There is an iconic moment in the TV show “Lost.” Well, there are a handful, but one in particular is of the essence when it comes to the 2022-23 Philadelphia 76ers. Deep into the program’s dizzying third season, when the cast of characters is off their allegorical island and at some unclear place along their confusing space-time journey, the quixotic Jack, struck through always with his crippling hero complex, has a big uncharacteristic beard and a bandage on his forehead. With shaking desperation, he tells the sober, pragmatic Kate that they “have to go back” to the struggle they once knew. As she gets in her car and leaves the scene, she looks at him with disbelief.
Often reappropriated as a meme in screenshot or GIF form, the frame and its line of indelible dialogue has come to represent a broader kind of nostalgia—often the dubious sort, known to anyone who’s ever tried to return to their hometown or college campus and act the same they did decades ago, only to be met with frustration and emptiness. With the moves he’s made over the past several months, 76ers’ general manager Daryl Morey could be credibly accused of exactly this sort of behavior.
It started with the James Harden trade—and the loaded airport runway hug that came with it—but then escalated this summer as he acquired three more players he once worked with when he ran the Houston Rockets: PJ Tucker, Danuel House Jr., and Montrezl Harrell. Rumor had it that Morey was also looking at Eric Gordon in trade, and for all we know, he still might end up in Philly. There is, in the collection of all these players, a definite sense of unfinished business, relocated from the Western Conference of five years ago to the Eastern Conference of now. What Morey’s Rockets didn’t do then, and hope to do now, was epitomized by the pain Harden, Tucker, and Gordon felt just barely coming up short against the Golden State Warriors in 2018’s Western Conference Finals.
In Joel Embiid, it seems that those dashed dreams have found new foundation. One of the most physically imposing players the game has ever seen, Embiid is the most prominent of many of the Sixers’ not-former-Rocket merits; this roster isn’t all just searching time-machine stuff, but rather a marriage between that and more ascendant talent. There’s Embiid, and there’s the frighteningly quick and prodigious Tyrese Maxey, plus newcomer De’Anthony Melton, a 24-year-old who’s versatile and dynamic at guard. In the middle of it all is Tobias Harris, a stout and productive wingman who’s been marked for exit for as long as Morey’s been around, but remains in place nonetheless.
Without Harris, the roster does theoretically make more sense: imagine the big bruising frontcourt of Embiid and Tucker, complemented by the jarring contrast of Maxey and Melton’s athleticism, with all of it orchestrated by Harden’s shimmering basketball brain. That’s the ideal that the most optimistic of Sixers forecasters have in mind. And while that might end up being the most devastating look Philly can offer, the less romantic truth of Harris’ night-to-night numbers will help them win regular season games as long as he’s around.
Between Tucker, Harrell, and Paul Reed—who should be polished and familiar enough for head coach Doc Rivers to increase his minutes load in season three—Embiid also has more ballast behind him at center than he’s been used to. On paper, the team is vastly improved, with most of its weaknesses gone. But what’s still there is that same ineffable, ghost-like thing that nagged at Morey and Harden’s Rockets: when it comes down to it, a certain spirit seems to drain from this team, almost regardless of who’s on it. It happened again as the Sixers lost to an arguably much less talented Miami Heat team in the second round of last year’s playoffs, in oddly anticlimactic fashion. Embiid was injured, as he seems to be every Spring, but there was more to the Sixers’ collapse than that. The whole team looked to be limping more than they were fighting.
Perhaps the influx of ex-Rockets, charged like Jack after the island to correct the past, can help to correct such listlessness. It is possible that their reunion could form a one-last-heist brand of cinematic emotional fuel, and that Morey has reached backwards with a finely tuned balance of harried experience and fresh young hunger in mind. The throughline between the otherwise disparate halves of this Sixers squad is, in any event, the shadow of disappointment at the highest stages of the game, and a desire to move out of it. With the exception of Tucker, who won it all with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2021, this is a team united by that burden of proof.