Throughout their roller-coaster regular season, the Philadelphia 76ers repeatedly swore that they were “built for the playoffs.” That their jumbo-sized starting five would smother opponents on defense, that their offense would stop getting stuck in mud, that they were the premier challenger to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference.
As it turns out, they were not.
A first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the longtime rival Boston Celtics should force the Sixers into some difficult realizations. This was not just a product of Ben Simmons’ absence; it was the manifestation of a years-long, top-down organizational failure.
As they head into the 2020 offseason, the question now becomes how they dig their way out of the mess they’ve created for themselves.
Head coach Brett Brown figures to be the first sacrificial lamb, although perhaps not the last. The front office deserves close scrutiny for assembling a poor-fitting roster around Simmons and Joel Embiid. The players aren’t blameless for this dysfunctional season, either.
In short, this sweep should force a day of reckoning on everyone in the organization, from ownership to the front office and coaching staff to the players.
There likely isn’t a quick-fix solution here. Years of win-now panic moves resulted in a roster where four players will be earning at least $25 million annually through 2021-22. Given the financial concerns hanging over the league because of the Covid-19 pandemic, few teams may be amenable to taking on such massive contracts, regardless of how much additional compensation the Sixers are willing to throw in.
Tobias Harris and Al Horford have two of the worst deals in the NBA. If the Sixers hope to trade one (or both) this offseason, they’ll almost certainly have to do so at a loss. Their best hope is to swap bloated contracts for better-fitting pieces alongside Simmons and Embiid, although even that will be a challenge given the league’s current economic climate.
If the Sixers aren’t willing to re-sign Josh Richardson after the 2020-21 season, they could dangle him as incentive to take on Harris or Horford. They also have Matisse Thybulle, Shake Milton and five picks in this year’s draft (Nos. 21, 34, 36, 49 and 58) to use as sweeteners in trade talks.
Rather than drastically overhaul the roster this offseason, the Sixers may instead prefer to hire a new coach and see whether he or she can make this current group work. Perhaps that new coach figures out how to better maximize the Horford-Embiid pairing or decides to stagger both of them more frequently. Maybe Harris goes back to being a 40-plus percent three-point shooter in a new system.
Unless (until?) the Sixers decide to undergo major roster changes, they’ll be banking on internal improvement and savvy fringe moves.
There’s almost no way they’ll stay put and use all five of their picks in this year’s draft. They could package some to trade up or flip some for picks in future years, restocking the asset coffers they’ve depleted. They’ll also need to find impact contributors with the picks they do use, much like they did with Thybulle (No. 20 in 2019) and Milton (No. 54 in 2018).
If they aren’t able to offload Horford or Harris, the Sixers will be far above the luxury-tax line, which will limit them to only having the taxpayer’s mid-level exception. Whether they use it on a ball-handler, shooter or both, they can’t afford to spend it on someone who falls out of the rotation, as they did with Mike Scott and the room exception this past year.
Regardless of how they round out their roster, the Sixers need more from their two franchise cornerstones, too.
Heading into the season, Embiid declared he was aiming to be named both Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year. However, he recently admitted to former teammate JJ Redick that the roster makeover this past offseason affected his mentality.
“During the season, I was not there,” Embiid said. “I just wasn’t comfortable. The offense wasn’t the same, basketball wasn’t the same to me. The way things happened last summer, it was so frustrating. I was kind of mad at the whole world and I was just like, ‘Eh, whatever.’ Like, I’m just coming to work and I’m gonna do my best, but I wasn’t playing up to my standards.”
The Sixers need Embiid to be their standard-bearer on both ends of the court. He’ll need to continue working on his conditioning and passing, particularly out of double-teams, but more than anything else, they need him locked in from the opening tip next season.
Without Simmons, the Sixers stood no chance against the Celtics. He’s their best ball-handler, best transition threat and best wing defender, and he’ll likely make an All-Defensive team this season.
The discourse surrounding Simmons often boils down to his refusal to take jump shots, ignoring the improvements he’s made elsewhere. But for this Sixers team to reach its ceiling, he does need to become more of a perimeter threat, if only to draw defenders away from Embiid in the post.
The Sixers were four bounces away from an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. With the right supporting cast around Simmons and Embiid, they’ve proved that they can play at a championship-caliber level.
They no longer have the right supporting cast around Simmons and Embiid, though. And given the albatross Harris and Horford contracts, it won’t be easy to rejigger their roster on the fly again.
That puts more pressure on Embiid and Simmons.
Without making any further improvements to their games, both should be fixtures in the All-Star Game for years to come. But unless they improve upon their flaws, the front office’s mismanagement of the pieces around them likely place a cap on this team’s ceiling.
The Sixers aren’t as far away from a deep run as they appeared during the 2020 playoffs. A healthy Simmons—and Glenn Robinson III, to a lesser extent—would have made that Celtics series far more competitive.
They’ve lost their margin for error, though.
The war chest former general manager Sam Hinkie built is now depleted. They’re capped-out and lack the roster flexibility they boasted heading into last offseason. They need to nail their draft picks and free-agent signings at a far higher rate than they have in recent years.
That’s easier said than done, but it may be all that’s separating them from the nuclear option of having to eventually consider trading Simmons or Embiid.