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Daryl Morey’s Arrival Doesn’t Mean the End for the Simmons-Embiid Era in Philly

The same executive who pushed small to its extremes in Houston can find ways to bring out the best of the Sixers’ supersized core

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All Sixers fans have ever really wanted was a front office with a plan. Say what you want about Sam Hinkie’s tanking approach, but at least there was a direction. That’s why most Sixers fans trusted the Process and still adore Hinkie to this day. It sure beats being a rudderless ship. It’s got to be a wonderful day to be a Sixers fan now that Daryl Morey has agreed to a five-year deal to serve as team president. Morey, who once was Hinkie’s boss in Houston, comes to Philadelphia with a philosophy and a long track record of success after building multiple iterations of winning teams. But now comes the real work, and Morey’s past naturally raises questions about Philadelphia’s future.

Morey has been at the forefront of the analytics movement and the 3-point revolution, but he’s now running a team built to play an archaic style. The Sixers have two All-Stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but no knockdown shooters, no proven perimeter shot creator, and the bloated contracts of Tobias Harris and Al Horford, which have them in luxury tax territory. Embiid scored more points per game via post-ups than every other team last season, while the Rockets found the post to be about as valuable as a VHS tape. Instead, Morey built the Rockets to run pick-and-roll nearly every play and launch more 3s than any team in history, and he sent away all their centers so Houston could play the most extreme version of small ball we’ve ever seen. James Harden plus Chris Paul and then Russell Westbrook saw more space in Houston than Matthew McConaughey did in Interstellar. The Sixers couldn’t find any space no matter who they put on the floor.

Analytics doesn’t just mean “shoot more 3s,” though. Morey’s approach can be stripped down to two basic principles: (1) find superstars and (2) shoot as many efficient shots as possible. Morey simply built the teams he felt could maximize Harden, one of the greatest perimeter scorers in basketball history.

A new approach should be expected in Philadelphia with two different types of stars and a new coach in Doc Rivers, who was hired just over three weeks ago. Morey had pursued Rivers to be head coach of the Rockets, and now they get to join forces in Philly. Together, Doc and Daryl will need to make it work. Simmons is allergic to shooting 3s, but he’s dynamic in the open floor and he assisted on more 3s than any player since his first NBA season in 2017-18. As much talk as there is about Morey’s offense, he’s also emphasized versatility and aggression on defense. Simmons is one of the game’s best defenders, and certainly one of the most flexible as he effectively neutralized players across positions last season and rightfully earned an All-Defensive Team nod.

Embiid posted up so much for good reason: According to Synergy Sports, he scored 1.1 points per post-up in the regular season and 1.2 points per post-up in the postseason, two of the most efficient big-man post-scoring numbers in history. Embiid has developed each season to become a potent post presence, and any team that has him would be foolish not to feed him opportunities there. Morey dumped Clint Capela not because he was a center, but because his offensive contributions were minimal compared to Embiid and he wasn’t quite elite on defense either.

Morey actually has a history of utilizing and coveting some of the game’s best bigs. He built his first Rockets teams around Yao Ming. In 2011, he made a run at Pau Gasol. In 2013, he acquired Dwight Howard, which obviously didn’t work out. In 2014, he came close to adding Chris Bosh in free agency. Morey has since used young players and bargains at center while leaning more and more into shooting and spacing, but a cook can work with only the ingredients they have.

Maybe Embiid and Simmons are destined for a breakup, but executives around the league say it would be shocking if it happened before next season—or during the season. The Rockets have experienced annual crash landings in the postseason, which Sixers fans can relate to. But you can’t simply blame the star players in either situation. The Sixers’ duo has had great success together and, in their own way, play an efficient brand of basketball. The problem is the lack of an offensive initiator who can generate plays in the half-court to elevate their strengths.

It’s no coincidence that the Sixers made their deepest run with Jimmy Butler, who helped lead Philly to a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors. Unfortunately, the Sixers lost Butler to Miami. Morey’s priority should be to reshuffle the deck by finding a primary shot creator who can alleviate the playmaking responsibility for Simmons in the half-court and generate easier shots for Embiid.

