CAMDEN, N.J. — The Philadelphia 76ers' goal for the 2023-24 season is the same as always: make a run at the championship. Joel Embiid said as much when he first took to the podium at the Sixers' media day.
The Sixers' path to a championship has never looked bleaker in the Embiid era. The exhaustive pool of assets collected during the Process years has dried up, the Eastern Conference's biggest heavyweights have gotten better and Philly is rehashing its tune of a disgruntled star that is refusing to be a part of the team.
Without James Harden, a replacement for him or the assets to find one, Embiid and the Sixers look to be up a creek without a paddle. The waters will be rough with Damian Lillard teaming up with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Boston Celtics loading up with new talent. Embiid knows the severity of those moves. But they aren’t big enough to make him bet against himself, outwardly challenging the notion that they're on another level from his team.
“It doesn’t matter who's on the team. I'm always gonna believe that I have a chance to win,” Embiid said. “It's all up to me, really, to just go out there and try to do whatever it takes. And I'm here in Philly. I love Philly. I've been here my whole career. It's all about winning a championship…If I gotta be honest, if we were to win a championship, it would be for the city and the fans because they deserve it.”
Embiid has often reveled in the intensity that comes with being a Philadelphia athlete. He hasn’t been afraid to call out his former teammates who haven’t been able to. For the fans who were patient with him during the turbulent start to his NBA career and have defended him time after time following playoff flop after playoff flop, Embiid wants to figure it out. Although he did acknowledge the possibility of having to do that elsewhere, he wants the Sixers to make every effort they can to make it happen where he is right now.
“Every single year of my career, at least for the next — how old am I, 29? For the next eight years, I believe that we should go after every single year to try to win the championship,” Embiid said. “There should never be any lost seasons…The goal is to win a championship and every single year, we should always do whatever it takes to put us in that situation.”
Joel Embiid's idea of a season that is truly lost isn’t totally clear but it could be argued that 2023-24 has become one. Limited traction on a Harden trade has left the Sixers with no avenues to get better. The front office is prioritizing the obtainment of maximum flexibility for next offseason while Philly's main rivals have made huge moves for this year.
But to Embiid, it would probably take the Sixers trading away all of his key supporting cast members before he deemed the season lost. “When you've got a bunch of good players on a basketball team, anything can happen,” he said.
Obviously, the Sixers should still be a playoff team, likely being a top-five seed in the East. Embiid and Tyrese Maxey are good enough to put Philly in a spot to compete with the good teams in the league. But with the stated goal of competing with the great teams, how much does that really matter?
Like Embiid, Daryl Morey is of the belief that the Sixers still have the firepower to compete for a title. Both of them — along with virtually the entire team and coaching staff — would like Harden to return but will work around his absence if needed. Embiid prefers to stay out of front-office affairs unless he is approached for his insight. But he did offer one aspect of team building that has been absent in his career.
Embiid pointed out that the Sixers have not had much roster continuity in his career. That is perhaps the most consistent thing that Philly has had going for itself over these last eight years. Massive trades during and after seasons have put a rotating cast of players around Embiid while, as he pointed out, teams like the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors have gotten the chance to grow together on their way to winning championships.
No such luxury will be afforded to the Sixers now that Harden has drawn the biggest line in the sand possible between him and the team. The hourglass of Philly's title contention isn’t stopping — if anything, the sand is falling faster.
Joel Embiid was asked about his “this offseason was fun lmao” tweet and explained that various things — the discourse from NBA fans, his wedding, spending time with his family — made it an entertaining time. Now, he and the Sixers will try again to discover the fun of reaching the basketball mountaintop.