Brett Brown, the head coach of the 76ers, has looked ahead, and he is convinced. Not everyone can see the same thing. Brown doesn't care. He is coaching a game that is getting smaller and faster each year, and his best player, a player whose gifts are given only to the very few, is very large and possesses just moderate quickness. How can he be sure?
Oh, Joel Embiid is good, more than good. He is a player whose talents might eventually transcend all the big men of his basketball generation. In another era, not even that long ago, he would have been capable of becoming a worthy adversary for any of the goliaths of the game. Make a list: O'Neal, Robinson, Olajuwon, Ewing, Malone, Abdul-Jabbar, Russell. Go ahead, say it: Wilt.
The man, just two months shy of turning 23, is 7-foot-2 and cut like a diamond. He is physically sound now, even as he slowly uncrooks the last crossed fingers of an organization that nursed along his rehabilitation. Limited to an average of just 25 minutes per game this season, he has averaged 19.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks.
Those are very nice numbers, but don't convey the way Embiid changes a game when he is on the floor. He patrols the basket area on defense with a ferocity that leads opponents to look elsewhere. He plays offense with a joyous bounce and fearlessness, finishes at the rim, handles the ball better than one would think, and has the second-best three-point shooting percentage on the team.
Joel Embiid is all that, and on the way to being more. But can an NBA team still build a championship around a center, even one with the freakish abilities of Embiid? OK, how? That is Brett Brown's job to figure out.
"The game's not going to get slower. Never have NBA athletes been better than they are now," Brown said. "So, if it's not getting slower, and you think there's going to be more and more threes taken, then how do you want to play with Jo? I see it in my own head well. I think it can all fit."
The Sixers are an interesting franchise to face the challenge of building around a unique piece, a player perhaps unlike any other in the league. The franchise has been blessed, or something, by having been in this position twice before in the last 30 years. Right player, wrong team. Or right player, wrong time. Or right player, but one whose edges could never be fit into the complex puzzle of a championship roster. Perhaps Embiid will represent the lucky third try.
In 1984, the Sixers drafted the greatest 6-foot-51/2 rebounder in the history of the game, but devising a team to go with Charles Barkley would prove very difficult. They tried tall men at the other forward position, the "small" forward. They tried speeding up the game to take advantage of Barkley's quickness - trading away Moses Malone and passing on Brad Daugherty in the same day - and they tried high-post offenses in which the basket area was ceded to Barkley. There were moments, because Barkley was that good, but not championship ones.
In 1996, the Sixers drafted a 6-foot point guard who, like Barkley, would become one of the best players of his generation. Finding the pieces to fit with Allen Iverson was another bit of calculus that was never solved, however, even after Larry Brown took him off the ball and made him a shooting guard. Iverson was a scorer and a competitor of proportions that belied his size, but winning a title with him wasn't in the house of cards his frenetic skills constructed.
Two unquestioned Hall of Fame players. No championships.
Embiid isn't the wrong size for his position. He plays both ends of the court - never a specialty of either Barkley or Iverson. He is willing to be a good teammate. But is he just too late arriving for an NBA in which he would have thrived? Brown doesn't think so, but also acknowledges the task.
"It's complex," Brown said, of building the roster around Embiid. "The web is even more complex because it has to do with personalities, with age. The skill-set [question] is easy. You need shooters. You can answer that quite quickly, but the other pieces make it complex and not as simple as you might think."
Looking at it from the outside, not from the mouth of Brown, there's no fit for either Jahlil Okafor or Nerlens Noel. They have to be sacrificed to obtain, or help obtain, a backcourt, particularly an elite-level point guard who can shoot, run the pick-and-roll that defines NBA offense, and defend. This won't be easy because the Sixers are clearly without leverage on the trade market. The wild card in the equation - and a great one to have in your hand - is rookie Ben Simmons. He will be on the ball a lot, and streaking to the hoop, but Brown is enough of an old-school point guard to know he needs one of those, too.
"Our sport is a pick-and-roll sport, and, at the end of the day, it's a 1-5 pick-and-roll," Brown said, citing the point and center positions. "So, let's load up. When it's nut-cutting time with two minutes left, that's what matters most. You might say, 'Joel can't play with speed.' Yes, he can. He can play with speed enough."
That is what Brown sees. He casts his thoughts back to San Antonio - this is not an uncommon thing for him - and sees his own Tim Duncan-Manu Ginobili-Tony Parker troika coming together with Embiid, Simmons, and Hall-of-Fame-point-guard-to-be-named-later. Duncan could run enough. That was plenty.
Brown has seeded the clouds a bit. Duncan agreed to be a text buddy with Embiid, and they exchange thoughts on the game, according to the coach. Whether those extend to the virtues of Rihanna isn't known.
"Growing leaders. Joel has it in him," Brown said. "I think he's got the whole package."
A package capable of fighting the tide of a league that is shrinking and speeding up, of being combined with teammates as talented, unselfish, and driven as the group Brown worked with in San Antonio. That will require some luck.
"Well, we need a little luck," Brett Brown said, and then he laughed.
He laughed because he sees it coming, and he is convinced.