. A healthy frontcourt trio of Embiid, Noel, and Simmons could be the foundation of a team that takes over the East when LeBron James’s decade-long reign ends.
Meanwhile, the Sixers are 14–26. But Embiid is enthusiastically talking playoffs. "You can’t just throw around ‘playoffs’ recklessly," said Brown. "The league is too well-coached, too well-played. We all would be very naive not to look at the ages of teams that play in the playoffs. But when I hear Joel speak in those terms, I’m proud that he acts like that. I’m proud he thinks like that. His heart is completely in the right place."