It happened in the 1986 Houston Rockets starring Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson), in the 1995 Orlando Magic of Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway and in the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
There’s no reason, therefore, it can’t happen this 20K19 season to the Philadelphia 76ers with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. It, in fact, nearly happened last season when, in a stretch near the end of the regular season and first round of the playoffs, it looked like the youthful team would win the East.
Until the Sixers ran out of gas in the second round, where they failed in 2018, they could make another quantum leap this season if either Embiid or Simmons or both of these under-25-year-old superstars improves the way most players at that age tend to do.
Despite having played only 94 career games, Embiid, the 7-foot, 24-year-old from Cameroon, has shown enough ability to become a Hall of Fame candidate. On offense, he’s as skilled as anyone in the league. He can dominate other big men in the post with a combination of power and Olajuwon-like moves. He can rim-run off pick-and-rolls. He can even step out and shoot three-pointers off pick-and-pop.
As observed by Pat Heery The Has Been Sports Blog, if all of that weren’t enough, Embiid can handle the basketball about as well as any true big man in the NBA. On the defensive side, he’s already an elite rim protector, and he finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last year.
His stats and accolades are incredible considering his limited experience, but the real separator, is his self-confidence when ranged against the game’s best players. At the end of last year’s All-Star Game, Heery wrote, Embiid not only shut down isolations by the likes of Durant, Westbrook and Paul George, but he also played with the arrogance of someone who thought he was the best player on the court. When Embiid is on the court, the 76ers can hang with any team in the league.
As effective as Embiid is, Simmons might have an even higher ceiling. When a player possesses a transcendent skill in basketball, it jumps off the screen at you. If you’re watching Steph Curry, you can immediately tell there’s something different to his game with the way he’ll shoot deep, contested three-pointers with no hesitation.
If you’re watching Kyrie Irving, you will see him nonchalantly do a combination dribble move with the ease of a normal player doing a crossover. With Simmons, you notice his vision right away. He sees the game like Chris Paul, but he has the size, power and athleticism to make passes no other point guard can make.
If Simmons had any semblance of a jump shot, people would be hyping him the way people hyped LeBron James when he entered the NBA. At 22, Simmons could easily improve on his already impressive 16-point, eight-rebound eight-assist stat line and take the Sixers to a whole other level as a team.
In addition to Embiid and Simmons, the 76ers have an ideal blend of veteran players with important roles and young contributors with lottery-pick pedigrees. On one end of the spectrum, there’s JJ Redick and Robert Covington.
In his 12th season, Redick averaged a career-high 17.1 points per game on 42 percent shooting from three. Covington is also a three-point threat (37 percent), but his calling card is being one of the best wing defenders in the NBA, as he made the All-Defensive First Team and led the league in deflections and defensive win shares for qualifying players last season.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Sixers have Dario Saric and Markelle Fultz. The 24-year-old Saric averaged 15 points, seven rebounds and three assists in only his second NBA season in 2017-18.
Saric has carved out a nice role within Philly’s offense and could thrive as a playmaking four if Simmons were ever to miss significant time. Fultz is a possible linchpin for the 2018-19 Sixers.
If he is anything close to the player everyone envisioned when the team traded up to draft him No. 1 overall, then the Sixers might not need Embiid or Simmons to improve much at all. At 6-foot-4 and as athletic as any guard in the league, Fultz has the ability to be an All-NBA defender.