Disappointing season leaves Sixers scrambling for answers
The author Eliza Tabor is quoted as saying “disappointment to a noble soul is what cold water is to burning metal; it strengthens, tempers, intensifies, but never destroys it.” After a year of disappointment, culminating with a sweep at the hands of the rival Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, the Philadelphia 76ers are left hoping their soul is a noble one.
A book could be written on the journey the Sixers have been on over the past decade, but to understand the disappointment that headlines their story we need only go back to May 12, 2019. That was the day Kawhi Leonard’s four-bounce miracle shot sent the Sixers and their revamped roster packing from the Eastern Conference playoffs and into one of the most important offseasons in franchise history. Since that fateful shot, nothing has gone right for the team, and it finds itself right back where it was last May.
In that first go-around last year, general manager Elton Brand and the front office made a series of decisions that currently look catastrophic. They let JJ Redick, exactly the kind of complementary player the team needs around the core of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, walk. Instead of locking up Jimmy Butler, who they acquired in a November trade, to a five-year max deal, they sent him to Miami for Josh Richardson. The details of Bulter’s departure remain unclear to this day, but what is perfectly clear is that not doing whatever was necessary to keep Butler was a devastating mistake.
The Butler mistake is worth its own article, but we have much more to get to, so we’ll just note that franchise cornerstone Embiid loved Butler and openly admitted to being in a funk in the early part of the season as a result of Butler’s absence. In addition, Butler’s “replacement” in Richardson pinpointed a lack of accountability as one of the team’s issues following the sweep against the Celtics. When Butler is in the room, no one is allowed to slide or shirk responsibilities.
As Butler and Redick moved on, Brand and Co. signed another in-season addition, Tobias Harris, to a max deal worth $180 million and lured the aging Al Horford from Boston with a four-year, $109 million pact. The Sixers sold fans on a big, long defensive juggernaut with Harris and Richardson making up for the offense lost with Butler and Reddick. To say it didn’t work out would be an understatement.
After a promising 5-0 start, the Sixers sputtered through maddening inconsistency. The offensive spacing was clunky, leading to a disheveled, convoluted unit that all too often bogged down. The defense was supposed to carry the offense through the growing pains and hiccups, but that too never materialized. There were quarters and halves where the team completely locked down opponents, but far too many other instances where the defense looked disinterested and unfocused. As the disappointment mounted, we were told the team was build for the postseason, that the defense would show through during playoff basketball when every possession is magnified and contested all-out. Turns out, the team that was supposedly built for postseason success couldn’t manage a single postseason victory. And that brings us to today.
Let’s start with Harris and Horford. Making nearly $300 million combined, the duo gave the Sixers a combined 22.8 points, 16.8 rebounds and 6.3 assists in the Celtics series. Harris shot a dismal 2-of-15 from three in the series (13.3%) while Horford was 0-of-4. Just think about those numbers for a moment.
As a result, the Sixers have accomplished the rare feat of having back-to-back offseasons that are among the most important in franchise history. After overthinking things last year, the team is right back in the same position as another year ticks off the careers of Simmons and Embiid. The difference is that this year, the team’s needs go beyond tinkering on the margins, and the mis-valuations of Harris and Horford have hamstrung the team’s ability to make drastic changes.
Philadelphia has already fired head coach Brett Brown, a necessary move but also one that comes with questions: how much of a difference will a new coach make, and perhaps more importantly, can the front office be trusted to make the right hire? Again, moving on from Brown needed to be done but it also doesn’t magically fix all that is wrong with the Sixers.
So, what can the Sixers do? Harris, with his contract, is likely unmovable. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. As poorly as he played this postseason, a horrible slump at the most inopportune time can be reasonably argued. Harris has shown flashes, and in the right system with the right roster construction, he can be a key piece on a contending team.
That leaves Horford. There won’t be suitors lining up for his services, but with the Sixers adding some extra incentives they might be able to find a partner. It’s imperative the Sixers free up that money to construct a more complementary, and competent, roster around Embiid and Simmons. A true point guard and a legitimate knockdown shooter are great places to start.
With Simmons out with injury, the Sixers entered the playoffs as a team that couldn’t shoot, dribble or pass. The roster was bereft of a one-on-one playmaker and a pure shooter. As obvious as the physical limitations are, the mental issues are equally concerning. The team’s focus left a ton to be desired and poor decisions, laziness and inconsistency hounded the Sixers at every turn. Brown’s inability or unwillingness to make adjustments compounded the problems – if Sixers fans see Kemba Walker walk into one more wide-open jumper off a pick and roll next season, it will be one too many – and it’s unclear if the team would have listened even if Brown did have an answer. The franchise has taken the first step to address the coaching situation, but again, the personnel decisions of the last 12 months inspire little confidence the correct replacement will be chosen.
The Sixers’ biggest problem is that they don’t have just one problem. It wasn’t just a lack of talent, or more specifically an abundance of underachieving talent. It wasn’t just coaching shortcomings or a misguided front office or a woefully mis-constructed roster. It’s all of those things, compounded by the fact that the team has very little flexibility to fix it.
The good news is that the Sixers still have Embiid and Simmons. It’s not every day that a NBA team has two top-25 players. It’s even rarer to have accomplished the feat organically. That kind of talent pairing can cover for a lot of mistakes, but not mistakes from every level of the organization at once. The goal now is to fix enough of those mistakes that the Embiid/Simmons duo can develop into the championship core it is expected it can be before it’s too late. Time is ticking.