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Burden on Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons

With the Philadelphia 76ers’ two best players being only 24 and 22 years old, it’s too early to assert the legacy of duo Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. However, the transcendent talent both so clearly possess begs two questions: How long will this partnership last? And will this end with a title?

The Philadelphia Eagles spoiled Philly fans with a February Super Bowl victory. 10 years before, the Phillies provided the first parade in a quarter century, unless you were so title-starved that the now Lehigh Valley Phantoms’ 2004-05 Calder Cup win during the NHL lockout counts (I was at that title-clinching game. In the pleasant alternate universe where Boston and New York don’t exist, it counts).

The fact is, Philadelphia hasn’t witnessed an abundance of champions over the years, but now the Eagles are the NFL’s team to dethrone, the Phillies and Flyers boast promising young talent, and the Sixers… I hate to be crude, or too revealing, but there’s only one Philly team I have wet dreams about, and it’s the Sixers.

The Philadelphia 76ers‘ quest for greatness rests largest on the shoulders of two players: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. All due respect to Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, and the cart-before-the-horse fans who believe Furkan Korkmaz is the second-and-improved coming of Klay Thompson, but Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are not only our two best players by a wide margin, but I don’t need to tell you how easily they ooze all-time potential.

Which is why it’s so important to remember that this potentially all-time great duo is in its nascent phase. Joel Embiid is 24, A.K.A. an age when it’s still acceptable to drive home on weekends so your mom can do your laundry. Ben Simmons is 22, A.K.A. the age when many graduate college and proceed to live with their parents, with mom doing the laundry being one piece of an incredibly generous living package. Which is to say that moms are awesome, and also that while Embiid and Simmons have been incredible to watch together for the past year, they both have not and have not yet needed to accomplish anything of true consequence.

Not that making the second round of the playoffs is inconsequential, but that was the peak of the Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday Sixers (shout out to Elton Brand!). With Embiid and Simmons, second round playoff berths are the floor, with at least one, hopefully multiple parades down Broad Street being the ceiling.

Which is where things get interesting. Having a great, even transcendent duo guarantees nothing. Where Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade succeeded, Shaq and Penny Hardaway failed. Karl Malone and John Stockton failed. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who Embiid and Simmons have been compared to in terms of great modern duos, never won a title together.

We could project and debate where Embiid and Simmons might end up on the list of best duos to never win a title, but it’s too early in their careers to do that with any meaningful authority. What’s more worthwhile is to compare them to some of the best titleless duos in order to project if and how the Embiid-Simmons pairing might crumble, or how they can manage to stay together and succeed where so many before them failed.

Because they’re the modern Embiid-Simmons comparison, let’s begin with Durant and Westbrook. During their eight year run, Durant and Westbrook made one NBA Finals, Durant won MVP, and, per TheSportster, they became one of just 16 NBA duos to average over 25 points per game each. They also pushed the 73-win Warriors to seven games in the 2016 Western Conference Finals.

Durant and Westbrook were lightning in a bottle, and will forever beg the question, “What if Durant had stayed?” We’ll never know, but we do know that they didn’t get along as well as a team would like their star players to, and the team culture might have pushed Durant away, as he landed in Golden State largely because he saw a team on which he’d find greater personal happiness (as well as: “Yo Google. Find me rings.”).

The Sixers don’t have the Thunder’s problems. Philadelphia has a strong team culture, and Embiid and Simmons get along well. They enjoy playing together, and their games complement each other in more sustainable ways than Durant’s and Westbrook’s did. Which is not to say that Durant and Westbrook were a bad fit together, because it’s hard for two top-five players to be a bad fit, but the foundation of the Embiid-Simmons relationship both on and off the court appears strong enough to avoid the Durant-Westbrook fate.

As for a point guard-big man duo that more directly compares to how Simmons and Embiid play together, let’s welcome Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire into the discussion. From 2004-10, they led the Suns to three Western Conference Finals, Nash won two MVPs, and their “seven seconds or less” offense pioneered a path for the modern NBA pace.

Ultimately, the partnership ended when Stoudemire left Phoenix for big money in a big market, which is again a problem I don’t think the Sixers will encounter. Philadelphia is already a big market, and when the time comes to pay Simmons, their wallets will be open, especially because he won’t (fingers crossed) have a troubling injury history. While Embiid presents a troublesome injury history, the hope is that he’s worked himself past that. Time will tell, which brings us to our next duo.

