Who Is On The Sixers' Mount Rushmore?
Daniel Olinger is a writer for the Rights To Ricky Sanchez, and author of “The Danny” column, even though he refuses to be called that in person. He can be followed on X @dan_olinger.
“The Danny” is brought to you by the Official Realtor Of The Process, Adam Ksebe.
Yes, Joel Embiid scoring 70 points in a game inspired me to write this.
Three days since it happened, and it still doesn’t feel real. Only nine players in the history of the world have scored 70 points in an NBA basketball game, and Joel Embiid is one of them.
Remember that awful game during the 2019-20 season, when then-Toronto Raptors head coach designed a defense that held Embiid scoreless for all 32 minutes of play in a 101-96 loss? Imagine hopping in a time machine and telling a Sixers fan that day, that within a half-decade, Embiid would put together one of the greatest scoring performances in the sport’s history.
Basketball history has always mattered to me, even though I wasn’t alive for most of it. One game doesn’t change everything we know about a player. Embiid would still be playing at an all-time great, MVP level if he had “only” scored 45 points against the Spurs instead of 70. But watching his career night unfold in person, I couldn’t help but reflect on what he means to this sport, this city, and this franchise.
His standing amongst the all-time basketball greats and non-Philadelphians will ultimately depend on whether the Sixers are finally able to make it out of the second round and compete for the title with him at the helm. I wrote as much earlier this week. It’s his standing within the history of this franchise that fascinates me more. Dating even back to when they were the Syracuse Nationals, a lot of great players have suited up for this organization. It’s time to see where Joel Embiid stacks up standing next to the rest of them.
Here is my All-Time Philadelphia 76ers’ Mount Rushmore:
Wilt introduces some weird wrinkles right from the jump. First of all, he only played for the 76ers’ franchise for 3-and-a-half seasons. His professional career started in Philadelphia, but at that time the Warriors were the city’s NBA team. Wilt moved with them to San Francisco in 1962, and the 76ers didn’t enter the basketball lexicon until 1963, when the Syracuse Nationals were moved south to Philadelphia.
Still, Wilt was Philadelphia basketball to people during that time. He was born here. He became the greatest Philadelphia high school basketball player ever. He started his NBA career here, and returned to lead the Sixers to the 1966-67 NBA title, the only team to ever beat Bill Russell’s Celtics in the playoffs when Russell himself was healthy (Russell was injured during the 1958 Finals that Boston lost to the St. Louis Hawks).
The “Wilt was just scoring on plumbers” and “he only cared about his stats” arguments are somewhat valid, but ultimately don’t matter here. You can only play in the era that you’re in, and Wilt destroyed almost everyone in his path during that time.
Wilt’s actually attachment to the Sixers’ organization isn’t as strong as most may think, but his attachment to the city of Philadelphia more than makes up for it.
Another easy one. No Sixers’ Mount Rushmore would be complete without Dr J.
Similar to how Wilt defined Philadelphia basketball during the 1950s and 60s, Julius Erving defined it during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Even though Erving was — ultimately, probably, most likely even though it was close — the second best player on the 1983 title team (more on the guy who was the best later), he still brought the Sixers a championship. Add that on to the 1981 MVP trophy, three more Finals appearances, and countless highlight reel dunks, and Dr. J. is an easy inclusion on Mount Rushmore.
This one is a little more tricky. As you could probably guess from the Wilt and Dr. J sections, the cultural and franchise significance of a player matters more to me on a Mount Rushmore inclusion than the player’s overall accomplishments on the court.
If it were just a list of the four best guys to ever play for the Philadelphia 76ers, then I have some bad news — Allen Iverson would not be on that list. It’s close, undoubtedly. Iverson was spectacular. But just run through the attributes, from their shooting efficiency to their defense, from their size to their passing skill, and it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Joel Embiid is better than Allen Iverson. And so are a few other guys who didn’t make this list.
That said, it’s easy to watch an old A.I. game and remember that he was the baddest man alive. I did a deep dive on him for Liberty Ballers a little over a year ago, and the relentless nature with which he played the game burst off the screen. He was fighting for every point he could get, largely because the rest of the Sixers couldn’t really score for themselves, and he did something that so few players have ever done. He won the MVP. He took his team to the NBA Finals. He’s a legendary talent even if he’s closer to a top 60 player all-time than he is top 30.
