The Philadelphia 76ers seemed to have a model for success in 2018. Then everything changed. Did the front office focus on the wrong things coming out of a playoff loss to the Boston Celtics?
The 2017-18 season was probably the most fun Philadelphia 76ers fans have ever experienced. The team was expected to be better than its 28-54 record from the previous season, but going 52-30 and getting the No. 3 seed in the East was a pleasant surprise.
Both of the team’s point guards, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, were entering their rookie seasons. It would’ve been easy to see the team struggle when led by novices, especially since one of them (Fultz) only appeared in 14 games the entire season. Factor in Joel Embiid’s health concerns and it was easy to see why the over/under was set at merely 42.5 wins.
Well, someone forgot to tell the Sixers. After starting a bit rocky and heading into Christmas only 14-18, something clicked. Embiid feasted on most bigs, Simmons galavanted through space into easy buckets, and the shooters around them — J.J. Redick, Robert Covington and Dario Saric — more than did their parts.
Philadelphia went 38-12 from Christmas Day on, capped by a 16-game winning streak (made more impressive by the fact that Embiid missed that last eight games). The lineup of Simmons, Redick, Covington, Saric and Embiid finished with the best net rating in the league. The Sixers were torching the league with a simple model: Simmons, shooters and Embiid.
This carried into their first-round series against the Miami Heat. Embiid missed the first two games, which was part of why the first two were split between the teams, but the Sixers made quick work of Miami when he returned to win the series 4-1. They were the hottest team in the league, and up next was a Boston Celtics team without its best player.
Kyrie Irving’s absence clearly didn’t matter. Boston had a plan, and it executed that plan well. By putting the 6-foot-10, 260-pound Aron Baynes on Simmons, the eventual Rookie of the Year had a tough time finishing at the rim. And then Al Horford made Embiid’s life a nightmare, standing his ground in the post and stifling the 7-foot Cameroonian.
The Sixers’ two best players were neutralized. Simmons’ best chance of scoring was in transition, but the Celtics were one of the best transition defenses in the league. Embiid could shoot 3s to avoid Horford, but not well enough for it to be a good shot on the regular. Every offensive possession was a struggle, and the Sixers were defeated in five games.
The defeat was frustrating, crushing, and for some, embarrassing. Simmons and Embiid ran into brick walls, and legitimate questions arose about their potential together. Philly’s front office was convinced that the two of them could not do it alone.
Luckily there were stars ripe for the picking. LeBron James and Paul George were free agents outright, and Kawhi Leonard had demanded a trade from the San Antonio Spurs. The Sixers were set to make honest efforts with all three, but then their lead executive got the boot for a Twitter scandal.
Free agency became a lot more difficult after that, and what remained of the front office was not satisfied. It had to make a move for another star, especially with Fultz’s future a complete mystery.
The time to strike came in the 2018-19 season. Jimmy Butler was loud and proud about his disdain for the Minnesota Timberwolves in a contract year, driving down his trade value just enough for Philly to strike. Covington, Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a future second went to Minnesota, and the Sixers had their third star.
But it became clear early on that Butler wasn’t enough. There were several reasons for why Butler didn’t stay in Philly, and some were apparently early enough for the Sixers to make another move. A few days before the trade deadline they sent Landry Shamet, two first-round picks and salary to the Los Angeles Clippers for Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic. A clear overpay in a time of desperation.
The result was tantalizing, though. Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris and Embiid made for a frightening lineup, capable of beating you in all kinds of ways. But it took a while for them to mesh, really only coming to life in the middle of the Toronto Raptors series. And it still didn’t matter, because Kawhi Leonard sent them home with a quadruple-bounce shot at the buzzer in Game 7.
Butler’s departure was supplemented by Josh Richardson coming to Philly in a sign-and-trade, and the cap space leftover from Butler’s hold went to Al Horford. The Sixers had size before, but now they were huge. The 6-foot-6 Richardson was now the smallest player in the starting five, previously an honor held by the 6-foot-4 Redick.
And now, after a whirlwind of transactions involving myriad great players, the Sixers seem to find themselves worse off than before. Their 2019-20 edition was promising in spurts, but disappointing overall. A few signature wins provided optimism, but the abundance of stinkers dimmed those bright spots. The 76ers stood at sixth in the East when the season was suspended.
Which begs the question: what was the point of all that? Would resources have been better allocated just trying to get the right guys around Embiid and Simmons, rather than star-hunting?
The Fultz saga clouded things quite a bit, no doubt. He was supposed to be a perfect fit for Embiid and Simmons, initiating the pick-and-roll while also spacing the floor at three levels. But we also know in retrospect that a trade-up probably wasn’t necessary and that his shoulder injury may have already been known before draft night. That’s one strike.
Butler was an immediate remedy to the Fultz uncertainty, but there are good reasons for why he came so cheap. The risk of acquiring him was quite high, both in roster construction and locker room side effects. The idea of trading for a guy who forced his way out of two separate organizations must be approached delicately. That this trade had heavy influence from each team’s owners, per ESPN‘s Adrian Wojnarowski, leads one to believe that due diligence was lacking on Philly’s end. Strike two.
That lack of research forced the Sixers to pivot once more, where they acquired Harris to offset Butler’s departure. But when looking at the price to get him (and to retain him past 2019), it becomes clear that they were doubling down (tripling down, even) on a mistake. Strike…who’s even counting anymore?
Butler’s departure netted them Richardson and Horford, two quality players. But the latter has been dreadful next to Embiid, and the former is not a good enough playmaker to run the 1 like Butler could, compromising his fit.
That’s right folks: after several attempts to plug the void that Markelle Fultz couldn’t fill, the Philadelphia 76ers’ best non-Simmons ball handler is…Shake Milton.
What makes things bleaker is how few avenues remain to fix it. Horford’s contract won’t be moved easily, and the Sixers’ first-rounder for 2020 is up in the air (it is protected through the top 20 by the Oklahoma City Thunder). They don’t have many “spare” assets anymore; another big trade could cripple them.
And it all stemmed from a playoff loss. In the last 24 months, the Sixers have gone from young and promising around Embiid and Simmons to disjointed and inflexible. The only constant around those two has been change, and more change is on its way.
The team that once ran roughshod over the league is no longer. The best complements for Embiid and Simmons were evident over two years ago. Maybe all they needed was more experience; Embiid had played just 31 NBA games heading into 2017-18, and Simmons was a rookie.
Maybe the issue wasn’t everyone around those two; maybe it was just them. The blueprint was evident long ago; maybe they just needed more time to mesh.
I admit that it’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback now. The Sixers were budding at a time that the Golden State Warriors were stacked with elite players, which led many around the league to believe that talent accumulation mattered more than fit. But those Warriors also fit together; Stephen Curry is a system by himself, and Kevin Durant fits into any system. You can count the number of players who fit either of those molds.
Four years into Embiid’s career and three years into Simmons’, we still don’t know either’s ceiling. But we do know that they need more help than they’re getting right now. The frustration over what could’ve been is not just buyer’s remorse. It’s another domino to fall in a series of shortsighted moves.
There are strengths in this organization. It can clearly identify talent; Furkan Korkmaz, Landry Shamet, Shake Milton and Matisse Thybulle were all hits late in the draft. But so many of those assets have been mismanaged that the gains are few and far between. In addition, as long as the two franchise pillars are upright, the Sixers will be competitive. It’s on the front office to best cater to them.