First up is the draft, which will take place on November 18. There are a number of guards who could be available for Philly at the 21st pick—I have them selecting North Carolina point guard Cole Anthony in my latest mock draft, but there are many others such as Stanford’s Tyrell Terry and Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey. It’s unfair to expect any rookie to immediately raise the games of established stars, however.

Free agency will follow days after the draft, but options are underwhelming for a team that may have only the taxpayer mid-level exception (worth about $6.1 million): Fred VanVleet is way out of Philly’s price range, and Goran Dragic will likely return to the Heat. Would any Sixers fan like to add Jeff Teague? Brandon Knight? Jordan Clarkson? How about bringing back Evan Turner? No, I didn’t think so.

The trade market could be Morey’s best bet. It’s unclear who’s actually available, but there are a number of theoretical targets. Would the Jazz consider flipping Mike Conley? Could the Raptors trade Kyle Lowry back home to Philly with only one year to go on his contract? What if the Pelicans make Jrue Holiday available? How about Victor Oladipo? League sources say the Pacers have talked with the Bucks about a trade involving Oladipo, though at this point it seems unlikely. Oladipo could be acquired for the right price if the Sixers wanted to bet on a return to his pre-injury form.

Old friend Chris Paul is also available, and I made the case way back in January that he should be Philadelphia’s target. Now that both Doc Rivers, Paul’s former coach on the Clippers, and Morey, his former GM in Houston, are in Philadelphia a deal could make even more sense. Rivers once proved he could make it work with Paul and two bigs (Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan). The Sixers would bring a different flavor—better defense, better scoring versatility—but Paul could play a comparable role as the primary orchestrator. Rivers was asked about his relationship with CP3 after he was hired by the Sixers; he said it’s “great” and they smoothed over any problems while golfing together this past year. Morey had a good relationship with Paul, too. The main reason the Rockets even made the Paul-for-Westbrook trade was because Harden and Paul didn’t like each other—it became a “me or him” scenario, Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill reported in 2019. Paul could provide the shot creation and leadership the Sixers severely lack. A reunion in Philadelphia could make sense for all parties.

No matter which playmaker they might add—CP3, Lowry, Holiday, a rookie, or the rapid and unexpected development of a player on the roster like Shake Milton—the mere presence of such a player would allow Simmons to fall into his perfect role in the half-court, and put Embiid into more advantageous positions. Simmons could be like Blake Griffin, screening and rolling for lob dunks, finesse finishes, or passes to pick apart the defense. Embiid would have a player who could actually feed him an entry pass on the post, and possibly also unleash some of his untapped potential in the pick-and-roll.

The Sixers’ limited assets could be a roadblock to a trade. Their best asset is arguably the player they received back for Butler: Josh Richardson, a 27-year-old versatile defender who can play complementary offense with or without the ball. Morey should be reluctant to include Matisse Thybulle in any deal; he’s already one of the league’s best wing defenders. Unfortunately, Zhaire Smith has minimal value. Horford or Harris would need to be a placeholder in a trade for a high-salary player (such as Paul). Horford, at age 34 and making $69 million the next three seasons, is a negative asset at this point in his career; Harris is a solid player, but he’ll be 31 and making $39.3 million in the final year of his deal in 2023-24. Draft picks would be required as compensation to include either salary.

In addition to the 21st pick this November, the Sixers have two high second-round picks in 2020 from the Hawks and Knicks, plus all of their firsts starting in 2021. There’s some draft equity to wheel and deal with, though probably not enough to land a player who might inspire a bidding war like Holiday. Veterans like Paul or players with diminished value like Oladipo are more realistic targets.

Change takes time, though. Embiid is 26. Simmons is 24. Embiid is signed through 2022-23, and Simmons’s deal kicks in next season to take him through 2024-25. This shortened offseason may not be the time to strike and burn future assets, especially when the market is so limited.

Morey kept his assets ready when he landed Harden from the Thunder years ago, and could be best served preparing for the next proven star or potential star primed for a change of scenery. By that point, perhaps it’s Embiid or Simmons who is the trade chip to make a deal happen. Who really knows what the future holds? Being patient is difficult, especially when a team seems so close to being a top-tier contender and had a taste of what it felt like just one season ago. Hiring Morey automatically makes the Sixers one of the winners of the offseason; his upcoming decisions will determine whether the franchise will be winners for years to come.