A magical thing once happened in Orlando thanks to Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. This duo is probably the best talent-for-talent comparison to Embiid and Simmons. Like Embiid, Shaq was transcendent from the moment he set foot on an NBA court. Like Simmons, Hardaway drew Magic Johnson comparisons. Together, they drastically altered the fate of a franchise, delivering the Orlando Magic to the 1995 NBA Finals and beating just-back-from-baseball Jordan’s Bulls in the process.

There are two ways to look at the downfall of Shaq and Penny. One side of it is what actually happened. Shaq left over money, with the Magic low-balling him and the Lakers taking advantage. I can’t imagine the Sixers doing that with Embiid or Simmons. One or both of them might sign for less than they could, but that would only be after open and honest discussions and probably with the intention of keeping one or multiple other great players around, similar to how Warriors’ players keep taking less to maintain their core.

The other perspective is that Penny never recaptured his greatness after an early-career knee injury. Even if Shaq had stayed in Orlando, that injury still happens, if not at the same time then perhaps within another year or two. We could argue over that “what if”, but the point is that the potential of Embiid suffering the same sort of greatness-preventing injury lingers at the back of many Sixers’ fans minds.

Personally, I believe Embiid has grown into his body and built himself into someone strong who won’t get hurt either easily or inevitably, but he’s also a freakishly giant human. History tells us to proceed with caution.

Injury is what I see as the main hindrance to Embiid and Simmons fulfilling their potential as a duo, with that injury more likely happening to Embiid than Simmons. But I also don’t believe that will happen, which means I believe that Embiid and Simmons will be together for a long, long time.

Within the span of, say, a decade together, Embiid and Simmons seem bound to deliver at least one title, especially if the other pieces around them develop and they become a duo in the way that Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are a duo with another pair of All-Stars right behind them.

Which brings us to Karl Malone and  John Stockton.

Let these numbers sink in: 18 seasons together. They made the playoffs every single one of those years. The only time they won less than 42 games together was during the shortened 1998-99 season when they went a pedestrian 37-13. For his career, Malone won two MVPs, made 14 All-Star teams, and made the All-NBA first team 11 times. He is second all-time in career points scored.

By comparison, John Stockton was only a 10-time All-Star who holds the NBA records for career assists and steals.

Again, those guys played 18 seasons together. 18!

And not one title.

Blame it on Jordan. Blame it on Hakeem. Blame it on inferior supporting casts. Blame it on whatever you want, but in 18 years together Malone and Stockton never quite figured it out. They never quite overcame that final Michael Jordan-sized hurdle, which, honestly, is understandable, but they only played Jordan in the finals twice. They didn’t have just one, or two, or three other seasons to get the job done, but 16.

Which is where Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, and possibly the second-and-improved coming of Klay Thompson come in.

This current Sixers core probably won’t win a title this year, but they’re not far off. Employing a patient mind, in three years, when Fultz is 23, the Sixers could still have a core of a 27-year old Embiid, 25-year old Simmons, 27-year old Saric, and 30-year old Robert Covington (who, yes, will still be good at 30).

That’s four guys in their primes plus a 23-year old potential stud who should be playing at an elite level. And that’s without mentioning the group of Korkmaz, Landry Shamet, Zhaire Smith, and the other guys behind that core five.

That team has a large, healthy window to win a title. Even if LeBron manages to bring a megastar like Anthony Davis to LA, even if the Celtics still possess most of their core, even if the Warriors are still together or have retooled with one or more younger pieces, even if other teams build great squads, this Sixers core projects to be so good that it will give Embiid and Simmons the kind of title window that other great NBA duos without a title would have killed for.

There’s no guarantee of a title. There never is. For all my optimism, any number of things could go wrong. If Embiid and Simmons never bring a championship to Philadelphia, while they may not eclipse Malone and Stockton as the best titleless duo of all-time, they may end up laying claim to being the duo who had the best overall team to never win a title.

Expectations can be a heavy burden for unfulfilled greatness to bear, but history’s permanence is heavier. Maybe it’s fair, maybe it’s not to place this kind of pressure on Embiid and Simmons in their nascent phase, but they’ve played well enough to earn these expectations. Never winning a title is the difficult pill that Embiid, Simmons, and this generation of Philadelphia 76ers are working hard to prevent fans from being forced to swallow.

Next: 15 players who defined ‘The Process’

For now, time is on their side.

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