76ers Players Who Will Determine Philly's Ceiling During 2021-22 NBA Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 16, 2021

76ers Players Who Will Determine Philly's Ceiling During 2021-22 NBA Season

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia 76ers rank among the 2021-22 NBA season's biggest unknowns.

    They will be good—they haven't had a losing record in four seasons—but the question is whether they can be great. And not great as in posting the best record in the Eastern Conference, which they did last season, but world-champion great.

    That's a brutally hard question to answer, thanks in no small part to the ongoing saga with disgruntled All-Star Ben Simmons. Still, we will attempt to see where they are by identifying the three players most responsible for setting the Sixers' ceiling.

Joel Embiid

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    While superstars technically have the biggest influence of who wins biggest in the NBA, most wouldn't qualify for this exercise. They are too consistently great to be worth mentioning.

    Joel Embiid is different. It's not that he's lacking greatness; he was arguably the league's single most dominant player last season. It's that he didn't come close to playing a full season—and he never does.

    He missed 21 games in 2020-21 and 22 the year prior. He sat out another 18 contests in 2018-19, missed 19 tilts in 2017-18 and suited up just 31 times during his rookie campaign. In case anyone needs a refresher, that rookie campaign was delayed two full years by injuries.

    At this point, some type of injury should probably be expected with Embiid. But the timing and severity of whatever injury arrives will have the greatest sway in the Sixers' success. Right behind it is the big fella's ability to sustain the jump from really good to elite he made last season.

Tyrese Maxey

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    Bart Young/Getty Images

    For the most part, the 76ers know what to expect from their rotation regulars. They return a big chunk of last season's roster, and a number of those players were in Philly even before then.

    The real wild card is Tyrese Maxey, who figures to have the heaviest workload of the Sixers' prospects.

    He was a regular as a rookie last season, when he averaged 8.0 points and 2.0 assists in 15.3 minutes per night. Those numbers were fine, but there were flashes of so much more, and he showed as much during an absurdly productive two-game run at summer league: 52 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, four steals and two blocks in under 59 minutes.

    Maxey won't have the opportunity to replicate those numbers, but there is a universe in which he nearly doubles his floor time from last season. His best-case-scenario season is powerful enough to lift Philadelphia's ceiling, and the Sixers seem comfortable giving him as many minutes as he can handle.

Whoever the Sixers Get for Ben Simmons

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Sorry if this feels like one of those answers that doesn't answer the question, but it's true.

    The Sixers aren't keeping Simmons. They might not trade him tomorrow, but there's an obvious if not, when vibe to the situation. The three-time All-Star has done his part to ensure that, voicing a trade request to the team and telling them he has no plans of attending training camp, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

    Whenever Philadelphia pulls the trigger on a Simmons trade, the biggest piece it receives either becomes the franchise's second-most important player or is immediately traded for a player who can serve in that role.

    In a perfect world, it's a premier shot-creator on the level of a Bradley Beal or Damian Lillard. In reality, it might be someone closer to the CJ McCollum, Pascal Siakam or Collin Sexton tier. Either way, that player's ability to coexist with and complement Embiid will be vital if the organization is to realize its most ambitious dreams.