Is this Joel Embiid’s last, best chance to win title with 76ers?

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

The Philadelphia 76ers are 43-22, placing them third in the Eastern Conference and only 1.5 games behind the second-place Celtics. Since James Harden returned from injury, Philly has the No. 1 ranked offense in the NBA. Joel Embiid looks like MVP again, and the supporting cast is stronger than ever.

While there are still concerns aplenty about the state of the roster, it’s hard not to be optimistic in the face of Philadelphia’s recent success. The Embiid-Harden tandem is the best duo in the conference right now. Meanwhile, Tyrese Maxey is back on track, we’re seeing more flashes of the P.J. Tucker of old, and the De’Anthony Melton-Jalen McDaniels-Paul Reed bench trio is making waves on the defensive end.

The Sixers have a real chance to win it all this season. But, with the clock ticking on Joel Embiid’s prime and James Harden’s free agency looming, is this shaping up to be Embiid’s last, best chance to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy to Philly?

There’s considerable urgency for the 76ers to win now

Philadelphia has been in contention since Embiid arrived. They’re a top-4 seed every year, and Embiid plays like an MVP candidate every year. But never have they been frontrunners. And while that may not be the case in 2023, the Sixers are certainly closer to the top than they’ve ever been — save for maybe that heartbreaking half-season with Jimmy Butler.

Embiid is in peak form, Harden has rekindled his All-NBA superstardom, and the bench is passable — even good on some nights. For the first time ever, Philly isn’t getting consistently walloped whenever Embiid sits. The Harden-plus-bench lineups are successful, and Reed is starting to look, definitively, like the best backup center of the Brett Brown and Doc Rivers eras.

So, why the sense of urgency? Well, let’s start with Harden’s free agency. In the NBA, it’s always best to abide by the law of smoke and fire. There’s a great plume of black ash on the horizon, and Philly fans should be worried about the potential flames behind them.

Kelly Iko, Rockets insider for The Athletic, recently placed the odds of a Harden return to Houston at 70 percent. There’s a lot of buzz about Harden’s unbreakable bond with that city and his affection for Houston’s young core.

Before the Harden trade last season, Philly was pretty much stuck in no-man’s land. Good enough to feign contention, but significantly more than a stone’s throw away from the Bostons and Milwaukees of the world. And, as Bryan Toporek expertly laid out over at Liberty Ballers, the Sixers’ options are limited if Harden bolts. There’s no groundswell of cap space. In fact, even if Harden leaves, Philly will have trouble keeping all of its key second-unit free agents. Paul Reed, Jalen McDaniels, Shake Milton, and Georges Niang are all due for bigger paydays.

The Sixers could conceivably end up with a weaker second unit and no James Harden when the 2023-24 season kicks off. And while the idea of an Embiid trade demand feels unthinkable, one has to wonder if he’ll get restless if Daryl Morey can’t place a viable contender around him — assuming the 2023 season doesn’t end with Philly at the mountaintop. If the Sixers win the championship, then the hand-wringing and existential dread circling the Sixers fandom will swiftly dissipate.

Tyrese Maxey is brilliant, but is he ready to be the second-best player on a bonafide contender? That’s the question in the back of a lot of minds right now. Heck, the Sixers’ front office is probably weighing that question too. No matter your confidence in Maxey, however, it’s hard to say with a straight face that Philadelphia isn’t in deep trouble if Harden walks for nothing this summer. And, even if Harden does stick around, the supporting cast will almost assuredly weaken.

We could conceivably be watching the Sixers’ last run as rock-solid title contenders in the Embiid era. That makes all the fumbled opportunities of years past sting even more, and places an absurd amount of pressure on the current group to perform. For now, all we can do is wait and see.