And of course I don’t have to tell anyone reading this what he meant to the city of Philadelphia. Few athletes ever reach the status of cultural icon that Iverson did. He meant everything to the Sixers and to Philadelphia at the turn of the 21st century, and he did while being the best player on a team that reached the NBA Finals. Enough said.
Joel Embiid vs Moses Malone
This is the one I stewed over, largely because I have a ton of respect for Moses Malone.
There are plenty of other great names that fell short. Billy Cunningham won a title as both a player and as a coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, along with being one of the first great wings in NBA history. Charles Barkley is obviously both very famous and was quite good at basketball. The Sixers don’t win either the ‘67 or ‘83 titles without Hal Greer or Maurice Cheeks, two of the most reliable and beloved guards of their generations.
But this was always going to be the battle of the big men. Of those honorable mentions, only Barkley was ever as dominant as Embiid or Malone, and even his single best season took place in a different city.
Malone is the most underrated player in NBA history based on his accomplishments. Next time you’re out hanging with some friends, ask them how many times they think he made the All-Star game? Or how many times he won MVP?
I know they’ll be very wrong about it because I did the same to my friends during my freshman year of college. Hardly anyone knows that Moses won 3 different MVP trophies and made the All-Star game 13 times. Not to mention, he won the 1983 Finals MVP after dominating Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in four games, and dragged the 40-42 Houston Rockets to the 1981 NBA Finals.
Four years ago during the beginning of Covid, I watched all 50 games that you can still find online that feature Malone, and made a video where I talked about his unique greatness. Other parts of Malone’s game, such as his passing or his defense, really weren’t all that great. However, he is the greatest offensive rebounder of all-time, and the gap between him and No. 2 on that list is enormous. He was so dominant with that one skill that opponents could never contain him, even though they knew what was coming.
If you’re making a list where you rank players 1-50 as the best to ever play in the NBA, Malone should come out ahead of Embiid based on what he did. Embiid is more skilled and probably better at basketball in a vacuum, but compared relative to the era they were in, Embiid’s career accomplishments don’t yet stack up to those of Malone, who led several deep playoff runs and is maybe the only center ever to severely dominate Kareem in a series.
But similar to Wilt, Malone’s time with the Sixers was short-lived. He was traded to Philadelphia at the start of the 1982-83 season, and stuck around for four seasons in total before being shipped off to Washington in 1986. He played for so many different franchises throughout his 21 seasons as a professional basketball player — the Utah Stars, the Spirits of St. Louis, the Buffalo Braves, the Houston Rockets, the Washington Bullets, the Atlanta Hawks, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the San Antonio Spurs.
Malone is most remembered for his 1983 MVP season and time with the Sixers, but it still only made up 1/4 of his two decades-long career. He was more statistically dominant and played for longer in Houston. And his time with the Utah Stars will always be remembered for his groundbreaking decision to skip college and play in the ABA straight out of High School. Malone is attached to the Sixers more than any of those other teams, but he was more a great player who happened to have a few of his best seasons in Philadelphia, rather than a great player who was the franchise for an extended period of time.
Ask any fan, teammate, or team employee right now, and they’ll tell you that Joel Embiid is everything to the Sixers. Hearing his journey never gets old. From not picking up a basketball until he was 15 years-old, to missing his first two seasons in the NBA with devastating foot injuries, to the deluge of crazy twists he’s dealt with over and over again while playing for the NBA’s strangest team. Through it all, he’s won the MVP and is currently having not just another great season, but literally one of the best seasons of all-time. No one is supposed to average an efficient 36-12-6 in just 34 minutes per game.
When people look back at the Sixers from 2014 to however long Embiid keeps playing, they’ll remember it as The Process era for the franchise. Even though the actual Process ended along with Sam Hinkie’s tenure back in 2016, its idea remained with Embiid, and he became everything that people ever could have asked for. In a world filled with NBA players who become more and more similar in their style and play, there is only one Joel Embiid. Cherish every moment that you get to watch a special player like him.
The final member of the Sixers’ Mount Rushmore is none other than: