76ers preview: Embiid, Simmons, Fultz make it hard to temper Philly expectations

On Monday, the Philadelphia 76ers signed Joel Embiid to a five-year, $148 million contract extension that reportedly could pay him as much as $178 million if he hits certain incentives. Reminder: Embiid missed his first two NBA seasons due to knee, back and foot injuries and has only played in 31 career games. Another reminder: He was nasty good in those 31 games last year. 

With this deal, Embiid becomes the perfect front man for a team many people are already anointing a certain playoff team and future title contender despite there being very little evidence to support such hype. Another reminder: Ben Simmons has never played a single regular-season NBA minute. Neither has Markelle Fultz

And yet, they represent the last two No. 1 overall picks. Simmons could be one of the best passers in the league right away, Fultz could be an elite scorer fairly quickly, and the Sixers had the best defensive rating in the league last year when Embiid was on the floor. Add to that the fact that they play in the East, where south of 40 wins might well get you in the playoffs, and you can understand the optimism surrounding this team both short and long term. 

You have to be careful, though. Frustration is born from expectation, and listen, a team this inexperienced -- even if it did sign a couple nice vets in J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson -- is going to be frustrating enough on its own. We don't know if Embiid can stay healthy. We don't know if Simmons can shoot with any sort of effectiveness. And we have absolutely no idea what Fultz is doing with his free-throw form:

In case you don't ever watch basketball and accidentally stumbled upon this story, that is not the form of a No. 1 overall pick who is, and always has been, an elite athlete and a good shooter. That's the form of an insurance salesman who got called out of the crowd to shoot for a new car at halftime. It could have something to do with a lingering shoulder injury; it could also be a head-case thing for a guy who actually hasn't shot free throws as well as his (former) mechanics and ability suggest he should. 

Either way, you have to assume Fultz will get this ironed out, but let this be yet another reminder that as this year -- and even the next few years -- progresses, these Sixers will not always look as we see them in our heads. Draft profiles don't translate to the floor seamlessly. There will be bad shots. Bad turnovers. Bad losses. 

But in between, there is going to be brilliance. Simmons, a 6-foot-10 point-forward, is going to make a lot of passes that force you to make the Magic Johnson comparison. As Fultz grows into his game and his confidence, he's going to remind you of a young Dwyane Wade. The great Hakeem Olajuwon says he can "see himself" in Embiid, and it's hard to argue. Check out the tape:

It's always dangerous, if not outright reckless, mentioning young players -- two of which, again, have never played an actual NBA game -- in anywhere near the same breath as all-time legends. But that's the temptation with this team. You want to go big with these guys, in part because of all the losing that was required to assemble them, but mostly because they really feel like they can be that special. 

As long as they can stay healthy. 

And there it is. That hold-your-breath word. Health. Come April and May, that is going to be the No. 1 factor in determining whether this season was a success for the Sixers. Are they healthy? That's really all that matters. Even if they sneak into the playoffs, even if they jump 10-12 wins from the 28 they posted last year, if Simmons and Embiid are in and out of the lineup, if Fultz's shoulder really is an issue, or certainly if any of them have any kind of major setback, any excitement over a playoff appearance will be dampened and any optimism surrounding Philly will remain cautious. 

On the flip side, let's say the Sixers stay healthy all year but just don't see the immediate results in the win-loss column. Would another high draft pick really be all that bad? If you're having trouble moving Jahlil Okafor, attach a lottery pick to him and see how many teams start calling. Also, Redick and Johnson are both on a one-year deal. Just between those two that's $34 million coming off the books next summer, and Philly is quickly looking like a place solid free agents might want to play. 

Win or lose, this year will be a success for the Sixers if we get to watch Simmons, Embiid and Fultz play and grow together all season long. If that happens, there's a good chance they make the playoffs as byproduct. After Cleveland, Boston, Washington, Toronto and probably the Bucks, damn near everyone is a candidate for one of those last three seeds in the East, and the Sixers do have more than a budding Big 3 to lend credence to their playoff hopes. 

Redick is a winner. On a lot of teams, Dario Saric, who averaged over 12 points and six boards as a rookie last year, would be the young guy getting all the hype. He'll likely move to the second unit, along with Jerryd Bayless, another solid piece off the bench. Amir Johnson was a little out of his depth as a starter in Boston, but he's an asset as a backup to Embiid. Meanwhile, Robert Covington might be one of the best 3-and-D guys you've heard almost nothing about. 

Indeed, it's hard not to get excited about the Sixers. It's hard not to think Sam Hinkie's process has already come to fruition because the core pieces are finally in place. But it's a big leap from potential to production. As this year goes on, Philly fans will sure have to remind themselves of that from time to time. 

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