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

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 21, 2021

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

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Wednesday's season-opener gave the Philadelphia 76ers something to talk about other than the ongoing Ben Simmons saga.

    But the afterglow from that game—a 20-point thumping of the New Orleans Pelicans—will only last so long. Simmons talk will be returning soon, much to Joel Embiid's chagrin.

    NBA All-Stars just don't hit the trade market during their age-25 season. Whenever Simmons gets moved (which still seems like the situation's only logical ending), the trade will be felt around the league.

    The reverberation won't all be about Simmons, though. The 76ers are one of the best teams in this league, and if things break right—especially with the following three players—this club could be celebrating a championship in June.

Joel Embiid

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    It's rare for a superstar to qualify for a discussion like this. Since their greatness is so consistent, it can't really qualify as a swing factor for their team.

    It's different with Embiid, though, for a few reasons.

    One, health is never a given with the skilled 7-footer. His first two seasons were entirely erased by injuries. His career high for games played is 64. Had he made more than 51 appearances last season, there's a good chance he would have an MVP award in his trophy case.

    Two, he has never been as dominant as he was last season. He is skilled enough to repeat the production, but it's fair to think that isn't guaranteed. His shooting rates were personal bests almost across the board. If his jumper regresses a bit, he may not be quite as potent on offense.

    Finally, he's the best player on a team in turmoil—one that's experiencing this turbulence while chasing a title, no less. He's as responsible as anyone for keeping things together, whether that means patching things up with Simmons for his return or, if Simmons is traded, bringing the new players up to speed quickly.

Tyrese Maxey

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Tyrese Maxey paced Philadelphia in playing time on opening night with 34 minutes. On a related note, he was also the team leader with a plus-23.

    The sophomore guard shone in place of the suspended Ben Simmons, looking like he belonged with the starters. Maxey netted 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting (2-of-3 from distance), snared seven rebounds and dished five assists against a single turnover.

    This will only add steam to the Maxey hype train that's been rolling since last season and went ludicrous speed when he totaled 52 points in a pair of summer league outings. His scoring punch can be powerful, he is typically relentless on defense and he will keep his teammates involved as a passer.

    Saying all that, he's still someone who averaged just 8.0 points and 15.3 minutes as a freshman. He is not the least bit proven at this level, so his short-term outlook could quickly change in either direction.

Ben Simmons—Or His Replacement

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    For now, it feels almost impossible to see Simmons contributing to the 76ers again. He wants out of Philly, and he seems prepared to make things uncomfortable to help make that happen.

    But these situations aren't always as straightforward as they seem. The Sixers haven't abandoned hope of getting Simmons back on the floor, and he hasn't ruled out playing, he's just "not mentally ready yet," The Athletic's Shams Charania wrote.

    Were Simmons to return to action and buy in again, then the questions about his offensive limitations return to the forefront. He's a brilliant defender and impressive lead guard, but he will always put a cap on his impact until he expands his scoring range.

    If Simmons is shipped out, then the incoming players could shoot up the pecking order, potentially climbing as high as being Embiid's sidekick. The Sixers are convinced they will find a difference-maker in a Simmons deal. If they're right, maybe that player winds up being the missing piece of their championship puzzle.